Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
Last time, in this space, we left off with a common notion concerning Purgatory, namely:
Wasn't Purgatory unheard of in Scripture and only invented in the Dark Ages?
No. Just the term "Purgatory" arose after the time of the apostles, just as the terms "Trinity", "Christianity", "Second Coming", and "Bible" did. But the idea of Purgatory was already present in the period before Jesus was born. So, for instance, we find a Jewish hero named Judas Maccabeus, about a century and a half before Jesus, praying for the dead and specifically asking they be forgiven their sins after they have died (2 Maccabees 12: 43-45). This practice, known as the "kaddish", continues in Judaism to this day and was well-established among Jews in Jesus' own time. Likewise, we find the New Testament frequently assuming the existence of Purgatory. Jesus, during his time in the grave, is said by Peter to have "preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey" (1 Peter 3: 18-20). Similarly, Jesus teaches that certain sins (notably unforgiveness) will be liable to judgment and imprisonment in the next. But he also implies this punishment is not necessarily eternal: "Truly I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny" (Mt. 5:21-26). Such imagery fits neither heaven (where there are no prisons) nor hell (where there is neither repentance nor "getting out", and therefore no point in preaching). It does, however, fit Purgatory.
Jesus also implies the existence of Purgatory or "forgiveness in the age to come" when he tells his disciples "Whoever says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come" (Matthew 12:32). The Church after Jesus did not, therefore, "invent" Purgatory. On the contrary, it simply repeated and clarified what Jesus and the apostles had taught them concerning the promise of hope for the afterlife.
What does Purgatory mean for us today?
It means what it has always meant: hope! The good news of the gospel was proclaimed long ago by Jesus:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord." (Luke 4:18-19).
Purgatory is the assurance that there will, in the end, be absolutely nothing to dim the mirror of our lives from reflecting the glory of God. We, who have been captive to sin for so long, will be released. Moreover, as sharers in the life of Christ, we have an extraordinary promise from him. For he tells us, "Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father." (John 14:12). In other words, we not only receive grace from him, we do his works of grace with him, for we are "fellow workers" with Christ (1 Corinthians 3:9). This means (among other things) that, as he prays for us, so we can pray for one another with his power and authority. And such prayers can be made not only for the living, but for the dead as well. We can, therefore, help those in Purgatory who are still being purified, just as we can help those on earth-by our prayers and offerings of love, especially in the mass. For, as Paul tells us, "we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another" (Romans 12:5). That unity with God and with each other is not severed by death. Therefore, we can continue to pray for those who have died with the hope of Christ that our prayers will be of real help to them as we "bear one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2). It's all there in Scripture.