by Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD
This four-part series was prompted not so much by a question as by a challenge. A Protestant student in one of my theology classes recently asked me to defend the Catholic doctrine of purgatory, since his Biblical Studies professor once told him that there was "no way" that this doctrine could be found in the Scripture.
First of all, we who are Divine Mercy devotees probably have been moved by the powerful vision of purgatory that St. Faustina recorded in her Diary (see entry 20), and her subsequent concern for the souls there who are in need of our prayers.
But the Diary aside, is there a Biblical basis for the belief in the doctrine of purgatory? The answer: emphatically "Yes!" Scripture, tradition, the Magisterium, and rational common sense all come together in support of this doctrine, and since we are in the "run-up" to the Feast of All Souls on Nov. 2, there is no better time of year to reflect on this subject. On the other hand, we need to bear in mind that purgatory is one of the "mysteries" of divine revelation. That does not mean we are completely "in the dark" about it; it simply means that there is more to this mystery than we can possibly fathom in this life.
There is no doubt that both Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians (e.g., Greek and Russian Orthodox) have much in common regarding the whole matter of purgatory and prayers for the departed. For example, both see a foundation for such prayers in Holy Scripture. In 2 Maccabees 12:42-46, for example, the Jewish hero Judas Maccabeus ordered sacrifices to be offered in the Temple for the souls of his soldiers killed in battle, that their sins might be forgiven: "It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from their sins" (verse 46). Obviously, if they could be "loosed" from their sins after their death by the prayers of the living, they must be in some kind of post-mortem state in which cleansing from sin is possible. This seems to have been a common Jewish belief in the century before Christ. [Note: The common Protestant contention that the Catholic Church only added the two books of Maccabees to the Scriptures in 1546, at the Council of Trent, to counter Martin Luther's claim that prayers for the departed were not scriptural, is demonstrably false. The Maccabean corpus was accepted at Rome as canonical Scripture as early as 496 A.D., in the Decree of Pope Gelasius. The books were also listed as canonical Scripture by the ecumenical Council of Florence (1439-1443) long before the Reformation. The decree on the scriptural canon at the Council of Trent only clarified the uncertainties about the Old Testament books because a few other books in the so-called Apocrypha were still in dispute.]
Scripture contains other allusions to prayer for the departed as well. Saint Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 15:29 an ancient practice in which Christians were baptized on behalf of the dead. This may have been an early and somewhat extravagant form of liturgical prayer for the departed, or St. Paul may be using the word "baptism" in this passage metaphorically (as in Mk 10:38), to refer to the baptism of earthly trials, mortifications, and afflictions accepted and offered up on behalf of the departed by the early Christians. Saint Paul, in Colossians 1:24, mentions his own practice of offering up his sufferings for the good of the Church. In any case, he does not criticize prayer for the departed in 1 Corinthians 15, and implicitly his argument in that chapter approves of it. In 2 Timothy 1:16-18, St. Paul wrote of his friend Onesiphorous: "May the Lord grant unto him to find the mercy of the Lord on that day" (that is, the Day of Judgment). The context of St. Paul's remarks suggests that Onesiphorous was already dead (see 2 Tm 1:18 and 4:19).
Further evidence that prayer for the departed was apostolic teaching and practice comes from the early church Fathers. Saint Polycarp, for example, who was martyred in 156 A.D., had learned the faith in his boyhood from St. John the Apostle himself, and in the 2nd century account of his martyrdom we learn that just before his death, he prayed "for all those whom he had ever known." Given that Polycarp was 86 at the time of his martyrdom, most of those whom he had ever known must have been dead. In fact, the most ancient liturgical texts for the Eucharist that we possess, from both the eastern and the western Mediterranean, also contain prayers for the departed. In the mid-third century, St. Cyprian of Carthage tells us that prayers for the departed had been said in all the churches since the time of the apostles. In fact, there are no known opponents of prayers for the departed among orthodox Christian believers in the ancient Church.
The cumulative force of the evidence, therefore, suggest that prayer for the departed was very likely an apostolic teaching and practice, and implicit in that practice and belief is another one: that we can help the departed in some way by our prayers, the faithful departed at least. If they are in hell, of course, they are beyond any help. If they are in heaven, they do not need our help. Only if some of them are in a kind of intermediate state of cleansing and purification does the practice of praying for the departed make any sense.
Thus far, I think, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians are of a common mind.
The question then arises: How do the faithful departed actually benefit by our prayers for them?
Some Protestants fear that if we pray for the dead, then that implies that people have "second chances" beyond the grave to repent and come to saving faith, and if that is true — that we all get second, third, and more chances beyond this life — then why should missionaries and evangelists bother to expend their energies? Why should they so often risk their lives spreading the gospel among the living? After all, if people do not turn their hearts to Christ in this present life, they can always do so in the next. The doctrine of purgatory, so understood, would undermine the urgency and importance of Christian evangelism (an urgency and importance on full display in the lives of the apostles themselves in the New Testament!).
However, this represents a misunderstanding of the Catholic and Orthodox doctrine of purgatory. We do not intend to pray for all the departed, including those who died in unrepented mortal sin, but only for the faithful departed. That is, for those who died in faith, in a state of grace, yet who were not fully sanctified in faith, hope, and love at the time of their passing. If some Catholic prayers for the departed seem indiscriminate, that is because the Church on earth generally does not presume to judge which persons did not die in a state of grace, and were thereby eternally lost (for whom such prayers would be useless). The state of the heart at the time of death is usually known only to God. All mainstream Christian traditions accept that the underlying decision for or against Christ must be made in this present life. By praying for the departed, Catholics simply ask our Lord to complete the work that he began in those who clung to Him in faith, but whose hearts were not fully sanctified at the hour of their death. For those who died with at least a tiny spark in their hearts of faith in the God of mercy (faith the size of a mustard seed, so to speak), our prayer is that the Lord in His tender mercy will fan that spark into flame in the next life, as swiftly as possible burning away the imperfections of their souls and making them ever more fully united to Christ, "for He is like a refiner's fire, and He shall purify the sons of Levi, that they may offer unto the Lord, an offering in righteousness" (Mal 3:2). I am reminded here of some words written by C.S. Lewis in his book A Grief Observed at the death of his beloved wife Joy (words I have quoted in this column before):
She was a splendid thing, a soul straight, bright, and tempered like a sword. But not a perfected saint. A sinful woman married to a sinful man; two of God's patients not yet cured. I know there are not only tears to be dried but stains to be scoured. The sword will be made even brighter ... but Oh God, tenderly, tenderly.
Again, as I understand it, in all this the Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox are in full accord. We continue to pray for the departed, entrusting their souls into the hands of our heavenly Father, that they might find continual growth in His love and service, until they attain what the Book of Hebrews calls "that holiness without which no one shall see the Lord" (Heb 12:14). Our Lord Jesus Himself stated that unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, we shall not enter the kingdom of heaven (Mt 3:20). Since even with the help of divine grace, few of us have attained that righteousness in its fullness by the time of our death, our Lord provides for us a time of healing and purgation, to complete the work of sanctification in us that He started. Father Aidan Nichols, OP, put it this way in his book Rome and the Eastern Churches:
At its most fundamental, the doctrine of purgatory affirms that for those who die with their wills set towards charity, further transformation is possible beyond death as a preparation for heaven. And stated thus, the doctrine is an ecumenical doctrine, which belongs to the Greek and Latin churches, no matter what terminology is used.
However, there is one aspect of the doctrine of purgatory on which, historically, Catholics and Eastern Orthodox have never really been in accord. What is it? (To be continued next week.)
Learn about the efforts of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception to assist the Holy Souls in Purgatory.
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press). Got a question? E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.