Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Holy Souls

November 2013 FGO by Bro. Jason Rhoad:
The month of November is dedicated to the holy souls in purgatory, so I thought it would a great time to go over what the Church teaches about this doctrine. It is safe to say that purgatory is perhaps one of the most misunderstood and most often challenged teachings of the Church. Even among Catholics, it is a source of confusion.

Let us begin by explaining what it is not. Purgatory is not a second chance. It is not somewhere we can go after we die that gives us a second chance to be saved. At the moment of our death, we will face our particular judgment and we will know immediately what our eternal destination will be. Purgatory is also not an eternal third place where people go who are not good enough to go to heaven, but not bad enough to go to hell. At the end of time when Christ returns and time gives way to eternity, purgatory will no longer exist. Only heaven and hell will remain.

So what is purgatory then? The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains it this way "purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven," which is experienced by those who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified" (CCC 1030). This purification is necessary because scripture teaches us in Rev 21:27 that nothing unclean shall enter heaven. Yet we know that we are all sinners and sin is incompatible with heaven. Therefore we must be perfectly purified after death, but before entering heaven. The Church gives the term purgatory (from the root word purge) to explain this process of being purified after death.

One of the common objections against this teaching is that the Catholic Church invented the doctrine later on. The only trouble with that is that the objectors can’t agree on just when that occurred. In fact, any date that is proposed for its invention can be debunked by pointing to evidence of its teaching earlier than the proposed date. It is true that the term “purgatory” may not have appeared right away, but that has no bearing on the belief that is behind the term. The Church was teaching about final purification after death and the need to pray for the dead before the word purgatory came to be used to describe this reality. Nor does the fact that the word is not in the bible have any bearing on whether or not the teaching is present there. For instance, the words bible, trinity, and incarnation are not in the bible either. But all Christians agree that their underlying truths are all there, even if better words to describe those truths weren’t used until later.

The fact of the matter is that prayers for the dead go back to the earliest of Christian times. The writings in the catacombs of Rome dating to the 1st and 2nd centuries clearly show that the early Christians were employing this practice. If the deceased were in heaven, they would need no prayers and if they were in hell, no prayers could help them. All throughout the early centuries of Christianity, we see evidence of this teaching. For instance, in the 4th century, we see St. Monica asking her son Augustine to offer masses for her soul once she dies.

Another key piece of evidence that this teaching goes back to the earliest of Christian times is the fact that at no point do we ever see protests against it. We know that the early church and the church throughout the centuries certainly challenged new teachings. They wanted do know if a teaching was something that was believed by their ancestors or if it was made up later on. Was this something handed down from the Apostles? Surely purgatory would have been considered a big time change if it had not been believed from the beginning. Yet, we see no protests. It was not uncommon for councils to be called to settle disputes like this. But we see absolutely no evidence of dispute at all.

But what about the bible? Is purgatory scriptural? This can actually lead to a larger discussion about the fact that nowhere in the bible does it say that everything to be believed and practice has to be explicitly taught in the pages of scripture. But even so, the answer is yes, purgatory is indeed scriptural. In Mt 12:32 Jesus refers to the sinner who will not be forgiven in this age or in the age to come. This implies that one can be freed from the consequences of their sins after death. Also in Mt 5:26, Jesus refers to the sinner who will not be released until he has paid the last penny. Perhaps a clearer reference to this reality comes from Paul in 1 Cor 3:15. Here we see Paul describing the day of judgment and how ones works are tried after their death. What happens to the righteous man if his works don’t pass muster? “He will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.” This loss can’t refer to hell because no one is saved there. And he can’t be in heaven because there is no suffering (fire) there. So where is this man? The Catholic doctrine of purgatory is the only thing that explains this passage.

We know too that belief in prayers for the dead pre-dates Christianity. The Jews also practiced this before the time of Christ. We see in 2 Maccabees 12:43-45 a direct approval of prayer for the dead: “"In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection of the dead in view; for if he were not expecting the dead to rise again, it would have been useless and foolish to pray for them in death. But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from this sin.”

This verse so clearly teaches the doctrine of purgatory that at the time of the reformation, the reformers removed this book of the bible from their version of scriptures in order to avoid believing in the doctrine. It is clear that purgatory was a teaching that has its roots in the OT and was believed in from the earliest of Christian times. The Catholic Church did not add this teaching at some point in its history. Rather, it was the Protestants who changed on this doctrine that had always been believed by Christians and by Jews before them. So armed with this knowledge, let us not forget our brothers and sisters in purgatory. The church triumphant in heaven, the church suffering in purgatory, and the church militant here on earth are all one church. We should always then, especially during the month of November, remember the holy souls in purgatory in our prayers and in our acts of penance. One day, if we persevere and leave this world in God’s friendship, it will be us who will want and need the prayers of those still on earth to aid in our purification. So let us never cease to offer ours for those there now.

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