Catholic Q&A: Purgatory – A Divinely-Revealed Truth, or just a Catholic “Invention”?

Catholic Q&A: Purgatory – A Divinely-Revealed Truth, or just a Catholic “Invention”?

By Fr. Rick Poblocki

What is Purgatory?

Purgatory is a state of temporary purification for those who died in a state of grace, but have not yet fully satisfied God’s Justice for all punishment due to their sins.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines Purgatory as:

“…a state of final purification after death and before entrance into heaven for those who died in God’s friendship, but were only imperfectly purified; a final cleansing of human imperfection before one is able to enter the joy of heaven” (CCC, Glossary, p. 896; nos. 1031, 1472).

The Catechism is telling us that Purgatory is a middle state where souls destined for heaven are detained and purified.  The souls in Purgatory are very holy, but they are not able to help themselves, for their time of gaining God’s graces has now passed.  But we can help them by our prayers and good works offered to God for their benefit.

Isn’t the doctrine of Purgatory unscriptural?

No.  Scripture provides excellent proof of Purgatory’s existence.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church answers those who claim Purgatory is unscriptural by noting:

“The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent.  The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire” (1 Corinthians 3:15; 1 Peter 1:7; CCC, 1031).

  • 1 Corinthians 3:15 reads: “If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.”
  • 1 Peter 1:7 states: “…so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of jesus Christ.”
  • Matthew 12:31: (cf. next question!).

Is there any evidence that Jesus himself taught the existence of Purgatory?

Yes! In commenting upon the Scriptures, St. Gregory the Great points out that Jesus subtly revealed the existence of Purgatory:

“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” (St. Gregory the Great, Dialogues 4, 39; PL77, 396; cf. Matthew 12:31.  St. Gregory is quoted by the CCC in 1031).

Note: According to Jesus’ words, the forgiveness of sins takes place in either this age (i.e., during life on earth) or in the age to come (i.e., after this life on earth is over)!  Since someone in hell is lost forever, and someone in heaven needs no forgiveness, the forgiveness of sins in “the age to come” has to be a third state – one of purification and forgiveness.  This is what Catholics call “Purgatory.”

Is praying for the dead mentioned in the Bible?

The Catechism notes in 1032 that:

“This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture: ‘Therefore

[Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin'” (2 Maccabees 12:46; CCC, 1032).

Belief in praying for the dead automatically includes belief in the existence of a place where prayers for the dead are able to help people.  If there were no such place, it would be useless to pray for the dead.  It should be noted that 2 Maccabees is accepted as inspired Scripture by Catholics, but not by Protestants.  This is why they think purgatory is unscriptural.  Even if they reject the teaching of 2 Maccabees, the teaching of 1 Corinthians 3:15, 1 Peter 1:7, and Matthew 12:31 indicates a belief in Purgatory that goes back not only to the early Church, but to Christ Himself.

How old is the custom of praying for the dead?

Praying for the dead was a custom practiced by the Jews and the early Christians.  The Catechism clearly indicates just how long of a tradition prayers for the dead (and by logical conclusion, the existence of Purgatory) actually are in the Church:

“From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic Sacrifice [i.e. the Mass], so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God” (CCC, 1032, cf. note 610).  The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead” (CCC, 1032).

As the incomparable St. John Chrysostom teaches us:

“Let us help and commemorate them.  If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some sort of consolation?  Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them” (St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on 1 Corinthians 41,5; PG 61, 361; cf. Job 1:5).

So, even if Non- Catholics reject the Second book of Maccabees as not being part of the inspired Scriptures, they cannot deny that it was a Jewish and early Christian practice to pray for the dead.  The early Christian Catacombs show many examples of prayer and petition for the dead.

Who among the dead should we pray for?

We should pray for all who have died.  Of course, the Saints in heaven do not need our prayers, and those in hell cannot be helped by them.

I know some people who seemed to die without God.  Is all hope lost?

Keep praying for them and never lose hope!  Even if someone lived a bad life and seemed to have died rejecting God, we must never assume they are in hell.  Don’t lose hope, and always pray for them.  God’s mercy and how He works is beyond anything we can ask, imagine, or comprehend!

Does Purgatory permanently exist like heaven or hell?

No.  Purgatory is only a temporary state.  Purgatory will cease to exist after the General or Last Judgment, because once everyone is in heaven, there will be no need for purification.  Therefore, there is no reason for Purgatory to exist.

How long does Purgatory last?

Purgatory is temporary.  It is not permanent.

Who is in Purgatory?

Purgatory is a temporary purification for those who have died in venial sin, or who have not fully satisfied God’s Justice for the Mortal Sins He forgave them.

So, if someone steals a small item from a store, they commit a venial sin that would be punishable in Purgatory.  If someone commits murder, abortion, or another Mortal Sin, and then repents, goes to Confession, and obtains absolution for this and any other Mortal Sin, that Mortal Sin is forgiven, and their guilt is removed. However, God’s Justice requires that the person make up for the evil (Mortal Sin) they committed.  This “making up” or atonement will take place in Purgatory, unless the person makes full satisfaction on earth before death.  When a person deliberately refuses to repent of Mortal Sin or deliberately rejects confessing that sin, they are freely rejecting God and freely choosing help and damnation.

If Jesus forgives me, isn’t it over and done with?  What’s with all this Purgatory stuff?

All that Purgatory stuff means is that God’s forgiveness isn’t cheap!  Forgiveness of sins is only part of the great things God does to heal us.  After forgiving us, He wants us to be free from those sins.  To bring that freedom about, He wishes us to actively repair even the after-effects of what we’ve done.  Only when we do that does a true forgiveness and actual healing come about!

After God has forgiven our sins, there remains behind “after-effects,” or the consequences of our sins.  This can be called temporal punishment.  For example, a couple can fight and make up – and everything is cool.  But even after they’ve made up, one or both of them may still remember the fight and/or be affected by he hurtful things said or done during the fight – things that need further or on-going healing.  That further need for healing is what the Church calls temporal punishment.  A person unfaithful in marriage can be forgiven in Confession, but consequences still exist: the fear that the spouse or kids will find out, the spouse or child’s reaction to the revelation of infidelity, one’s reputation suffering, people talking about it, a scorned lover that won’t go away, a spouse now filled with suspicion and doubt – these are all things that require further healing.  God’s justice and mercy demand that the forgiveness received in Confession now be extended to even these consequences.  He wishes this in order to free us completely of the sin and the consequences!  God wants us to be forgiven, to learn from our sins, and to sincerely change our ways and stay away from previous sins!  If we don’t do this on earth, it will be handled in Purgatory.  That’s why indulgenced prayers are so important!  If we don’t repair the after-effects of our sins on earth by prayer, restitution, penance, fasting, etc. – that “making up” for what we’ve done will still take place in Purgatory!

How is the doctrine of Purgatory a comforting doctrine?

The doctrine of Purgatory is comforting because it reminds us that God is willing to extend His mercy to us even in “the age to come” (Matthew 12:31).  Purgatory also reminds us that what we think, say, and do have consequences for eternity, and that the salvation won for us by Jesus isn’t cheap.

What assurance can Purgatory give us if we suffer the loss of our loved ones?

Purgatory is a powerful reality that comforts us by reminding us that we can still help our deceased loved ones with prayer and Masses said for them.  The bond of love and communion with our deceased loved ones is maintained, because love moves us to do this – and, in Purgatory, our loved ones are aware of our love and care for them, as they gratefully receive the benefits of our love, our prayers, and the Masses we have celebrated for them!

What name is given to the union of those on earth with the souls in Purgatory and the Saints in heaven?

This union is called the Communion of Saints!  We speak of it in this way:

The Church Triumphant: the Saints in heaven

The Church Militant: the Faithful who are still on earth

The Church Suffering: those in Purgatory

The Communion of Saints is a sharing of life and love: the Saints pray for us on earth and for the souls in Purgatory; on earth we honor the saints and pray for those in Purgatory; in Purgatory the souls pray for us and look to the Saints in love for their aid and prayers.

Is there any other basis for believing in the existence of Purgatory?

Belief in Purgatory is a continuous and solemn teaching of the Church from its earliest times:

St. Paul’s writings presuppose the existence of a purifying state that exists after death; the early Christians prayer for the dead; why would that be necessary if everyone simply went directly to heaven?  From the earliest days of the Church, the dead were prayed for at each celebration of the holy Mass.  The oldest existing liturgical books (books used for the Church’s public worship of God) contain prayers and petitions for the deliverance of the dead from a state of purification to the vision of God.  There is not one witness among the ancient Fathers of the Church that denies the existence of Purgatory; this belief is also witnessed to by the great Doctors of the Church.  Through the ages, the Church has taught not only the existence of Purgatory through its solemn definitions and sacred Councils, but the Church has also taught the doctrine of the usefulness of praying for the dead.

In addition to these witnesses, is there a definitive declaration by the Church on the existence of Purgatory?

The doctrine of Purgatory was given solemn definition by the Council of Trent, when it declared: “There is a Purgatory, and the souls there detained are assisted by the suffrages of the Faithful, but especially by the most acceptable Sacrifice of the Altar.”  This dogmatic definition was made in response to the Protestant denials of the existence of Purgatory during the time of the so-called “Reformation.”

This dogmatic definition contains three points of faith that all Catholics are seriously bound to believe:

  1. There is a Purgatory.
  2. After death, souls suffer for their sins.
  3. The living can extend assistance to such souls.

It would be a Mortal Sin to reject what God has revealed to us about Purgatory; it’s equivocates to saying He’s wrong or a liar.

  • The word suffrages means “assistance.”
  • Catholics offer assistance to the souls in Purgatory by:
    • Offering Masses and our Holy Communions for the holy souls
    • Praying for them
    • Applying indulgences to the souls in Purgatory
    • Almsgiving

Is it reasonable to believe in Purgatory?

The doctrine of Purgatory is absolutely consistent with reason.  In fact, reason demands belief in the existence of Purgatory!

The sanctity of God is so infinite that even the slightest venial sin would make one unfit to enter God’s Presence in heaven.  God’s sanctity and justice would absolutely forbid it: “There shall not enter into it anything defiled” (Revelation 21:27).  At the same time, God’s mercy and judgment would also forbid such a soul to be condemned to hell.  Therefore, reason concludes the existence of a middle and temporary state of expiation (making up), where the soul is freed and cleansed from all stain of sin, before it can be admitted to the perfect happiness and bliss of heaven.


Putting Our Faith into Action 

It was an old and pious Catholic custom in some places to ring the Church bells at 8 PM in the evening, to remind the Faithful to pray for the souls in Purgatory.  We can still do this today by:

  1. Recalling at this hour Christ’s Agony in the Garden
  2. Kneeling down and praying one Our Father, one Hail Mary, and the Requiem aeternam (pronounced: reck-we-emm ay-ter-nam).

From the Church’s Office Manual of Indulgences:

For the Faithful Departed

Par. 1) A plenary indulgence, applicable only to souls in Purgatory, is granted to the Faithful who:

  1. on any and each day from November 1 to 8, devoutly visit a cemetery and pray, if only mentally, for the departed;
  2. on All Souls’ Day (or, according to the judgment of the Ordinary, on the Sunday preceding or following it, or on the Solemnity of All Saints) devoutly visit a Church or an oratory and recite an Our Father and the Creed.

Par. 2) A partial indulgence, applicable only to the souls in Purgatory, is granted to the Faithful who

  1. devoutly visit a cemetery and at least mentally pray for the dead;
  2. devoutly recite Lauds or Vespers from the Office of the Dead, or the prayer Eternal rest.

Requiem aeternam (Eternal rest)

V. Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord.

R. And let perpetual light shine upon them.

V. May their souls, and the souls of all the Faithful departed, rest in peace.

R. Amen.


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