Halloween is quickly approaching and with it, the month of November, which is dedicated to praying for the souls in Purgatory. With Advent begins a new liturgical year, but prior to that, as our current liturgical year comes to an end, the Church has us focus on the four last things: death, judgement, heaven, and hell. In thinking about our own mortality and what lies before every person when they die, we're also asked to think about the innumerable amount of people whom have died before us (Catholic and non-Catholic), offering prayers and seeking indulgences for them, in the hopes that the Lord blessed them with salvation, but that they might currently be in Purgatory; this is why special indulgences have been granted for All Souls' Day and the first eight days of November.
We've already gone over the Catholic origins of All Hallow's Eve and how the secular celebration of Halloween was originally devised as a way that non-Catholics made fun of us for our devotion to the saints and praying for the dead. I imagine we looked weird, standing in graveyards saying prayers. Today I thought we'd go over what the Church actually teaches about Purgatory and indulgences, since there are many misconceptions about them.
The Church is grouped into the Church Militant (you and I, fighting the good fight here on earth), the Church Triumphant (those saints currently enjoying the full presence of God), and the Church Suffering (those in Purgatory). Today, partly due to the influence of Protestantism and secularism, many people ignore purgatory and think of it as something the Church invented, instead assuming that our loved ones automatically went directly to Heaven; even in Catholic circles, the belief in Purgatory has started to wane. This blog post is not meant to be an exhaustive essay on Purgatory and indulgences; there are plenty of great Catholic websites, books, talks, and blogs on the subject - we're only going to lightly touch upon things, just to skim the surface to encourage more research on your part, if interested.
It must first be acknowledged that a big reason for Luther's (and, therefore, Protestantism's) rejection of Purgatory was due to the horrible abuses he was seeing in Germany; many German prelates swindled faithful Catholics out of a lot of money with false promises of indulgences for loved ones in Purgatory and we should weep for our part in the division of the Body of Christ and the loss of faith of so many people. The biggest part of Luther's crusade was twofold: he rejected the Church's authority to bind and loose (Mat 16:19, 18:18) and therefore rejected the Church's power to grant indulgences in the first place. But then, this furthered his question of whether or not there was Biblical evidence for Purgatory; he insisted there wasn't, but that's easy to say when you tear the books out of the Bible which contain verses pertaining to it!
Scholarship has shown that the Old Testament quoted by Jesus and the Apostles is the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, which is the version that contained the seven books that Luther later removed. This means that when St. Paul said, "All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work" (2 Tim 3:16-17), he was referring to the Old Testament Scriptures that were most in circulation at the time - the Septuagint. In this version of the Scriptures, we find the two books of Maccabees; Catholics always cite 2 Maccabees 12:39-46 as "Biblical proof" of purgatory:
On the following day, since the task had now become urgent, Judas and his companions went to gather up the bodies of the fallen and bury them with their kindred in their ancestral tombs. But under the tunic of each of the dead they found amulets sacred to the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear. So it was clear to all that this was why these men had fallen.
They all therefore praised the ways of the Lord, the just judge who brings to light the things that are hidden. Turning to supplication, they prayed that the sinful deed might be fully blotted out. The noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened because of the sin of those who had fallen.
He then took up a collection among all his soldiers, amounting to two thousand silver drachmas, which he sent to Jerusalem to provide for an expiatory sacrifice. In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection in mind; for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be absolved from their sin.
There are other references to being "in prison", such as when Jesus told the parable (Mat 18:21-35) about the servant whose massive debt was forgiven, but then when he didn't show mercy to his slave's debt that was so small, he was taken and thrown into prison until his debt was "repaid to the last penny". St. Peter compares purgatory to a prison (1 Pt 3:18-20) when he wrote, "For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey..."
St. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 3:12-15), wrote about laying the foundation of Jesus Christ and that "if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble — each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day [of Judgement] will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire." This is the final purgation - Purgatory - which purifies us so that we're prepared for Heaven, for He promises, "nothing unclean shall enter" Heaven (Rev 21:27).
Lastly, we have the peculiar promise from Jesus that, "whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come" (Mat 12:31-32). Catholics rightly ask, "What's the 'age to come'? If when we die we either go to heaven or hell, then how are we supposed to be forgiven in 'the age to come'?" This can only mean that there is a way to be forgiven after our death.
The Catechism & Councils
The Catechism of the Catholic Church offers three paragraphs on Purgatory within its chapter dedicated to life everlasting, (Chapter 3, Article 12). Those three paragraphs, for the most part, are saying things that have already been covered here, so we won't say much except that in paragraph 1030 it is explained: All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. So, unlike how Purgatory has been portrayed in the past by non-Catholics, we do not believe that Purgatory is a "second chance" at Heaven, but - like St. Paul said - it's when our impurities have been burned up "as by fire".
Paragraph 1031 of the Catechism says: The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent, so let's take a peek at what those Councils actually said.
The Council of Florence was held between 1438 and 1445, and was meant to heal the division between the Latin West and the Greek East (spoiler: it didn't work). Honestly, after pouring through the contents of the Council, I can only find one mention of Purgatory, which basically said that the Church is upholding this teaching to be part of the Catholic faith as it was passed on by the earliest Christians. The Catholic Encyclopedia's entry on the Council mentions this: Preliminary discussions brought out the main points of difference between the Greeks and the Latins, viz. the Procession of the Holy Spirit, the azymes [leavened vs unleavened bread for the Eucharist], purgatory, and the primacy [of the pope]. During these preliminaries the zeal and good intentions of the Greek Emperor were evident. Serious discussion began apropos of the doctrine of purgatory. Cesarini and Turrecremata were the chief Latin speakers, the latter in particular engaging in a violent discussion with Marcus Eugenicus. Bessarion, speaking for the Greeks, made clear the divergency of opinion existing among the Greeks themselves on the question of purgatory.
Sidebar: Greek Views on Purgatory
What exactly do the Orthodox believe about Purgatory? That opinion varies upon whom you ask; Coptic Pope Shenouda III rejects it on Biblical grounds, citing various verses which, incidentally, were already countered in St. Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica. Orthodox sources acknowledge this and offer a variety of thoughts on the subject, such as:
Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Kallistos Ware acknowledges several schools of thought among the Orthodox on the topic of purification after death. This divergence indicates that the Catholic interpretation of purgatory, more than the concept itself, is what is universally rejected. Also, there are Orthodox sources that indicate some sins can be forgiven after death, but which also reject the notion of purgatory because of the indulgences and idea of purgatorial fire that are tied to it...
This difference of view still exists between East and West, although for the Catholic Church, this shouldn't be a source of contention. Whereas in the time of Florence we were demanding the East agree with our teaching, some members of the Orthodox churches have acknowledged that (as mentioned above) it's not so much the idea of Purgatory that they reject - it's more the Catholic explanation of it that they reject. So, perhaps this is something that East and West can continue to talk about and together develop further...
The Council of Trent, held between the years 1545 and 1563, was called in response to the Protestant Reformation. The Council explored all of the teachings of the Catholic Church, in light of the rejections of the faith being presented by the Reformers, and the Church made her own reforms based on the Council. Part of the Council's 25th Decree was regarding Purgatory, which the Council declared:
Whereas the Catholic Church, instructed by the Holy Ghost, has, from the sacred writings and the ancient tradition of the Fathers, taught, in sacred councils, and very recently in this ecumenical Synod, that there is a Purgatory, and that the souls there detained are helped by the suffrages of the faithful, but principally by the acceptable sacrifice of the altar; the holy Synod enjoins on bishops that they diligently endeavour that the sound doctrine concerning Purgatory, transmitted by the holy Fathers and sacred councils, be believed, maintained, taught, and every where proclaimed by the faithful of Christ...
Also, in Chapter 2 of Session XXII, the Council teaches: Wherefore, not only for the sins, punishments, satisfactions, and other necessities of the faithful who are living, but also for those who are departed in Christ, and who are not as yet fully purified, [the Mass] rightly offered, agreeably to a tradition of the apostles.
Simply put, Purgatory and prayers for the dead are long-held teachings of the Latin Church, but anything suspicious in orthodoxy or that which are perceived to be superstitious practices or teachings about Purgatory should be rejected and suppressed so as to not mislead or scandalize the faithful who may not know what the Church actually teaches on the matter (which the Council admits is still uncertain in some aspects).
Visions of Purgatory
Many modern-era Catholic theologians no longer see Purgatory as this place of immense torture and fire, although that's how visions of Purgatory have been described by Catholic saints and mystics. As mentioned above, many Catholic theologians today see the fire of Purgatory as symbolic of God's burning love for us, that by moving closer to God, his love is SO INTENSE that it is in effect "burning" away our impurities, as St. Paul described to the Corinthians. Even still, we have to remember that as we explore some of the visions saints have experienced regarding Purgatory, they see flames, they see the torment on the faces of the souls who are SO close to entering Heaven, but aren't quite ready yet - I'm sure part of the torment on their faces involve the fact that we so often forget about the souls in Purgatory, and so they sit - waiting for our prayers - but those prayers never come.
Twentieth Century saint Faustina Kowalska recorded visions of Purgatory in her famous Diary; one such vision recorded in her diary (20) is:
I saw my Guardian Angel, who ordered me to follow him. In a moment I was in a misty place full of fire in which there was a great crowd of suffering souls. They were praying fervently for themselves, but to no avail; only we can come to their aid. The flames, which were burning them, did not touch me at all. My Guardian Angel did not leave me for an instant. I asked these souls what their greatest suffering was. They answered me in one voice that their greatest torment was longing for God. I saw Our Lady visiting the souls in Purgatory. The souls call Her 'The Star of the Sea'. She brings them refreshment. I wanted to talk with them some more, but my Guardian Angel beckoned me to leave. We went out of that prison of suffering. [I heard an interior voice which said] ‘My mercy does not want this, but justice demands it.' Since that time, I am in closer communion with the suffering souls.
Prayers & Indulgences, for us & for the Dead
The most beautiful and prominent holy day regarding indulgences can be found on the feast of Divine Mercy, but we don't have to wait for the Second Sunday of Easter in order to seek this gift - Christ's Divine Mercy is forever near, if we just seek it in all humility and obedience.
As Catholics, we believe that through the authority of Jesus Christ, sharing with his Church his power to bind and loose, the Church in her mercy has created ways in which - through a multitude of prayers and actions in cooperation with Christ - we are blessed with an indulgence, either partial or full (plenary). I believe that part of our Lord's commandments to 'Love thy neighbor' and to 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you', involves praying for the souls in Purgatory. After all, who among us wouldn't want people to pray for us if we've been blessed with salvation, but must spend some time in Purgatory? When I was in Halifax, I walked through a cemetery where Prime Minister Sir John Thompson is buried and upon his tombstone is etched the words 'Pray for me', which I did. It's an act of charity that we're asked to perform and is listed as one of the spiritual works of mercy: To pray for the living and the dead.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church in Part Two, Section Two, Chapter 2 explains the beautiful Sacrament of Reconciliation (aka Confession). Within this section on mercy in the Catechism, the Church explains what an indulgence is in further detail (see 1471 - 1479). Simply put, an indulgence is being spared the punishment that we've earned by committing sins that have been confessed and forgiven. The Scriptures - and the testimony of the early Church and even from the days of the Old Testament - tell a story that, although we've been forgiven our sins if we are truly sorry for them and have confessed them, we still need to "make up" for committing them, which is most commonly done through penance and our time in Purgatory (read more HERE). Indulgences free us - or souls already in Purgatory - from this period of cleansing that most Christians need to endure in order to be worthy to be in the presence of God.
According to the law of the Church, how does a Catholic obtain a plenary (full) indulgence? It's so simple, and yet so difficult:
1. Confession of sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and therefore, you are in a state of grace.
2. To have a complete detachment to sin, including venial sin - in other words, to deeply desire a life of grace and holiness.
3. Receive the Eucharist.
4. Pray for the intentions of the Holy Father. This is commonly done by praying an Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be for the pope and the pope's intentions.
That's it. You can obtain a plenary indulgence once a day, every day, for the rest of your life. You have up to 20 days from your confession in order to "perform the indulgenced act", so as long as you remain in the state of grace, the Church gives you plenty of time in order to pursue this gift. And it is a belief of the Church that, upon their release from Purgatory, the souls will be granted knowledge of what you've done for them and they will continue to pray for you throughout the rest of your life!
Would you like to see how badly the Church desires that we obtain indulgences for ourselves and our brothers and sisters in Purgatory? Just check out this list, which is a summary of the Enchiridion of Indulgences, promulgated by Blessed Paul VI and which continues to be in force today - even piously making the sign of the cross in a state of grace allows us to gain a partial indulgence! Or devoutly reading Scripture for 30 minutes. Or adoring the Blessed Sacrament for 30 minutes. There are SEVENTY devotional and penitential prayers and practices where we can obtain either partial or plenary indulgences for ourselves or the souls in Purgatory!
Pope Leo XIII approved the 'Heroic Act of Charity' as a prayer (not bound by the penalty of sin, and which can be revoked by the person making the act); this heroic act asks that every single satisfactory work in your life may be offered to the souls in Purgatory instead of being used for yourself; the general belief is that, for such a heroic act of charity, your own time in Purgatory (if it is even needed) would be reduced by the God of All Mercy for such a loving commitment to our brothers and sisters in Purgatory. Perhaps every October 31 this heroic act may be prayed and renewed, reclaiming Halloween for the Church and focusing our works towards their relief year-round instead of only for one month:
Heavenly Father, in union with the merits of Jesus and Mary, I offer to You for the sake of the poor souls all the satisfactory value of my works during life, as well as all that will be done for me after death. I give You my all through the hands of the Immaculate Virgin Mary that she may set free whatever souls she pleases, according to her heavenly wisdom and mother's love for them. Receive this offering, O God, and grant me in return an increase of Your grace. Amen.
For all your loved ones, as well as those most forgotten of souls in Purgatory, may God grant them eternal rest. Amen.