Fr. Scott A. Haynes
Because God is perfect, Heaven has to be a perfect place, and nothing imperfect can enter (Revelation 21:27). God cannot join Himself to anything defiled. If a person dies with venial sins on his soul, his direct entry into Heaven is prevented by his lack of perfection. Souls who die in a state of sanctifying grace but with venial sin need a time to make atonement to God. This would be a temporary place, as stated in St. Matthew 5:25-26:
"You shall not come out until you have paid the last penny."
Reading this passage, we tend to focus on the concept of paying back God in strict justice for the offense of our sins. This image sticks in man's conscience, as we envision making perfect restitution to the Lord, even to the last penny. But just before this, St. Matthew tells us that we "shall not come out..." Come out of where you may ask?
After Adam's sin, the gates of Heaven were closed, and no one was allowed to enter (St. John 3:13) until Jesus Christ redeemed the human race and opened the gates once again. Where were the spirits of Moses and Elias, who appeared and spoke with Jesus at the transfiguration (St. Matthew 17:3)? They could not have been in Heaven since it was closed, and they would have been lost had they been in hell. They had to have been in a third place. If there was a third place then, why not a third place now?
What about Lazarus? He was already dead four days (St. John 11:17) when Jesus arrived at his tomb. Where was his soul during those four days? It could not be heaven or hell for the same reasons as for Moses and Elias. His soul had to have been in a third place. Non-Catholic theologians struggle trying to reconcile their denial of the existence of Purgatory with what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 3:12-15:
"Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire."
To whom do these verses refer? Obviously, the person is not in hell, as verse 15 says "himself will be saved". He cannot be in heaven either as the same verse implies suffering, "as through fire", and there is no suffering in heaven. These verses say that man will be purified by fire and then will be saved to enter Heaven. Where will this, "yet as though through fire", take place if not in a third place called Purgatory? The Greek word used for fire is "pursw" (puroo) of which "pur" is the root word for Purgatory. The Prophet Malachi writes:
"And who shall be able to think of the day of his coming? and who shall stand to see him? for he is like a refining fire." (Malachi 2:2).
The Book of Proverbs further states:
"As silver is tried by fire, and gold in the furnace, so the Lord tries the heart." (Proverbs 17:3).
The metal refiner watches the silver, for if the process is longer than necessary, the silver will be harmed, as the Prophet Malachi teaches:
"He shall sit refining and cleansing the silver. And he shall purify the sons of Levi, and shall refine them as gold, and as silver..." (Malachi 3:3.)
The Lord knows the process is complete when He can see His own image reflected in the silver. For God said in Genesis:
"Let us make mankind in our own image and likeness." (Genesis 1:26)
Orthodox Christians hold belief in a purification of soul after death but have not adopted the use of the word purgatory. This matter was addressed by Pope Innocent IV, Letter to the Bishop of Tusculum, stated that:
“The Greeks themselves unhesitatingly believe and maintain that the souls of those who do not perform a penance which they have received, or the souls of those who die free from mortal sins but with even the slightest venial sins, are purified after death and can be helped by the prayers of the Church. Since the Greeks say that their Doctors have not given them a definite and proper name for the place of such purification, We, following the tradition and authority of the holy Fathers, call that place purgatory; and it is Our will that the Greeks use that name in the future. For sins are truly purified by that temporal fire—not grievous or capital sins which have not first been remitted by penance, but small and slight sins which remain a burden after death, if they have not been pardoned during life.”
Not until the later stages of the Reformation was the doctrine of purgatory rejected outright. Martin Luther, as late as 1519, had said that the existence of purgatory was undeniable. This view held sway until 1530 when he lessened his support, saying that its existence could not be proven. He later rejected it that same year. In 1543, however, he permitted the insertion of prayers for the dead in the official edition of his church directory. While Luther wavered on the existence of purgatory, the Christians for the previous 1,500 years held that purgatory existed and so did the Jews before that.
The English Reformer, King Henry VIII, who established his own Church of England, asked that Catholic Requiem Masses be offered for his soul and left large sums of money for daily Masses to be said for his soul until the end of the world. But the Protestant rulers of King Edward VI’s government stopped the Masses after a year.
If there are only Heaven and hell, why then does Scripture ask us to pray for the dead? If the dead are in hell, prayer is useless. If the dead are in Heaven, prayer is not needed. Therefore, there has to be a third place where prayers are needed. St. Paul prayed for his dead friend Onesiphorus in 2 Timothy 1:18:
"May the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that day." Why would Paul pray for the dead if he thought his friend to be in heaven or hell where prayers would help neither?
The greatest torment in Purgatory is to be separated from the Beatific Vision of God for a period of time. Remember, in this life we have five senses, and they are always a distraction for us when we try to concentrate on things of God through prayer. After we leave this life, we are spirit and have lost the five senses of the body. There are no more distractions. Purgatory should be regarded as a great blessing from God. Even though souls there are in torment, it is only a temporary and sanctifying torment. All who go there are assured of eventually gaining the Kingdom of Heaven.
One of the most meritorious acts that we can perform on earth is to aid the souls in purgatory. St. Francis de Sales teaches us to make sacrifices for the poor souls in the spirit of charity:
"With Charity towards the dead we practice all the works of charity. The Church encourages us to aid the souls in purgatory, who in turn will reward us abundantly when they come into their glory."