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Purgatory and Prayer for the Dead


After the feast of All Saints comes All Souls, when the Church invites us to pray for the faithful departed, that, released from Purgatory and fully purified, they may be admitted to the eternal bliss of heaven. Because the existence of Purgatory and the prayers for the dead are rejected by Protestants, it may be useful to explain why we hold both as Catholics.


The Protestant doctrine of justification leaves no room for Purgatory. Man is justified by faith alone; he is not changed in any way and remains as corrupted as before. Because of his faith in Christ his sins are forgiven; they are not held against him; they are, so to say, covered with a mantle, the merits of Christ. Therefore justification is the same for all and it admits no degree or increase. There can be no question of a purification either in this life or in the next one. If a man is "saved," as they say, when he dies, he remains the same.

Some Protestants believe that a man or woman who has accepted Christ dies totally and has to wait until the final resurrection to live again. Others believe that he remains in a kind of sleep. While still others believe that the resurrection takes place at the very moment of death. Nevertheless, almost all Protestants believe that there is no possibility of any change, and therefore no room for any purification, after physical death. It is, then, useless to pray for the dead.

But the practice of praying for the dead is very ancient. It goes back to Judaism and is mentioned in the second book of Maccabees (2 Mac. 12,43-46). The author tells how a number of Jews, who had fallen in battle, were found with idolatrous amulets, forbidden by the law, and how Judas Maccabeus took up a collection and sent the money to Jerusalem to have a sacrifice offered for their sin.

The writer praises his faith in the resurrection and his action; "If he had not expected the fallen to rise again it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead, whereas if he had in view the splendid recompense reserved for those who make a pious end, the thought was holy and devout. This was why he had this atonement sacrifice offered for the dead, so that they might be released from their sin."

Protestants do not accept the books of Maccabees as Scripture, but even so it bears witness to the faith of pious Jews.

No doubt the Apostles, pious Jews most of them, shared this faith especially Saint Paul, who posed as a Pharisee and a champion of the resurrection (Acts 23,6). In the New Testament itself, there is only one allusion to some kind of purification after death (1 Cor. 3,11-15), and another reference to some of pious practice in favor of the dead (1 Cor. 15,29). But we have abundant evidence of faith in a state of purification after death in the earliest ages of the Church.

There are sepulchral inscriptions in the Catacombs, some of which are themselves prayers for the dead while others ask for prayers for them. There are also prayers for the faithful departed in the most ancient liturgies and there are many texts in the Fathers on the value of these prayers and on the necessity of a perfect purification in order to enter into heaven.

There is in the acts of the martyrdom of Saint Perpetua the account of a vision she had, and this has historical value. She saw her brother Dinocrates, who had died a pagan and was suffering terrible torments, released through her prayers.

Calvin himself recognized that this had been the faith of the ancient Church, but called it an error; "For over thirteen hundred years it was the approved practice to pray for the deceased. All ancient fell into error; it was something human and therefore they did must not be imitated." (Instit. 3,5,10).

The doctrine of Purgatory and of a purification after death appears at first sight most reasonable. Once I was explaining it to a good Protestant, who much later became a Catholic and who is an old friend of mine, and he remarked: "To me it sounds quite reasonable. Of all the people I know, I don't see many who are good enough to go to heaven, and yet they are not bad enough to go to hell."

Years later I came across a quotation from a Protestant theologian, a Dr. Hase, who wrote almost the same thing: "Most people when they die are probably too good for hell, yet surely too bad for heaven."

Catholic theology is not content with just this common sense judgement. It explains that, even when sin has been regretted and forgiven some of its consequences remain the so-called temporal punishments due to sin, which must be expiated either in this world or in the next.

So if someone dies without having made satisfaction for his sins, he has to make that satisfaction after his death before entering heaven. This post-mortem expiation is what we call purgatory.

However, these "temporal punishments" must be explained, lest God appear as vindictive and unforgiving, and also to show why they are a necessary consequence of sin.

We must remember that man has been created to love God first and second to love everyone for the love of God. This is not confined to our earthly life. This love must continue forever in heaven and is in fact the condition and measure of happiness in the world above.

Heaven is nothing else but an ecstasy of love given and received.

Not all the saints, however, will love with the same intensity. Each will love with the capacity for love that he received and developed during his life on earth, each will receive love in return and be happy in proportion to his degree of love.

But while all the saints in heaven do not love with the same intensity, they all love with the same purity. Nothing impure can enter into heaven (Apo. 21,22) or share in divine wisdom (Wis. 2,25); therefore, the love of the saints must be perfectly pure.

Since the love of created things, even when it is not sinful, defiles the soul, as Saint John of the Cross explains at length (Ascent, Bk.1, Ch.6-12,) perfect purity means perfect detachment from self and from all created things.

It means that one never seeks one's own satisfaction; never acts for a purely natural motive, but seeks only, always, and in all things to do God's will and to please him.

All sins, mortal or venial, proceed from an excessive attachment. Even when they are regretted and forgiven, this increased attachment remains, and the soul must be purified from it.

God uses suffering to purify the soul and to detach it from created things. Scripture more than once repeats the comparison: as gold or silver is purified by fire, so also the soul of the just is purified by tribulation (Ps. 66,10; Prov. 12,3; Wis. 3,6, EccL 2,5; Pet. 1,2).

It is easy enough to understand how suffering purifies the soul. It is impossible to love suffering, humanly speaking. It can be accepted only out of love for God. If, therefore, we have not reached that pure love of God before death, our love for God must be purified by suffering after death.



Fr. Leonard M. Puech, O.F.M. "Purgatory and Prayer for the Dead." In Spiritual Guidance (Vancouver, B.C.: Vancouver Foundation of Art, Justice and Liberty, 1983), 330-333.

Republished with permission of the Vancouver Foundation of Art, Justice and Liberty.

The Author

The late Fr. Leonard M. Puech wrote a popular column for the B.C. Catholic from 1976 to 1982. Those columns were compiled and published by the Vancouver Foundation of Art, Justice, and Liberty as the book Spiritual Guidance in 1983. The VFAJL is interested in reprinting Spiritual Guidance. Anyone who would like to contribute to this worthy cause please write: Dr. Margherita Oberti, 1170 Eyremount Drive, West Vancouver, B.C. V7S 2C5.

Copyright © 1983 Fr. Leonard M. Puech, O.F.M.
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