When I was straddling the fence on whether or not I should become a Catholic, I never had a problem with Purgatory. It just makes the most sense to me, not that my personal opinion about this doctrine means anything.
I’ll admit that I thought I would have a big problem with it at first. Because, you see, it isn’t mentioned specifically in the Bible (along with many other details). But where did all the people who died go, for example from the Old Testament times? Assuming that all the people who had died before the Incarnation were just, ahem—out of luck, is ridiculous to me. And that was before I knew the doctrine of purgatory very well.
And praying for the dead? Well, once the books of the Bible tossed out by the reformers were put back where they belong, that was no longer an issue either. Like this from Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 7:36-37,
And stretch out thy hand to the poor, that thy expiation and thy blessing may be perfected. A gift hath grace in the sight of all the living, and restrain not grace from the dead.
I just ran a quick search over at the handy-dandy YIMCatholic Bookshelf of the word “purgatory” and came back with references to 175 different books. You’ll find everything from St. Catherine of Genoa’s Treatise on Purgatory(only 67 pages, so give it a look) to the Manual of the Purgatorian Society.
Below are some thoughts I want to share with you from an American named John L. Stoddard. Back in 1922, Stoddard wrote Rebuilding A Lost Faith, By An American Agnostic. It’s 246 pages of top-notch conversion story. But I’m only going to share Stoddard’s thoughts on Purgatory with you because in many ways, they mirror my own path to understanding this doctrine. Like Stoddard, the crux of the matter for me hinges on authority. Either you believe that, heads, the Church has the authority to teach this doctrine or, tails (like Martin Luther), you don’t. Guess which side of this coin I side with?
I’ll let Stoddard take it from here,
From Chapter XV, Purgatory and Indulgences
THE difficulty in regard to Papal Infallibility (See chapter XIV) having been overcome, I turned to consider the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory and the Sacrament of Penance. My feelings in respect to this will best be shown by the following extract from a letter which I wrote about this time to a Catholic friend.
“My Dear Francis:
“I find no special difficulty in the Catholic dogma of Purgatory. On the contrary, the idea of a state of purification, appointed for those souls who, though redeemed by Christ, are nevertheless still unprepared to pass at once into God’s presence, appears to me logical and even comforting. I think that every soul who feels his own unfitness for the Beatific Vision (and who does not feel this?) must wish for such a state of preparation, even though attended with a cleansing punishment. The lack of this idea in Protestantism leads, I think, to an objectionable feature in their system,—namely, the altogether improbable and presumptuous supposition that the soul of some monster of depravity can straightway enter the society of heaven, provided only that he says, at the last moment of his ill-spent life, that he repents and believes in Jesus as the Son of God. Christ’s Divine insight into the soul of the penitent thief, who hung beside His cross on Calvary, could justify, of course, His promise to him of an immediate entrance into Paradise; but that was a solitary instance, upon which one can hardly build much hope.
The statement, often loosely made, that, since ‘Jesus paid it all, all the debt I owe,’ a hardened criminal is thereby rendered instantaneously fit for Heaven, is dangerously demoralising. The Bible assures us that ‘there shall in no wise enter into the heavenly City of God anything that defileth, or that is defiled,’ and the acquisition of a pure character is not the affair of a moment by means of a death-bed repentance. I never shall forget the description in a Chicago paper, many years ago, of the hanging of a negro, who, on the night before his execution, was said to have repented of a peculiarly atrocious crime, and ‘knew that he was saved.’ The report was heralded by the flaring headline ‘Jerked to Jesus!’
This blasphemous alliteration probably did less harm, however, than the sensational story, which accompanied it, of the negro’s ‘edifying remarks’ which preceded his death. The idea of such a wretch going at once to Heaven was revolting to a sense of justice and even of decency. No Catholic would have supposed such a translation probable, or, save for a miracle, possible. We know, of course, nothing of what the purgatorial state may be, through which the soul must pass, to reach the sphere to which God calls it; but that some place of purification must exist for those who pass into eternity with no sufficient spiritual preparation, appears to me just, necessary and consoling.”
To this my friend replied as follows:—
I well remember the crudely blasphemous headline which you quote. It had a great success, and was accounted ‘clever,’ though I am sure its ribald, vulgar character shocked all in whom a consciousness of the dignity of life and of the majesty of death remained, even though they had no positive Christian faith. There is little, if any, analogy between the case of the wretched negro and that of the penitent thief, for the latter was redeemed by his humility and faith. He did not ‘know that he was saved.’ He confessed his guilt in a supreme moment, and admitted the justice of his punishment. Whether or not the grace given him by our Lord was the only one ever offered him, we are not told; but to this opportunity at least he did respond, and by a single aspiration expiated with his dying breath a life of crime.
Few, indeed, quit this life in a state of purity and grace which warrants their immediate entrance into Heaven. Still fewer, let us hope, are those to whom the blessed refuge of Purgatory,— that half-way house of our dead,— is closed. I cannot conceive how Protestants can believe as they do on this point, nor is it astonishing that their rejection of Purgatory has been followed, in the case of many, by the elimination of a belief in Hell; for the latter doctrine, taken alone, is monstrous. In fact, all Catholic doctrines are interdependent; they stand or fall together. You cannot pick stones out of the arch, and expect it to stand, for it will not do so. Purgatory is one of the most humane and beautiful conceptions imaginable. How many mothers’ aching hearts has it not soothed and comforted with hope for some dead, wayward son!
Soon after receiving this letter, I read the following words from Mallock:—”As to the doctrine of Purgatory, time goes on, and the view men take of it is changing. It is fast becoming recognised, that it is the only doctrine that can bring a belief in future rewards and punishments into anything like accordance with our notions of what is just and reasonable; and so far from its being a superfluous superstition, it will be seen to be just what is demanded at once by reason and morality.” My attention was at this time also called to the fact that the idea of Purgatory is no longer confined exclusively to Roman Catholic Christians. At a recent General Convention of Episcopalians in America resolutions looking towards prayer for the dead were defeated by only a very small majority.
The doctrine of the Catholic Church in reference to Purgatory states that there is such a place, in which souls suffer for a time, before they can be admitted to the joys of Heaven, because they still need to be cleansed from certain venial sins, infirmities and faults, or still have to discharge the temporal punishment due to mortal sins, which is as yet uncancelled, though the lasting punishment of those sins has been forgiven and removed through Christ’s atonement. Furthermore, the Church declares, that by our prayers and by the acceptable sacrifice of the Mass we may still help those souls, through the merits of Christ.
Beyond this statement the Church’s formal doctrine does not go; but it is not an article of Catholic faith that there is in Purgatory any material fire. It is generally believed that souls in Purgatory suffer spiritual anguish from the fact that they then feel acutely, as they could not do on earth, the perfect happiness from which they are for a time excluded, while they must also understand the enormity of the sins which they committed against their Heavenly Father and their Savior.
What follows now are a few thoughts from Saint, and Doctor of the Church, Alphonsus Liguori, on our duty to pray for the faithful departed souls in Purgatory. This is from the Introduction to the Manual of the Purgatorian Society. With a book title like that, it’s got to be good!
The practice of recommending to God the souls in Purgatory, that He may mitigate the great pains which they suffer, and that He may soon bring them to His glory, is most pleasing to the Lord and most profitable to us. For these blessed souls are His eternal spouses, and most grateful are they to those who obtain their deliverance from prison, or even a mitigation of their torments. When, therefore, they arrive in Heaven, they will be sure to remember all who have prayed for them. It is a pious belief that God manifests to them our prayers in their behalf, that they may also pray for us.
It is true these blessed souls are not in a state to pray for themselves, because they are so to speak, criminals atoning for their faults. However, because they are very dear to God, they can pray for us, and obtain for us, the divine graces. St. Catherine of Bologna, when she wished to obtain any grace, had recourse to the souls in Purgatory, and her prayers were heard immediately. She declared that, by praying to those holy souls she obtained many favors which she had sought through the intercession of the saints without obtaining them. The graces which devout persons are said to have received through the holy souls are innumerable.
But, if we wish for the aid of their prayers, it is just, it is even a duty, to relieve them by our suffrages. I say it is even a duty; for Christian charity commands us to relieve our neighbors who stand in need of our assistance. But who among all our neighbors have so great need of our help as those holy prisoners? They are continually in that fire which torments more severely than any earthly fire. They are deprived of the sight of God, a torment far more excruciating than all other pains.
Let us reflect that among these suffering souls are parents, or brothers, or relatives and friends, who look to us for succor. Let us remember, moreover, that being in the condition of debtors for their sins, they cannot assist themselves. This thought should urge us forward to relieve them to the best of our ability. By assisting them we shall not only give great pleasure to God, but will acquire also great merit for ourselves.
And, in return for our suffrages, these blessed souls will not neglect to obtain for us many graces from God, but particularly the grace of eternal life. I hold for certain that a soul delivered from Purgatory by the suffrages of a Christian, when she enters paradise, will not fail to say to God: “Lord, do not suffer to be lost that person who has liberated me from the prison of Purgatory, and has brought me to the enjoyment of Thy glory sooner than I have deserved.