By Cardinal Justin Rigali
The existence of purgatory makes great sense
You may have heard of the principle: “Faith builds upon reason.” This is a reminder that our faith is not based on mere imagination or wishful thinking. It is based upon God’s revelation to us. Since it is God who has given us our reason and ability to know, that same God can never insult reason in revealing Himself to us.
In Pope John Paul II’s Encyclical on the relationship between faith and reason, referencing the insights of Saint Thomas Aquinas into this relationship, he writes: “Faith therefore has no fear of reason, but seeks it out and has trust in it. Just as grace builds on nature and brings it to fulfillment, so faith builds upon and perfects reason” (Fides et Ratio, 43).
Although there are several aspects of our faith, such as the Most Blessed Trinity, which we can never completely understand, no aspect of our faith is unreasonable. I mention this fact this week because our topic is most reasonable and makes eminent sense: the existence of a state of purification for those who have died and who are saved but who still stand in need of some purification. This is the place we call purgatory.
The future Pope Benedict XVI, as Cardinal Ratzinger, stated: “If purgatory did not exist we would have to invent it” (The Ratzinger Report, Ignatius Press, p. 146). He did not make this statement because purgatory is a convenient invention but because it displays a wonderful combination of both reason and spanine revelation.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that purgatory is not merely a pious belief that can be accepted or rejected but an integral part of our faith. The Catechism teaches: “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).
Sometimes, you may hear the objection that the word purgatory is not found explicitly in the Scriptures. This is certainly true, but there are any number of words which we use regularly in connection with the life of faith which are not explicitly found in the Scriptures: two of them are Catholic and Protestant. Over the course of her long history, the Church, always guided by the Holy Spirit when she teaches in an authoritative manner, has explained in an explicit way what is contained implicitly in the Scriptures and in the constant belief of the Christian people.
There are several Scriptural references which are generally referred to in explaining the reality of a state of purification after death. One is the practice of prayer for the dead, which is referenced in the second Book of Maccabees: “Thus he (Judas Maccabeus) made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin” (2 Maccabees, 12:46). In the Gospel of Saint John, we read the words of Jesus: “Whoever has bathed has no need except to have his feet washed, for he is clean all over” (John 13:10).
In the Gospel of Saint Matthew, we also read a reference which Jesus makes concerning a possible purification in the life to come: “And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come” (Matthew 12:32).
The Scriptures also speak of a cleansing or purifying fire. In the Epistle to the Corinthians we read: “But if someone’s work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire” (1Corinthians 3:15).
We also look to the constant practice of the Church, which from the very beginning honored the dead and prayed for them, especially by offering the Sacrifice of the Eucharist. Saint Gregory the Great (540-604), in one of his most famous writings, reflects the common teaching of the Church in the fifth century. He writes: “As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come” (Dialogues, 4, 39).
Saint John Chrysostom (347-407) writes: “Let us help and commemorate them (the dead). If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice, 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” (Homily on 1 Corinthians, 41, 5).
Detailed description of purgatory not defined
Although the existence of a state of purification, where the remnants of punishment still due to forgiven sins may be expiated, is defined by the Church, the details of it nature are not defined. For instance, although there are references to a purifying fire in some of the quotations we have already used, fire as a definite element of purgatory has never been defined. There is always the problem of how a material element, fire, can affect a soul,
which is a spiritual reality. Perhaps the somewhat excessive use of imagery in depicting purgatory has caused the rejection by some of a beautiful doctrine. In other words, some people, rejecting a physical aspect of a spiritual reality have, perhaps unwittingly, called into question the existence of purgatory.
Once again, we turn to Cardinal Ratzinger, the present Pope Benedict XVI, for the wise explanation by one who is both an eminent theologian and a person of great faith. He explains the concept of purification in purgatory in this way: “There will be few people whose lives are pure and fulfilled in all respects…In any case, we need a final cleansing, a cleaning by fire, to be exact, in which the gaze of Christ, so to say, burns us free from everything, and only under this purifying gaze are we, as it were, fit to be with God and able, then, to make our home with him” (God and the World, Ignatius Press, pp. 129-130).
Likewise, the duration of purgatory has also never been defined by the Church. As with material fire and the spiritual soul, it is difficult to determine a concept of time in the afterlife when all we possess is our earthly concept of time. Again, in this area, perhaps a reaction against an imposition of an earthly concept of time upon the spiritual dimension of purgatory has caused the entire reality and richness of this state of purification either to be ignored or minimized.
In this month of November, in which the Church dwells in a particular way on those members of the Mystical Body of Christ who are surely saved but still in need of some purification, perhaps we can draw some conclusions and make some good resolutions.
The first should be a reminder that the reality of a state of purification, which we call purgatory, is defined by the Church as part of her spaninely revealed teaching. Secondly, this teaching has its basis in Scripture, the writings of the Fathers of the Church in the early centuries and the constant practice of the Church. Thirdly, the details of purgatory are not known in their entirety, just as the details of heaven and hell are not known in their entirety. The exaggeration at times of some of the aspects of purgatory does not take away the reality of its existence.
Finally, our Holy Father has reminded us repeatedly that our faith is part of a continuity of revealed and believed teaching over the course of two thousand years. A rupture from any of her constant teaching brings all of revelation into question.
We should especially be conscious of this reality on the occasion of liturgies for those who have died. Out of a well-meant but misplaced sense of comforting ourselves or the loved ones of those who have died, none of us, priests or people, should so extol the life of one who has died as to deprive that person of the prayers that he or she may still be in need of before God.
As we unite ourselves with those who have gone before us in death, we marvel at God’s creation, which has placed reason within our grasp and which complements that reason with faith. Purgatory makes eminent sense to our reason and is a consoling truth of our faith.
October 30, 2008