Novissima Pt. 4: Purgatory

This article is the final article of a four part series. The previous article in this series can be found here.

We know that there is a Heaven and there is a Hell, realities attested to by the constant teaching of the Church and Sacred Scripture.

As I consistently preach at funerals, it is certainly uncharitable to assume that our dead family are in Hell. It is equally uncharitable, however, to assume that our loved ones are in Heaven. Why? If we assume that someone is in Hell or in Heaven, then it follows that they are not in need of our prayers, and we will, therefore, not pray for them!

There are many cultural practices around the death of a beloved, whether at the time of death or on anniversaries. Many of them are not necessarily bad, but they often eclipse the legitimate, helpful practices of Christians. Sometimes the things that we do regarding our dead loved ones are more for our own consolation. The Christian however, is bound, in charity, to do what they can to assist others – in this case, the dead. 

The most charitable assumption is that our loved ones are in Purgatory, and the best thing that we can do for them is to expedite their purgation.

Purgatory in Scripture

As Purgatory is a subject frequently contested by Protestants, we are going to use many references to Scripture to make our case.

Those souls, who “work to earn [their] salvation, in anxious fear” (Philippians 2:12), who “have fought the good fight,” who “have finished the race” (2 Timothy 4:7) and have persevered until the end (Matt. 24: 13) and have not committed sin “unto death,” as St. John the Beloved describes it (1 John 5:16), will enter Heaven.

However, Sacred Scripture and the constant teaching of the Church make it clear that nothing impure shall enter Heaven (e.g. Revelation 22: 3). When we sin, we offend God, doing spiritual damage to our relationship with him. That damage must be repaired in order to enjoy Heaven. As we hear in Sacred Scripture: 

Your opponent will hand you over to the judge, and the judge will hand you over to the guard, and you will be thrown in prison. Amen, I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny. (Matt. 5:25-26) 

The assumption here is that one will get out, and so it cannot refer to Hell, because in Hell “their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48; Cf. Luke 16:19-31).

St. Paul will also say, “If the work stands that someone built upon the foundation, that person will receive a wage. But if someone’s work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Corinthians 3:14-15, emphasis added).

We require purification after death before we can enter Heaven, because while all sins dirty the soul, not all of them are mortal, that is, deadly (1 John 5:16-17). The word traditionally used for this “prison” (using the image that Jesus used) by which we are cleansed “as through fire” is Purgatory.

What this means in more practical language is that whenever we sin, there are two negative results: we incur guilt and we do spiritual damage to our souls and our relationship with God which results in temporal punishment (as opposed to the eternal punishment of Hell). Guilt for mortal sin is forgiven in the sacrament of reconciliation, while the spiritual damage we have done is undone by offering indulgenced acts of reparation for sins.

It is extremely important that we understand and accept this doctrine. Our acceptance of Purgatory hinges on our belief in God’s justice and his mercy. If we deny Purgatory, we are denying these essential characteristics of God and, therefore, have an erroneous view of God.

Helping the Poor Souls In Purgatory

Imperfect love must be purified of its imperfection before it can experience perfect love (the Beatific Vision of Heaven), in what we call Purgatory. Purgatory is not one of the “novissima” because, by definition, everyone in Purgatory is going to Heaven. Their presence there is only a matter of time. That time, however, depends not only on their sins but on our expiation.

We have the power to expedite this process of the purification of others through our prayer and sacrifices, and especially the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass (cf. 2 Maccabees 12:43-46). The souls in Purgatory need us – it is an act of charity (the kind of act that the blessed in the Gospel do (Matt. 25:31-46) to pray for the living and the dead.

Because there seems to be some confusion on the subject and because dramatic examples help, I want to share a story I heard an exorcist tell regarding a soul in Purgatory asking for help. Souls have been known to appear and ask for help in being freed from Purgatory, but there are also instances, like the following, which require proper discernment, as this exorcist does:

There was a case of a rectory in which the parish priest had died, and about two weeks after the funeral the place was full of knocking noises. Knock. Knock. Knock. The knocking noise concerned the cook and many others, so they called an exorcist, who we will call Father K. 

Father K came over, completely vested, to investigate whether this was demonic or involved a distressed soul. 

When Father K arrived, there were various manifestations: doors and desk and dresser drawers opening and closing. However, these manifestations were not destructive in any way and only neutral items were being moved around. Desks opening and closing are merely motions of inanimate objects. Nobody was getting bashed in the head, nobody was bleeding, nobody was waking up with nightmares. There was, in effect, nothing destructive. Father K walked in, sat down and began to pray. 

The minute he sat down to pray everything calmed down. Father K sensed that, rather than the place being freed of evil presence, a great sense of relief washed over the place. Father K said, “This is all about a soul that is in distress and is relieved that I am here. This is not about an evil presence, there’s no sense of that at all.”  

Father K addresses the spirit and says, “If you are a spirit, I ask you in the name of Jesus Christ to knock twice.”

Knock knock, right away.  

Father K continued, “‘Yes’ is two knocks, ‘no’ is one. Are you recently deceased?” 

Knock, knock. 

“Are you the pastor?” 

Knock, knock. 

[Please note: this is not something that the laity should be doing.  The only “spirits” you should be addressing, generally speaking, are God, the angels and saints.]  

By asking the right questions, Father K was led to a desk in a spare room in the rectory. In the drawers of the desk are all kinds of Mass stipends for which Masses have never been offered. The priest who died owed the offering of those Masses for those whose money he had accepted as a stolen fee. They were the Mass intentions that he should have offered but did not. Instead, he put them in the desk drawer for years. Now he was dead and there needed to be reparation for the deeds that had not been done. So after his own funeral, the pastor was back in the rectory asking for help with these Masses. 

Father K gave the Mass intentions to the archbishop, who distributed them to 15-20 priests and over the course of a week, all of the Masses were said.

Once this was complete, Father K returned to the rectory and asked, “Are you still here?”  The answer was silence. Peace descended upon the rectory.

We can and should pray for all the Holy Souls, especially those who have no one to pray for them. We can continue to show our love for our beloved dead by praying for them and especially by having Masses said for them. There is nothing more powerful in the world than the holy sacrifice of the Mass. We should also offer indulgenced acts for the souls in Purgatory.

  • In this article, reference is made to gaining indulgences for the Poor Souls. These are usually prayers which Holy Mother Church, calling upon the treasury of merits entrusted to her care by our blessed Lord, associates with a value to be applied for a swifter purgation of the Poor Souls.  Indulgences are either partial or plenary (complete). Some shorter prayers which have a partial indulgence attached to them are praying five decades of the Rosary, meditating on Sacred Scripture, adoring the most Blessed Sacrament, or making the Way of the Cross.
  • Cover Image: “The Last Judgment” (c. 1431) by Fra Angelico.