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I am just back from a wonderful evening spent with 50 people who are on a journey of discovery about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. It was a mix of Catholics, Protestants and several non-Christians.

It was simply a great group, and they had many interesting and deep questions about the topic of the night which was the subject of the previous post called- The last 5 Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, Purgatory & Hell.

Much of our discussion was around the Catholic Doctrine of Purgatory. I promised this post to provide some more detail on this teaching, and I am happy to do so with a bit of a warning to those inquiring into the faith.

Warning – Doctrines are not as simple as they appear.

If you want to explore it further here are just a few places to get you started, and I am sure that the farther you go the more questions you will find. You have been warned!

First of all -A Doctrine can be defined as (Latin: doctrina) a codification of beliefs or a body of teachings or instructions, taught principles or positions, as the body of teachings in a branch of knowledge or belief system. The Greek analogy is the etymology of catechism.

In the talk I mentioned that each Catholic doctrine has a history and they evolve over time and through the wisdom of the Church’s teaching authority and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  If you are a history buff or want to learn how these things are connected then there is much to study.

That said- What about Purgatory?

Here is one explanation from New Advent, The Catholic Encyclopedia:

Purgatory (Lat., “purgare”, to make clean, to purify) in accordance with Catholic teaching is a place or condition of temporal punishment for those who, departing this life in God’s grace, are, not entirely free from venial faults, or have not fully paid the satisfaction due to their transgressions.

The faith of the Church concerning purgatory is clearly expressed in the Decree of Union drawn up by the Council of Florence (Mansi, t. XXXI, col. 1031), and in the decree of the Council of Trent which (Sess. XXV) defined:

“Whereas the Catholic Church, instructed by the Holy Ghost, has from the Sacred Scriptures and the ancient tradition of the Fathers taught in Councils and very recently in this Ecumenical synod (Sess. VI, cap. XXX; Sess. XXII cap.ii, iii) that there is a purgatory, and that the souls therein are helped by the suffrages of the faithful, but principally by the acceptable Sacrifice of the Altar; the Holy Synod enjoins on the Bishops that they diligently endeavor to have the sound doctrine of the Fathers in Councils regarding purgatory everywhere taught and preached, held and believed by the faithful” (Denzinger, “Enchiridon”, 983).

In case that is not clear our next stop -the Catechism of the Catholic Church:


1030 All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.

1031 The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned.604 The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire:605

As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come.606

1032 This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture: “Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.”607 From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God.608 The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead:

And finally the History of purgatory according to Wikipedia- (Note: I know about the limitations of Wikipedia, but it is just so darn readable. I am sure the dates of the councils, here are pretty accurate, but, just to be safe I have linked to the Catholic Encyclopedia which provides a comprehensive (i.e. long)  description of each event. )

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[10] (what Jacques Le Goff called the “birth” of purgatory),[11] 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,[12] 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.[1] Roman Catholic belief in purgatory is based, among other reasons, on the previous Jewish practice of prayer for the dead,[13] a practice that presupposes that the dead are thereby assisted between death and their entry into their final abode.[1]

The English Roman Catholic scholar Cardinal John Henry Newman argued that the essence of the doctrine is locatable in ancient tradition, and that the core consistency of such beliefs are evidence that Christianity was “originally given to us from heaven”.[14] Roman Catholics consider the teaching on purgatory to be part of the faith derived from the revelation of Jesus Christ that was preached by the apostles. Theologians and other Christians then developed the doctrine regarding purgatory over the centuries, leading to the definition of the formal doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church on the matter (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).

There you go- more about Purgatory than you ever wanted to know. Just for fun you might want to look up prayers in suffrage for the dead and see how this ties into the doctrine of Purgatory.

Remember, I warned  you that doctrines are not as simple as they appear.

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