Whatever Happened to Purgatory?

Mention of it is absent in the Church’s liturgy—even at funerals


Protestants believe that when a faithful Christian dies, God instantly purifies that person, making him or her perfect for heaven. This belief ignores the fact that salvation requires a response on the part of the individual. Yet I think many Catholics hold this Protestant view. I knew a pastor who invariably greeted news of a death in his parish with the exclamation, “Gone straight to heaven!”

But before we can be taken into heaven, we have to be cleansed not only of all sins but of all sin’s “rust and stain” (St. Catherine of Genoa’s phrase), all traces of self-centeredness. By God’s grace at the moment of our death we may be in a state of grace. Yet who of us can imagine himself being perfect at the moment of our death? Able to adore and love God perfectly, able to love those around us perfectly?

Some persons of faith go directly to heaven. The Church tells us the martyrs are completely cleansed for heaven by their self-sacrifice. Even more, the Church allows the possibility that the experience of dying may be for some a totally purifying experience. But surely most of us at our death require purification for being received into heaven. That is the purpose of purgatory.

But have you ever heard a homily teaching about purgatory? Have you ever heard a homily that even mentioned purgatory? Have you ever heard purgatory referred to in a funeral liturgy? How often do we Catholics speak, or even think, about purgatory? Very seldom, I think. One does sometimes hear the term used but only to refer figuratively to something unpleasant or difficult.

Recall the traditional phrase, lex orandi, lex credendi: “the law of praying, the law of believing.” If you want to know what the Church believes, pay attention to how it prays. Unfortunately, the Church’s funeral rite does not reflect its teaching about purgatory.

Let’s look at that teaching.

Attaining perfect holiness

The Council of Trent affirmed that “the Catholic Church, instructed by the Holy Spirit, has taught from holy scripture and the ancient tradition of the fathers in its holy councils . . . that purgatory exists, and that the souls detained there are helped by the prayers of the faithful and most of all by the acceptable sacrifice of the altar” (session 25, 1563). In sessions 6 and 22 the Council also referred to its teaching on purgatory.

The Church’s defined teaching on purgatory, then, can be summed up in two doctrines: that there is a state of purgation for souls not purified at death and that they can be aided in that process of purification by prayers of the Church on earth.

In the Catechism of the Catholic Church we read, “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” (CCC 1030). Paragraphs 1031 and 1032 further specify the Church’s teaching on purgatory.

Now let’s look into the Church’s funeral rite.

No mention of purgatory

The very act of praying for deceased persons implies the reality of purgatory. We never pray for the saints in heaven; we only ask them to pray for us. In more than a dozen instances, the Church’s Order of Christian Funerals offers prayers for the departed that they may have forgiveness of sins. Six of the Mass propers also request forgiveness for those for whom the Mass is being offered.

It is astonishing that the word purgatory never occurs in the Order of Christian Funerals. Furthermore, over two dozen of the prayers for the dead and eleven of the Mass propers are of what might be called the “gone-straight-to-heaven” type. Reading these prayers calls to mind a comment by my fellow contributor Anthony Esolen (see his article p. xx) in his notes for canto nine of his translation of Dante’s Purgatory: “Surely it is one of the sillier features of modern piety to believe we can take our indifferently religious selves off to eternal bliss as effortlessly as one might enter the pantry” (432).

The Order of Christian Funerals does include the text of the Ordo Exsequiarum 1969; (as emended by the Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship, 12 September 1983). Several passages therein clearly imply the doctrine of purgatory. “The Church’s “intention that those who by baptism were made one body with the dead and risen in Christ may with him pass from death to life. In soul they are to be cleansed and taken up into heaven with the saints and elect.”

Continuing: “The Church, therefore, offers the eucharistic sacrifice of Christ’s Passover for the dead and pours forth prayers and petitions for them. Because of the communion of all Christ’s members with each other, all of this brings spiritual aid to the dead and the consolation of hope to the living” (section 1). In this document there are other passages of similar import.

The communion of saints encompasses three dimensions of human life: those on earth (the “Church Militant”), those in purgatory (the “Church Expectant” or “Church Suffering”), and those in heaven (the “Church Triumphant”). The heading of the Catechism’s section 954 is “The three states of the Church.”

That section quotes a passage from Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church: “‘When the Lord comes in glory, and all his angels with him, death will be no more, and all things will be subject to him. But at the present time some of his disciples are pilgrims on earth. Others have died and are being purified, while still others are in glory, contemplating in full light God himself triune and one, exactly as he is.’”

Now consider the error of the Order of Christian Funerals’ truncated statements about the communion of saints. In three separate explanatory sections the Order speaks of only two dimensions of the communion of saints, thereby ignoring the reality of purgatory:

At the funeral rites, especially at the celebration of the eucharistic sacrifice, the Christian community affirms and expresses the union of the Church on earth with the Church in heaven in the one great communion of saints (section 6).

The rite of committal is an expression of the communion that exists between the Church on earth and the Church in heaven: the deceased passes with the farewell prayers of the community of believers into the welcoming company of those who need faith no longer but see God face to face” (section 206).

The community’s celebration of the hours acknowledges that spiritual bond that links the Church on earth with the Church in heaven, for it is in union with the whole Church that this prayer is offered on behalf of the deceased (section 349; all emphases added).

These statements plainly differ with the Church’s defined teaching. When will the Church correct its clearly deficient Order of Christian Funerals?

A closer look at purgatory

Long centuries passed before the Church articulated the doctrine of purgatory. Yet knowledge of purgatory has always been an essential part of Church life. “From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God” (CCC 1032).

From the instant of our conception until we attain the beatific vision, the unfolding plan of God’s salvation for us is a continuum. For those who die in a state of grace but not yet cleansed of all trace of sin, undergoing purgatory is final preparation for entrance into heaven.

Consider the Protestant certainty of one’s salvation. Many of us have been accosted by well-meaning Fundamentalists who demand to know, “Have you been saved?” Protestants believe that if in conversion we surrender our lives to Jesus Christ, we can be certain we will be saved. Typical of this is the attitude of a man I know. On one occasion his grandmother pleaded with him to reform his disordered life. He dismissed her efforts by saying, “Well, I know I’m saved!”

Recently I noticed a sign attached to a pole near my local post office. Finally I stopped to read it. In bold letters it announced, “How to know for sure 100% that you are going to Heaven.” It listed a long-distance number. At home, curious, I dialed the number. The operator who answered began by asking for personal information. She didn’t sound like St. Peter. I hung up.

There can be no absolute certainty in this life about one’s salvation (“[W]ork out your salvation in fear and trembling” [Phil 2:12]). The Church affirms our free will and the necessity of our response (ever by grace) to God’s outreach.

Speaking of knowing the power of Christ’s resurrection, St. Paul wrote, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own” (Phil 3:12). He used the figure of a footrace to tell us in this life we all face the possibility of being lost forever. As for winning “the prize,” “I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor. 9:27).

Only as we enter purgatory can we have absolute certainty of entering heaven. “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” (CCC 1030). Undergoing purgatory marks the ultimate and final surrender of the soul to God.

“[H]e who has died is freed from sin” (Rom. 6:7). Moreover, St. Catherine of Genoa assures us, “in passing out of this life, they [the departed] . . . cannot in any thing turn aside from it [the love of God], because, as they can no more merit, so they can no more sin” (Treatise on Purgatory, ch. 1).

Sanctity: this life is our only chance

The saint’s words remind us of a sobering fact: After death there can be no growth in sanctity. We shall be purified and perfected at the same level of spiritual maturity as by God’s grace we had achieved at the moment of death. Our capacity for loving God and loving others cannot grow after death but only be purified. Those in heaven will behold the triune God, “yet one person more perfectly than another according to the difference of their merits” (Council of Florence, 1439).

In other words, there will be degrees of blessedness in heaven, but of course no envy. For an analogy, think of two containers of water, one large, one small. When they are full, they are equally full, but they hold different amounts of water. Our capacity for sharing in the beatific vision is determined in this life. An old gospel hymn I sang in the church of my childhood gave the challenge, “Work, for the night is coming, when man’s work is done.” With regard to growth in sanctity, our life’s work is done at the moment of death.

What is the suffering in purgatory? A number of the saints have received visions of purgatory involving the most extreme agony for those being purified. In the opinion of some, the great suffering in purgatory is caused by a soul’s recognizing the sin-induced distance still separating itself from the God for whom it yearns.

Our souls “demand purgatory”

Catholics frequently refer to the “poor souls” in purgatory. In my opinion, this term is inappropriate. What greater joy can there be than seeing heaven ahead? Try to imagine the excitement of gradually being made capable of perfectly loving God and loving those around us. Think of the joy of being cleansed of all self-centeredness. In this life our happiest moments come when we are lifted out of ourselves, so to speak, in love and even in pure fun with others. Imagine being totally, forever, caught up in perfect love for God and others.

Properly understood, purgatory can be regarded as supreme example of God’s infinite mercy. St. Catherine of Genoa puts it this way. “[T]he being of God is so pure . . . that should a soul see in itself even the least mote of imperfection, it would rather cast itself into a thousand hells than go with that spot into the presence of the divine Majesty.” Because purgatory is God’s gift for removing all blemishes, the soul “plunges therein, and deems it a great mercy that it can thus remove them” (Treatise on Purgatory, ch. 8).

In a lighter vein, but equally strong, is the testimony of last generation’s most influential Protestant. C. S. Lewis says our souls “demand purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, ‘It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy’? ‘With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.’ ‘It may hurt, you know.’ ‘Even so, sir.’” (Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer, 108f).

The most widely read work on the afterlife is Dante’s Divine Comedy. The poet portrays himself, a living person, being led through hell, through purgatory, and to heaven by his master, Virgil. The volume on purgatory describes the effects of the purgatorial process in lives many of which the protagonist knew or knew of in this earthly life. Another deeply moving work on purgatory is The Dream of Gerontius by Bl. John Henry Newman. In my opinion it is much more personal than Dante’s account of traveling through purgatory. Newman takes us inside the life of a grace-filled man through his death and deeply into the process of his purification.

A two-way street of prayer

Do the souls in purgatory pray for us? At least since the Middle Ages some theologians and at least one pope have held to this possibility. Into a prayer invoking prayers of the souls in purgatory, Pope Leo XIII inserted an indulgence. At Vatican II, the subject of purgatory arose in discussions leading to composition of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. It was proposed to include in the Constitution a statement that the living could be benefited by the prayers of souls in purgatory. The fathers decided not to decide this question, so the proposal was set aside.

Can it be said now that officially in her Catechism the Church has given us the answer? “Our prayer for them is capable not only of helping them, but also making their intercession for us effective” (CCC 958, emphasis added).

Think about it. In this life we pray for many persons, especially those dearest to us. In purgatory our individuality will be preserved. Try to imagine yourself in purgatory, abstracted from all your relationships of this life. You would not be the same person! Surely, as the Catechism asserts, the souls in purgatory do continue their intercession for their loved ones still on earth.

So the Church does teach us our prayers can aid the departed in being prepared for heaven. Clearly implicit in that teaching is a command: Pray for them. Offer the Holy Sacrifice for them.

God help us be faithful in carrying out that command.


Fr. Ray Ryland is chaplain of the Coming Home Network and Catholics United for the Faith. He is the assistant at St. Peter’s Church in Steubenville, Ohio.

This article appeared in Volume 24 Number 4.