A Brief Explanation of the Doctrine of Purgatory

Page 1


All of us are familiar with the Message Our Lady gave at Fatima in Portugal. We know that, unlike many private revelations, she addressed her Fatima Message to the world, giving her solution for the problems of the world. She requested the daily Rosary, reparation for sinners, and the consecration of all men to her Immaculate Heart.
One of the things seldom talked about in the Message took place during her first visit with the children in May of 1917. It concerns Purgatory. On that occasion Lucy began to question the beautiful Lady to find out who she was. Happy when the Lady said she had come from Heaven, Lucy immediately asked about her own eternal happiness and Our Lady lovingly told her that she would go to Heaven, After being assured that her two companions, Jacinta and Francis, would go to Heaven as well, Lucy further asked about two of her little companions who had recently died: "Is little Maria das Neves in Heaven," "Yes" answered Our Lady, "she is in Heaven." Finally, Lucy asked about another companion, called Amelia, and Our Lady answered: "She will be in Purgatory until the end of the world."

Little Amelia was eighteen years old when she died. She is in Purgatory and will, on the testimony of Our Blessed Mother, stay there until the end of time. Her fate contains a warning for all of us. Let us take to heart and make certain that her fate will not be our own.


What do Christ and His Church teach us about Purgatory? That there is a place called Purgatory is certain because Holy Mother Church has already declared such a belief a dogma of our Faith. In the fifteenth century the Councils of Florence and Trent solemnly declared this belief of all the faithful children of the Church.

Looking into the Old Testament we find Judas Machabeus sending to Jerusalem and asking that sacrifice be offered for those of his soldiers who had died in battle with idols on their persons because he believed they would have to be purified in the other world. (2 Mach. 12, 43). In the New Testament we find Our Lord's Own words: "He that shall speak against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world nor in the world to come." (Matt. 12, 32) And in another place He compares Purgatory to a prison when He says: "Amen, I say to thee, thou shalt not go out from thence till thou repay the last farthing." Holy Mother Church calls Purgatory the "gates of Hell" when in the Mass of Burial, she prays: "From the gates of Hell, deliver him, O Lord."


The Council of Trent
December 8 and 4, 1568

Whereas the Catholic Church, instructed by the Holy Ghost, has, from the Sacred Writings and the ancient tradition of the Fathers, taught in sacred councils, and very recently in this œcumenical synod [Sess. VI can. XXX; Sess. XXII cap. II and III] that there is a Purgatory, and that the souls there detained are helped by the suffrages of the faithful, but principally by the acceptable sacrifice of the altar; the holy synod enjoins on bishops that they diligently endeavour that the sound doctrine concerning Purgatory, transmitted by the holy Fathers and sacred councils, be believed, maintained, taught and everywhere proclaimed by the faithful of Christ. But let the more difficult and subtle questions, and which tend not to edification, [cf. 1 Tim. i. 4] and from which for the most part there is no increase of piety, be excluded from popular discourses before the uneducated multitude. In like manner such things as are uncertain, or which labour under an appearance of error, let them not allow to be made public and treated of. While those things which tend to a certain kind of curiosity or superstition, or which savour of filthy lucre, let them prohibit as scandals and stumbling-blocks of the faithful. But let the bishops take care that the suffrages of the faithful who are living, to wit, the sacrifices of Masses, prayers, alms and other works of piety, which have been wont to be performed by the faithful for the other faithful departed, be piously and devoutly performed, in accordance with the institutes of the Church; and that whatsoever is due on their behalf, from the endowments of testators, or in other way, be discharged, not in a perfunctory manner, but diligently and accurately, by the priests and ministers of the Church, and others who are bound to render this (service).

Sess. VI can. XXX:

If anyone saith that, after the grace of justification has been received, to every penitent sinner the guilt is remitted, and the debt of eternal punishment is blotted out in such wise that there remains not any debt of temporal punishment to be discharged either in this world, or in the next, in Purgatory, before the entrance to the Kingdom of Heaven can be opened (to him); let him be anathema.

Sess. XXII
That the Sacrifice of the Mass is Propitiatory both for the Living and the Dead

And forasmuch as, in this Divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, that same Christ is contained and immolated in an unbloody manner, Who once offered Himself in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross; the holy synod teaches that this sacrifice is truly propitiatory (can. vi), and that by means thereof this is effected that we obtain mercy, and find grace in seasonable aid, [Heb. iv. 16] if we draw nigh unto God, contrite and penitent, with a sincere heart and upright faith, with fear and reverence. For the Lord, appeased by the oblation thereof and granting the grace and gift of penitence, forgives even heinous crimes and sins. For the victim is one and the same, the same now offering by the ministry of priests, who then offered Himself on the cross, the manner alone of offering being different. The fruits indeed of which oblation, of that bloody one, to wit, are received most plentifully through this unbloody one; so far is this (latter) from derogating in any way from that (former oblation) (can. iv). Wherefore, not only for the sins, punishments, satisfactions, and other necessities of the faithful who are living, but also for those who are departed in Christ, and who are not as yet fully purified, is it rightly offered, agreeably to a tradition of the Apostles (can. iii).

On Masses in Honour of the Saints

And although the Church has been accustomed at times to celebrate certain Masses in honour and memory of the Saints; not therefore, however, doth she teach that sacrifice is offered unto them, but unto God alone, Who crowned them (can. v); whence neither is the priest wont to say, "I offer sacrifice to thee, Peter, or Paul;" [St. Augustine, "De Civ. Dei," L. viii.57] but, giving thanks to God for their victories, he implores their patronage, that they may vouchsafe to intercede for us in Heaven, whose memory we celebrate upon earth.


Divine Revelation and Purgatory

The Council of Trent, called to defend and vindicate the Holy Catholic Faith, cited the audacious innovators of the Protestant sects and some of those still calling themselves Catholic, as excommunicated, condemning their loathsome doctrine, and once anew teaching Catholic belief in Purgatory. By the declaration of this dogma the Church did not invent a new doctrine, but simply restated what had always been belived and taught-----an authentic declaration of the faith founded on ancient tradition and on Holy Scripture. She set the seal of her Divine authority on it, sustained it by her infallible declaration on the existence of Purgatory.

In the Old Testament we find evidence of Purgatory in the very beginning, in the Book of Genesis. Moses, the human author of Gensis, instructs us that Joseph, on his father's death, ordered the Egyptians to hold a mourning celebration of seventy days, and a funeral celebration of seven days. In the First Book of Kings we read that the inhabitants of Jabez Galaad fasted seven days at the death of Saul, Jonathan and Abner. The eminent theologians Suarez and Bellarmine declare in conformity with the holy Fathers, that these practices are not to be understood simply as expressions of mourning alone, but must be regarded also as suffrages for the dead. If fasting was nothing but an expression of sorrow, then how would the Purgatorian naysayers explain why David fasted during the illness of his child, but stopped fasting immediately after the child's death? It is obvious that he thought a continuance of his fast was no longer to any purpose, because the child, having died in innocence, no longer needed his prayers and good works. The prophet Micheas takes comfort in the consolation of Purgatory when he tells us:  "I will bear the wrath of the Lord, because I have sinned against Him, until He judge my cause and execute judgment for me. He will bring me ferth into the light." [7:9] Thus the declaration of Ecclesiasticus [7:37]: "A gift hath grace in the sight of all the living; and restrain not grace from the dead."

One hundred and fifty years before the Gospel was preaced to the world, belief in Purgatory finds unmistakable expression in the history of the victorious Machabee, Judas. This ancient hero, having lost a great number of warriors in battle, is not content with honoring them with a lavish burial: he orders a collection to be made, and sends the proceeds-----twelve hundred drachms of silver-----to Jerusalem, to have sacrifice offered for the deceased. "For," he adds, "if he had not hoped that they who were slain should rise again, it would have seemed superfluous and vain to pray for the dead." And because he considered those who had died in godliness, "had grace laid up for them. It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for ehe dead, that they may be loosed from sins." [2 Mach. 12:44-46] Holy Scripture thus proclaims that Purgatory exists, and that our prayers and sacrifices are accepted in suffrage for the release of the departed.

Our Lord Himself, though He was most zealous in correcting abuses, and well knew that the Jews prayed for the dead, not only did not interfere with this practice, he confirmed it. He said, "And whosoever shall speak a word against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him neither in this world, nor in the world to come." Now if there are sins that can be forgiven in the next world, although not thee sin mentioned, then we know that there is a part of the next world that does not include Heaven because those in Heaven have no need of forgiveness. [Matt. 12:32] From these words Sts. Augustine, Gregory the Great, Bernard, the Venerable Bede and others conclude as follows: Whatsoever may be the nature of this speaking against the Holy Ghost mentioned here as an unpardonable sin, whether it be understood as referring to the obstinacy of the Jews or of the unbelievers in resisting the acknowledged truth: one certain, clear and indisputable fact follows from this passage of the Gospel by the very exception made in it: it proves convincingly that certain sins are forgiven in the next world. Now this forgiveness is not obtainable in Heaven, because sin does not gain admittance there, nor in Hell, whence there is no redemptien. There is only one possibility: these sins are forgiven in another place, the name of which the Church has given as Purgatory.

Furthermore, Our Lord says these most compelling words: "Be at an agreement with thy adversary betimes, whilst thou art in the way with him: lest perhaps the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Amen I say to thee, thou shalt not go out from thence till thou repay the last farthing." [Matt. 5: 25, 26] Many holy Fathers, including Origen, St. Jerome, St. Ambrose and others, declare that this passage is to be understood not only as referring to a place of eternal punishment, but also to one of temporal atonement in the next world, because deliverance is promised to those that "repay the last farthing."

St. Paul also teaches this doctrine-----even more explicitly when he teaches that there are faithful who attain Heaven by fire, or, to use his own words, they "shall be saved, yet-----so as by fire." [1 Cor. 3:15] According to the Apostle there are such as make Christ the foundation of their salvation, but build on this foundation an edifice of wood, hay or stubble, that is, they believe in Christ, but mix many imperfections with their good works. "If any man's work abide, which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man's work burn he shall suffer loss, but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire." [Ibid.] "The fire shall try every man's work, of what sort it is," whether "gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble." [Ibid. 12, 13]  he also gave us his own example by praying for the dead:

Having received hospitality at Rome in the house of Onesiphorus, he reminds his disciple Timothy of it, saying: "The Lord give mercy to the house of Onesiphorus, because he hath often refreshed me, and hath not been ashamed of my chain . . . The Lord grant unto him to find mercy of the Lord in that day." [2 Tim. 1:16, 18] Note that St. Paul does not send greetings to Onesiphorus when speaking of his past merits, but to his family. For the deserving man himself he prays that the Lord grant mercy unto him on the day of judgment. This, however, can be done only if we believe in place of purification before Heaven, that is, Purgatory.

Hence the reality of Purgatory, demonstrated and proved as it is by reason, revelation and theological evidence, is   Catholic dogma. It is a doctrine contained so unmistakably clear in the sources of revelation, in Scripture and Tradition, and is presented so concisely as the outcome of faith in eternal reward and punishment, that it would be a Catholic dogma even if it had not been declared as such by the authority of the Church. It is a dogma because there is indisputable evidence that the whole Church, in all ages and in all countries, accepted it as such, and because it was declared as such by the solemn declaration of the Church's supreme teaching authority.

The doctrine of Purgatory does away with the heretical notion of the soul's mortality" "In the sight of the unwise they seemed to die, and their departure was taken for misery . . . Afflicted in a few things, in many they shall be well, rewarded, because God hath tried them, and found them worthy of Himself." [Wisd. 3:2, 5], so that He will not destroy their souls. "My soul shall live." [Ps. 118:175] And so forth. This doctrine is consoling to us sinners who are constantly striving to sanctity. It moves us to proclaim not only His justice, but His tender mercies. It actually brings us life, by the graces of the virtue of hope. However, denial of Purgatory brings not life, but death itself, as St. Robert Bellermine taught:  "The doctrine of the existence of Purgatory is so Catholic a dogma, that they who nevertheless deny it assuredly have to fear not Purgatory, but rather the flames of Hell."

A Brief Word About the Protestant Claim that the Church "Invented" Purgatory

Whenever a date is set for the "invention" of Purgatory, Church historians can point to factual evidence to show the doctrine was in existence before that date. Besides, if at some point the doctrine was"invented", why does ecclesiastical history record no protest against it? It is of particular interest to note that a study of the history of Church doctrine indicates that the earliest Christians [in the first centuries] were greatly outraged if anyone suggested the least change in beliefs. Since at the time much doctrine was less officially declared than taught by Tradition, they would test a doctrine’s truth by asking, Was this believed by our ancestors? Was it handed on from the Apostles? To be certain, belief in Purgatory would be considered a great change, if it had not been believed from the first—so where are the records of protests from the first Catholics who were willing to be Martyred in defense of the faith?

The answer: there were none, period.



Taken from the Systematic Index, Section XIVa:

The souls of those who die in the state of grace, but with venial faults or temporal penalties not yet satisfied are detained in Purgatory 456, 570s, 693, 840, 983, 998, 2147a, concerning the existence of which it is certain from Scripture 456, 777; which does not consist in only the fears of one about to die 744; but in satisfactory penalties which the souls suffer 464, 530, 570s, 693, 840, 983, while they are tormented by fire 570s, secure, nevertheless, concerning their salvation, but are outside the state of merit 778, they do not sin by seeking rest or by abhorring the penalties 779; they are helped by the prayers, satisfactory acts, and alms of the living 427, 456, 464, 535, 693, 780, 983, 998, by indulgences 723a, 729, 1542, C911, especially by the sacrifice of the Mass 427, 693, 983, 1469.

#456, from Innocent IV and the Council of Lyons, 1254, covers the same ground already laid on this page, but adds an explanation of why the Church uses the term Purgatory:

" . . . to affirm that the souls of those who after a penance has been received yet not performed, or who, without mortal sin yet die with venial and slight sin, can be cleansed after death and can be helped by the suffrages of the Church, we, since they say a place of purgation of this kind has not been indicated to them with a certain and proper name by their teachers, we indeed, calling it Purgatory according to the traditions and authority of the Holy Fathers, wish that in the future it be called by that name . . . For in that transitory fire certainly sins, though not criminal or capital, which before have not been remitted through penance but were small and minor sins, are cleansed, and these weigh heavily even after death, if they have been forgiven in this life."

#570s, from Clement VI, 1351 in a letter to the Armenians:

"We ask if you have believed and now believe that there is a Purgatory to which depart the souls of those dying in grace who have not yet made complete satisfaction for their sins. Also, if you have believed and now believe that they will be tortured by fire for a time and that as soon as they are cleansed, even before the day of judgment, they may come to the true and eternal beatitude which consists in the vision of God face to face and in love."

The letter consisted of many questions on the Faith to the Consolator, the Catholicon of the Armenians, all under the title of the Primacy of Peter or the Papacy. Apparently there was some question on this from those quarters and the problem touched on points of doctrine, including Purgatory.

#693, from Eugenius IV, the Council of Florence, 1438-1445 in a decree to the Greeks, also concerning the Primacy of Peter among other points of doctrine, including Purgatory, note the use of the word, define, meaning declaring infallibly:

" . . . It is likewise defined that, if those truly penitent have departed in the love of God, before they have made satisfaction by worthy fruits of penance for sins of commission and omission, the souls of these are cleansed after death by purgatorial punishments; and so that they may be released from punishments of this kind, the suffrages of the living faithful are of advantage to them, namely, the sacrifices of Masses, prayers, and almsgiving, and other works of piety, which are customarily performed by the taithful for other faithful according to the institutions of the Church. And that the souls of those, who after the reception of Baptism have incurred no stain of sin at all, and also those, who after the contraction of the stain of sin whether in their bodies, or when released from the same bodies, as we have said before, are purged, are immediately received into Heaven, and see clearly the one and triune God Himself, just as He is, yet according to the diversity of merits, one more perfectly than another. Moreover, the souls of those who depart in actual mortal sin or in Original Sin only, descend immediately into Hell but to undergo punishments of different kinds."

#840 and # 993 is from the Council of Trent, the first an anathema for those denying the doctrine on Purgatory and the other from the Deceee on Purgatory;  #998, from the Council of Trent, the Profession of Faith, whereby one must believe in Purgatory; #427, concerns the Profession of Faith of the Waldensians in 1205; #744, 777-780, concern the Bull, Exsurge Domine of 1520, the Lateran Council V, on the Errors of Martin Luther. This bull reads much like the Syllabus of Errors of Bl. Pius IX, that is a list of propositions [sections cited here: on Purgatory and related doctrine] that are condemned.

 And so forth.  Space does not permit the details on all citation numbers. Those so interested in acquiring this invaluable resource, can purchase Denzinger [Denzinger's Enchirdion or Sources of Catholic Dogma] HERE.



Many of the Saints tell about Purgatory. St. Gregory of Nyssa says: "The stains which the soul has received during its sojurn in the body must be removed by the purging fire." Certainly our prayers should include the Souls in Purgatory, because the Church allows us to apply many indulgences to them, and because Saints like Francis of Rome tell how "they are comforted by the prayers of the faithful on earth, and the blessed in Heaven and, by the visits of the holy Angels." St. Catherine of Genoa explains how they are able to bear suffering when she says: "The consciousness that they are making atonement to God and suffering for Him makes them courageous as Martyrs."


Why are souls sent by God to suffer in Purgatory? The Council of Trent answers our question by saying that whoever does not satisfy completely for his sins on earth must do so in Purgatory.

Theologians distinguish between the eternal and the temporal punishment due to sin. The man who commits a mortal sin deserves Hell because he has cut himself off from all friendship with Almighty God. In sinning gravely he at the same time acquires the eternal punishment of Hell. However, if he confesses his sin, or if confession is impossible at the time, he has perfect contrition and the intention of going to confession as soon as possible, the eternal punishment is removed. But even after the eternal punishment is removed theologians say that there remains a temporal punishment. In other words, friendship with God is re-established but not perfectly because some stain of sin remains and must be removed either in this life or in the life to come.

That is to say, we have two ways of removing temporal punishment:
1) by making use of indulgences, by mortification and charitable works, or
2) by suffering for a time in Purgatory.

In case of venial sins theologians teach practically the same thing. Although there is no eternal punishment attached to them, there is a temporal punishment which must be removed before the soul is able to enjoy the Vision of God in eternity.



What are the punishments of Purgatory? There are two: the pain of loss and the pain of sense. It is easy to understand the pain of loss because the soul has been freed from the body and would normally go directly to its God, but because it is not fit to appear before God and enjoy His Presence, it must remain in Purgatory until it is ready. The pain of sense is understood to be a fire similar to the fire found in Hell. According to St. Thomas Aquinas there is no distinction between the torments of Hell and those of Purgatory, except that the first is eternal. "The same fire" says St. Augustine, "burns the lost and the saved." And he goes on to tell how the pains of Purgatory are greater than the sufferings of all the Martyrs. St. Cyril of Alexandria teaches: "All the tortures that one can conceive of in this world are refreshing compared with the least pain of Purgatory." As we would expect, St. Augustine assures us that those who were more attached to the goods of this world and those who on earth had grown old in sin, must spend a longer time in Purgatory.

In the revelations of Catherine Emmerich it is recorded that Our Lord descends into Purgatory every Good Friday and frees one or more souls who had witnessed His Passion. Saints like St. Bridget saw souls suffering most in those things in which they had sinned most, and St. Margaret of Cortona was favored with a revelation in which she saw those who could not be released from Purgatory until the evil they had done on earth had been made good.

We are not considering the pains of Purgatory in order to convince ourselves that it is futile to fight against sin, or to frighten ourselves. Rather, we consider Purgatory and its pain because such knowledge will develop in us a healthy hatred for every sin, even the venial sins we so often ignore. Knowing the frailty of our nature, we know how difficult it is to avoid every venial sin, but remember that we have the answer; we know how to remove the temporal punishments due to sin by making use of the many condonations or indulgences given by Holy Clurch.

<----------- E-Mail ------------>

HOME------------------------CATHOLIC CLASSICS------------------------TRADITION