Q 18. How did the Church formulate its teachings regarding Purgatory?


The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “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. The Church gives the name purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned” (CCC 1030 -1031).  The teaching of the Church regarding purgatory is based on the references to atoning sacrifices for the dead found in 2 Maccabees (12:39-45).  Moreover, the concept of purification after death as a consequence of sin is found in the New Testament passages too: 1 Cor 3:11-15 and 1 Pet 1: 7.

Other than the scriptural data, one would find interesting display of practices that show how basic and fundamental is a belief in purgatory and prayers for the dead in the writings of the Fathers of the Church. Tertullian advised Christians to pray for their beloved dead on the anniversaries of their departure from this world, in the year 211 A.D.  In 382 A.D. St. Gregory of Nyssa said: “… after his departure out of the body, … finds that he is not able to partake of divinity until he has been purified of the filthy contagion in his soul by the purifying fire”.  In his famous book “Confessions”, St. Augustine accounts the words of his dying mother, Monica, in 387 A.D., “All I ask you is this, that whatever you may be you will remember me at the altar of the Lord.”  St. John Chrysostom in 392 A.D. exhorted the Christian in the following manner: “If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice (Job 1:5), why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation?  Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.”  Catacomb inscriptions and art dating from the very origins of Christianity disclose similar themes.  Furthermore, the reality of the final purification has always been historically asserted by Jews, Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox.  It was with the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century that this doctrine began to be denied. Thus, the evidences show that the need to pray for the dead is at the very heart of Christianity from its beginnings.

Some people imagine that the Catholic Church has developed an elaborate doctrine of purgatory, but there are only three vital components of this doctrine: first, that a purification after death exists; second, that it involves some kind of pain, and third, that the purification can be assisted by the prayers and offerings of the living to God.  Other ideas often propagated, such as purgatory is a particular “place” (CCC 1472) in the life after or that it takes long time to accomplish, are assumptions rather than doctrine.

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Fr Bitaju Mathew, O.SS.T. belongs to the Order of the Most Holy Trinity and of the Captives (Trinitarians). He serves as the secretary Vice Provincial of the Order in India and is currently Chaplain of the Jesus Youth International Formation Team.