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Purgatory, according to Catholic Church doctrine, is an intermediate state after physical death in which those destined for heaven “undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven”. Only those who die in the state of grace but have not in life reached a sufficient level of holiness can be in Purgatory, and therefore no one in Purgatory will remain forever in that state or go to hell. This theological notion has ancient roots and is well-attested in early Christian literature, but the poetic conception of Purgatory as a geographically existing 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 it is not often called “Purgatory”, but the “final purification” or the “final theosis”); Anglicans of the Anglo-Catholic tradition generally also hold to the belief, along with many Lutherans of High Church Lutheranism. 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. 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
Main article: History of Purgatory
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 Christ, to the worldwide practice of caring for the dead and praying for them, and to the belief, found also in Judaism, which is considered the precursor of Christianity, 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 after-life purification is based on the practice of praying for the dead, which is mentioned in what the Roman Catholic Church has declared to be part of Sacred Scripture, and which was adopted by Christians from the beginning, a practice that presupposes that the dead are thereby assisted between death and their entry into their final abode.
Belief in after-life “temporary punishments agreeable to every one’s behaviour and manners” was expressed in the early Christian work in Greek known as Josephus’s Discourse to the Greeks concerning Hades, which was once attributed to Josephus (37 – c. 100) but is now believed to be by Hippolytus of Rome (170–235).
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. Of the early Church Fathers, Origen says that “He who comes to be saved, comes to be saved through [a] fire” that burns away sins and worldliness like lead, leaving behind only pure gold. St. Ambrose of Milan speaks of a kind of “baptism of fire” which is located at the entrance to Heaven, and through which all must pass, at the end of the world. Pope St. Gregory the Great says that the belief in Purgatory is “established” (constat), and “to be believed” (credendum), insisting however, that the Purgatorial fire can only purify away minor transgressions, not “iron, bronze, or lead,” or other “hardened” (duriora) sins. By this he meant that attachments to sin, habits of sin, and even venial sins could be removed in Purgatory, but not mortal sin, which, according to Catholic doctrine, causes eternal damnation. 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 found in poetic literature) at the First Council of Lyon (1245), Second Council of Lyon (1274), the Council of Florence (1438–1445), and the Council of Trent (1545–63).
Some churches, typically those with a more “Catholic” structure, recognize the doctrine of Purgatory, while many Protestant and Eastern Orthodox churches would not use the same terminology, the former on the basis of their own sola scriptura doctrine, combined with their exclusion of 2 Maccabees from the Bible. The latter because the Orthodox Churches consider Purgatory a non-essential doctrine.
The Catholic Church gives the name Purgatory to the final purification of all who die in God’s grace and friendship, but are still imperfectly purified. Though Purgatory is often pictured as a place rather than a process of purification, the idea of purgatory as a physical place with time is not part of the Church’s doctrine.
Heaven and Hell
A depiction of purgatory by Venezuelan painter Cristóbal Rojas
(1890) representing the boundary between heaven (above) and hell (below)
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, envisioned as a paradise of eternal joy, where Theosis is completed and one experiences the beatific vision of God. Conversely, others (those who die in hatred of God and Christ) reach a state called Hell, that is eternal separation from God often envisioned as an abode of never ending, fiery torment, a fire sometimes considered to be metaphorical.
Role in relation to sin
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 and hateful of Christ as to be destined for hell either. Such souls, ultimately destined to be united with God in heaven, must first be cleansed through purgatory – a state of purification. Through purgatory, souls “achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven”.
Mortal sin incurs both temporal punishment and eternal punishment, venial sin incurs only temporal punishment. The Catholic Church makes a distinction between these two types of sin. Mortal sin is a “sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent”, 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, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back”.
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. However, since venial sin weakens charity, manifests a disordered affection for created goods, and impedes the soul’s progress in the exercise of the virtues and the practice of the moral good, it merits temporal punishment.
According to Catholicism, purification from our sinful tendencies can occur during life. The situation has been compared to that of someone who needs to be cleansed of any addiction. As from any addiction, rehabilitation from the “disordered affection for created goods” will be a gradual and probably painful process. It can be advanced during life by voluntary self-mortification and penance and by deeds of generosity that show love of God rather than of creatures. After death, a cleansing process can be recognized as a still necessary preparation for entering the divine presence.
The writings of Saint Catherine of Genoa explain: “As for paradise, God has placed no doors there. Whoever wishes to enter, does so. All-merciful God stands there with His arms open, waiting to receive us into His glory. I also see, however, that the divine presence is so pure and light-filled – much more than we can imagine – that the soul that has but the slightest imperfection would rather throw itself into a thousand hells than appear thus before the divine presence. Tongue cannot express nor heart understand the full meaning of purgatory, which the soul willingly accepts as a mercy the realization that that suffering is of no importance compared to the removal of the impediment of sin.”
Pain and fire
Purgatory is commonly regarded as a cleansing by way of painful temporal punishment, which, like the eternal punishment of hell, is associated with the idea of fire. While “pain of the senses” (as opposed to “pain of longing” for the Beatific Vision) is not doctrinally defined as being a part of Purgatory, the overwhelming consensus of theologians has been that it does involve pain of the senses. 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 soul St. Gregory of Nyssa also wrote about the purging fire.
purified by flames in purgatory
Another image of souls
being purified by flames in purgatory. 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 among theologians. 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.”
Prayer for the dead and indulgences
Main articles: Prayer for the dead
and Indulgences Catacomb inscriptions include prayers for the dead.
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
Statute of Our Lady of Mount Camel Statue of Our Lady of Mount Carmel with souls in purgatory begging the intercession of Mary In the same context there is mention of the practice of indulgences. An indulgence is a remission before God, through the mediation of the Church, 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. Despite popular perception, the Catholic Church has never taught that indulgences forgive any sins, for this is God’s jurisdiction alone. Any persons who have taught that acts of charity such as indulgences can forgive sins have been condemned as heretics by the Catholic Church. It is also a heretical position to suggest that indulgences are applied no matter how strong a Christian may be in his faith. An indulgence is dependent (or any act of charity for that matter) on the present faith of the individual Christian (see Johann Tetzel).
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
Dante gazes at purgatory (shown as a mountain) in this 16th-century painting.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 what he called Purgatory’s “torture chambers”, and was widely believed, including by the Church historian Roger of Wendover.
In Dante’s fourteenth century work La divina commedia (The Divine Comedy), Purgatory is depicted as a mountain in the southern hemisphere. It is apparently the only land there. Souls who loved God and man half-heartedly 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 force 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 referred to Purgatory as “a condition of existence”, implying that it is most likely not an actual physical location or place, but is a state wherein “those who, after death, exist in a state of purification, are already in the love of Christ who removes from them the remnants of imperfection.”
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.”