Father Tony Marques, Special to The Catholic Virginian

The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, better known as All Souls’ Day (Nov. 2), assumes that interceding for the dead is worthwhile: We would not pray for the deceased unless we believed that doing so helped them reach heaven. 

All Souls’ Day could even be called the “Feast of Purgatory” since the Church’s prayer for her deceased members reflects a hopeful doctrine of purification from sin after death. This understanding can rehabilitate the reputation of purgatory, which is sometimes viewed pessimistically.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “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” (nos. 1030–1031). 

How doctrine developed

Purgatory has undergone a long and complicated development as a doctrine in the Western, Latin-speaking Church. Nevertheless, the teaching explains what Christians, following Jewish custom, have done from the beginning: pray for the dead. Therefore, the Church has always believed, at least implicitly, in purification from sin after death. 

The Church’s teaching on purgatory is rooted in Scripture. For example, 2 Maccabees 12:39–46 commends the practice of interceding on behalf of the dead. The Bible also includes concepts, themes, and images that contributed to the understanding of purgatory: fire, purity, penance, debt and punishment, and the possibility of forgiveness of sins after death (see Mt 12:31–32). 

Throughout the centuries, the Church drew from this scriptural trove to clarify the nature of purgatory. A major factor in this process was the concern to distinguish postmortem cleansing from damnation (hell). 

The purification from sin after death was considered to be painful and medicinal, whereas damnation was reckoned as entirely painful. St. Augustine of Hippo used the word “purgatorial,” derived from the Latin purgare (to purge), in his explanation of postmortem cleansing. The Council of Lyons II (1274) employed the term “purgatorial punishments” to describe the same purification.

‘Remnants’ of sin

Also key to the doctrinal development of purgatory was the distinction between the guilt and the “remnants” of sin. Whereas guilt denoted blame that was removed by absolution in confession, the remnants of sin — evil habits and worldly attachments — had to be cleansed by means of penance, which was also called “satisfaction.” 

The Council of Trent (1545–1563) taught that penance (satisfaction) was the “temporal punishment” of sin. This punishment was understood to be temporal in two senses. First, it could be discharged on earth; or, if unfinished, after death — a reality the council called “Purgatory.” 

Second, the punishment was temporary because the person being cleansed eventually entered heaven. (While the duration of purgatory is temporary, the interval cannot be measured chronologically.) By contrast, the “eternal punishment” of sin was deemed to be everlasting; if this penalty attached to guilt was not removed before death, the sinner would be consigned to hell. 

Trent also taught that the debt of temporal punishment could be paid outside of the sacrament of penance. In keeping with understanding of the Church as the communion of saints, this satisfaction could even be applied to others, including the deceased. 

Satisfaction or temporal punishment included mortifications like fasting; the acquisition of indulgences, which amounted to light penances; and prayers, especially the offering of Masses.

Not a ‘labor camp’

Contemporary understandings of purgatory have recovered the biblical image of fire, interpreted through the lens of St. Catherine of Genoa (1447–1510), an Italian laywoman and mystic who wrote about purgatory. Significantly, St. Catherine viewed purgatory as an interior process, contrary to the popular — although never official — view of purgatory as a place.

As a private theologian and as pope, Benedict XVI endorsed the theological approach associated with St. Catherine: “Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself… His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation ‘as through fire’ (1 Cor 3:15). But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God” (“Spe salvi,” no. 47).

This view corrects the misconception of purgatory as a kind of “labor camp” in which a soul must “earn” entry into heaven by suffering pain in retribution for sin. The position of Pope Benedict emphasizes that salvation, including postmortem cleansing, is the loving work of Christ. 

The Church, based on Scripture, understands purgatory in complementary ways. Together, these various formulations profess a doctrine that is realistic and hopeful. The teaching on purgatory takes into account the incompleteness of our conversion and offers hope that our imperfections can be wiped away. 

The doctrine also reassures us that we are never alone because we belong to the Church: on earth, in purgatory, and in heaven. The prayers of the Church assist the dead, which one day will include us.

Purgatory, which comes into focus during November, makes praying for the dead a Spiritual Work of Mercy: “Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.” 

Father Marques is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Richmond.