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Purgatory is the condition of purification or temporary punishment by which those who die in a state of grace are believed to be made ready for Heaven. This theological notion has ancient roots and is well-attested in early Christian literature, but the poetic conception of purgatory as a geographically situated place is largely the creation of medieval Christian piety and imagination.
The notion of purgatory is associated particularly with the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church (in the Eastern sui juris churches or rites it is a doctrine, though often without using the name “Purgatory”); Anglicans of the Anglo-Catholic tradition generally also hold to the belief, along with many Lutherans of High Church Lutheranism. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, believed in an intermediate state between death and the final judgment and in the possibility of “continuing to grow in holiness there.” The Eastern Orthodox Churches believe in the possibility of a change of situation for the souls of the dead through the prayers of the living and the offering of the Divine Liturgy, and many Orthodox, especially among ascetics, hope and pray for a general apocatastasis. A similar belief in at least the possibility of a final salvation for all is held by Mormonism. Judaism also believes in the possibility of after-death purification and may even use the word “purgatory” to present its understanding of the meaning of Gehenna. However, the concept of soul “purification” may be explicitly denied in these other faith traditions.
The word “purgatory”, derived through Anglo-Norman and Old French from the Latin word purgatorium, has come to refer also to a wide range of historical and modern conceptions of postmortem suffering short of everlasting damnation, and is used, in a non-specific sense, to mean any place or condition of suffering or torment, especially one that is temporary.
History of the belief
While use of the word “purgatory” (in Latin purgatorium) as a noun appeared perhaps only between 1160 and 1180, giving rise to the idea of purgatory as a place (what Jacques Le Goff called the “birth” of purgatory), the Roman Catholic tradition of purgatory as a transitional condition has a history that dates back, even before Jesus, to the worldwide practice of caring for the dead and praying for them, and to the belief, found also in Judaism, from which Christianity grew, that prayer for the dead contributed to their afterlife purification. The same practice appears in other traditions, such as the medieval Chinese Buddhist practice of making offerings on behalf of the dead, who are said to suffer numerous trials. Roman Catholic belief in purgatory is based, among other reasons, on the previous Jewish practice of prayer for the dead, a practice that presupposes that the dead are thereby assisted between death and their entry into their final abode.
Shortly before becoming a Roman Catholic, the English scholar John Henry Newman argued that the essence of the doctrine is locatable in ancient tradition, and that the core consistency of such beliefs is evidence that Christianity was “originally given to us from heaven”.Roman Catholics consider the teaching on purgatory, but not the imaginative accretions, to be part of the faith derived from the revelation of Jesus Christ that was preached by the apostles. Over the centuries, theologians and other Christians then developed the doctrine regarding purgatory, leading to the definition of the formal doctrine (as distinct from the legendary descriptions) at the Second Council of Lyon (1274), the Council of Florence (1438–1445), and the Council of Trent (1545–63).
The views of Purgatory vary depending on Christian denomination. Some churches, typically those with a more Catholic structure, recognize the doctrine, while many Protestant and Orthodox churches reject it, the former on the basis of their own sola scriptura doctrine, combined with their exclusion of 2 Maccabees from the Bible.
The Catholic Church gives the name Purgatory to the final purification of all who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified. Though purgatory is often pictured as a place rather than a process of purification, the idea of purgatory as a place is not part of the Church’s doctrine.
Heaven and Hell
According to Catholic belief, immediately after death, a person undergoes judgment in which the soul’s eternal destiny is specified. Some are eternally united with God in Heaven, often envisioned as a paradise of eternal joy, where Theosis is completed and one experiences the beatific vision of God. Conversely, others reach a state called Hell, that is eternal separation from God often envisioned as a fiery place of punishment, though the fire is sometimes seen metaphorically. It is stressed that it is by one’s own free will that a person enters into the state of hell, separating themselves from God.
In addition to accepting the states of heaven and hell, Catholicism envisages a third state before being admitted to heaven. According to Catholic doctrine, some souls are not sufficiently free from the temporal effects of sin and its consequences to enter the state of heaven immediately, nor are they so sinful as to be destined for hell either. Such souls, ultimately destined to be united with God in heaven, must first endure purgatory – a state of purification. In purgatory, souls “achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.”Temporal punishment and eternal punishment are incurred by mortal sin, but eternal punishment is remitted by the sacrament of reconciliation (known also as the sacrament of penance or confession). The remaining temporal punishment may be remitted by sufferings in this life, indulgences, or after death in Purgatory.
Catholics make a distinction between two types of sin. Mortal sin is a “grave violation of God’s law” that “turns man away from God”, and if it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell. This teaching on the consequences of unrepented sin is based on both Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition.
In contrast, venial sin (meaning “forgivable” sin) “does not set us in direct opposition to the will and friendship of God” and, although still “constituting a moral disorder”, does not deprive the sinner of friendship with God, and consequently the eternal happiness of heaven.
According to Catholicism, pardon of sins and purification can occur during life – for example, in the Sacrament of Baptism and the Sacrament of Penance. However, if this purification is not achieved in life, venial sins can still be purified after death. The specific name given to this purification of sin after death is “purgatory”.
Pain and fire
Purgatory is a cleansing that involves painful temporal punishment, associated with the idea of fire such as is associated with the idea of the eternal punishment of hell. Several Church Fathers regarded 1 Corinthians 3:10–15 as evidence for the existence of an intermediate state in which the dross of lighter transgressions will be burnt away, and the soul thus purified will be saved. Fire was the Bible-inspired image (“We went through fire and through water”) that Christians used for the notion of after-life purification. St. Augustine described the fires of cleansing as more painful than anything a man can suffer in this life, and Pope Gregory I wrote that there must be a cleansing fire for some minor faults that may remain to be purged away. Origen wrote about the fire that needs to purify the soulSt. Gregory of Nyssa also wrote about the purging fire.
Most theologians of the past have held that the fire is in some sense a material fire, though of a nature different from ordinary fire, but the opinion of other theologians who interpret the Scriptural term “fire” metaphorically has not been condemned by the Church and may now be the more common view. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of a “cleansing fire” and quotes the expression “purgatorius ignis” (purifying fire) used by Pope Gregory the Great. It speaks of the temporal punishment for sin, even in this life, as a matter of “sufferings and trials of all kinds”. It describes purgatory as a necessary purification from “an unhealthy attachment to creatures”, a purification that “frees one from what is called the ‘temporal punishment’ of sin”, a punishment that “must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin.”
Whilst the imagery of pain and fire is often used to depict Purgatory, this does not mean that Purgatory is necessarily a ‘sad’ state for the soul.St Catherine of Genoa wrote a treatise on Purgatory in the late fifteenth century which focused upon the positive sense which a soul in purgatory would have, because the very nature of being in purgatory is a sign that the soul is on the way to be with God.Whilst St. Catherine’s approach to Purgatory was clearly non-typical, in canonising her the Roman Catholic Church declared that there was nothing contrary to faith in her writings.
Prayer for the dead and indulgences
The Catholic Church teaches that the fate of those in purgatory can be affected by the actions of the living. Its teaching is based also on the practice of prayer for the dead mentioned as far back as 2 Maccabees 12:42–46, considered by Catholics and Orthodox to be part of Sacred Scripture.
In the same context there is mention of the practice of indulgences. An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven. Indulgences may be obtained for oneself, or on behalf of the dead.
Prayers for the dead and indulgences have been popularly envisioned as decreasing the “duration” of time the dead spend in purgatory, an idea associated with the fact that, in the past, indulgences were measured in terms of days, “quarantines” (i.e. 40-day periods as for Lent), or years, meaning, not that purgatory would be shortened by that amount of time, but that the indulgences were equivalent to that length of canonical penance on the part of a living Christian. When the imposition of such canonical penances of a determinate duration fell out of custom these expressions were sometimes popularly misinterpreted as reduction of that much time of a soul’s stay in purgatory. A prayer roll that once belonged to Henry VIII claimed that “this image of pity devotedly say 5 Pater Noster, 5 Ave Maria and 1 Credo…” gave a pardon and reduction of time in purgatory of “52,712 years and 40 days of pardon”. In Pope Paul VI’s revision of the rules concerning indulgences, these expressions were dropped, and replaced by the expression “partial indulgence”, indicating that the person who gained such an indulgence for a pious action is granted, “in addition to the remission of temporal punishment acquired by the action itself, an equal remission of punishment through the intervention of the Church”
Historically, the practice of granting indulgences, and the widespread associated abuses, led to them being seen as increasingly bound up with money, with criticisms being directed against the “sale” of indulgences, a source of controversy that was the immediate occasion of the Protestant Reformation in Germany and Switzerland.
As a physical place
The envisioning of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory as places in the physical universe was never a Church doctrine. Nonetheless, in antiquity and medieval times, Heaven and Hell were widely regarded as places existing within the physical universe: Heaven “above”, in the sky; Hell “below”, in or beneath the earth. Similarly, Purgatory has at times been thought of as a physical location.
In 1206, a peasant named Thurkhill in England claimed that Saint Julian took him on a tour of Purgatory. He gave precise details, including descriptions of Purgatory’s torture chambers, and was widely believed, including by the Church historian Roger of Wendover.
In Dante’s fourteenth century work The Divine Comedy, Purgatory is depicted as a mountain in the southern hemisphere. It is apparently the only land there. Souls given a second chance find themselves at Mt. Purgatory, where there are two levels, then Seven Levels representing the Seven deadly sins with ironic punishments. For example, on the first level for Pride the inhabitants are weighed down by huge stones which forces them to look at examples of Pride on the pavement like Arachne. When they reach the top they will find themselves at Jerusalem’s antipode, the Garden of Eden itself. Thus cleansed of all sin and made perfect, they wait in Earthly paradise before ascending to Heaven.
In 1999 Pope John Paul II declared that the term Purgatory does not indicate a place, but “a condition of existence”.
In 2011 Pope Benedict XVI, speaking of Saint Catherine of Genoa (1447–1510), said that in her time the purification of souls (Purgatory) was pictured as a location in space, but that the saint saw Purgatory as a purifying inner fire, such as she experienced in her profound sorrow for sins committed, when compared with God’s infinite love. She said that being bound still to the desires and suffering that derive from sin makes it impossible for the soul to enjoy the beatific vision of God. The Pope commented: “We too feel how distant we are, how full we are of so many things that we cannot see God. The soul is aware of the immense love and perfect justice of God and consequently suffers for having failed to respond in a correct and perfect way to this love; and love for God itself becomes a flame, love itself cleanses it from the residue of sin.”
The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, first published in 2005, is a summary in dialog form of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It deals with purgatory in the following exchange:
210. What is purgatory?
- Purgatory is the state of those who die in God’s friendship, assured of their eternal salvation, but who still have need of purification to enter into the happiness of heaven.
211. How can we help the souls being purified in purgatory?
- Because of the communion of saints, the faithful who are still pilgrims on earth are able to help the souls in purgatory by offering prayers in suffrage for them, especially the Eucharistic sacrifice. They also help them by almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance.
These two questions and answers summarize information in sections 1020–1032 and 1054 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, published in 1992, which also speaks of purgatory in sections 1472 and 1473
Other authoritative statements are those of the Council of Trent in 1563 and the Council of Florence in 1439.
Eastern Christian churches
The Eastern Catholic churches are Catholic churches sui iuris of Eastern tradition, in full communion with the Pope. There are however some differences between the Latin Church and some of the Eastern Catholic Churches on aspects of purgatory. The Eastern Catholic Churches of Greek tradition do not generally use the word “purgatory”, but agree that there is a “final purification” for souls destined for heaven, and that prayers can help the dead who are in that state of “final purification”. In general, neither the members of the Latin Church nor the members of these Eastern Catholic Churches regard these differences as major points of dispute, but see them as minor nuances and differences of tradition. A treaty that formalized the admission of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church into the full communion of the Roman Catholic Church stated: “We shall not debate about purgatory, but we entrust ourselves to the teaching of the Holy Church”,implying, in the opinion of a theologian of that Church, that both sides can agree to disagree on the specifics of what the West calls “purgatory”, while there is full agreement on the essentials. Between the Latin Church and some other Eastern Catholic Churches, such as the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, there is no disagreement about any aspect of the doctrine of purgatory. (0)
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