The literal meaning of purgatory is cleansing or purifying. According to the Roman Catholic belief and doctrine, it is an agonizing stage of purification of the souls of sinners before their full enjoyment of heaven. The Catholic church upholds it based on the Bible, tradition of the church, and the doctrines of the Councils of Florence and Trent (CCC-1031). The Catholic church teaches the stage of purgatory and relevance for prayer for the departed souls. As humans, almost all are not worthy of entering heaven immediately after death. God would not deny eternal salvation for the “imperfectly purified.” “After death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” (CCC-1030).
Even before Christ’s incarnation, Jews prayed for the response of the faithful departed. During the Maccabean revolt, Judas and his companions found amulets sacred to the idols of Jamnia under the tunic of the fallen soldiers. “They prayed that the sinful deed might be fully blotted out” (2 Macc 12:42). “He then took up a collection among all his soldiers, amounting to two thousand silver drachmas, which he sent to Jerusalem to provide for an expiatory sacrifice. In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection in mind; for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead” (2 Macc 12:43-44). “Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be absolved from their sin” (2 Mcc12:46). So, even before Christ, there was the belief of purgatory and need to pray for them.
While speaking of the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, Jesus said, “whoever speaks 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” (Mt 12:32). “From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come” (CCC-1031).
(Ref. Luke 12:59) “I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny.” This parable is a biblical proof for the existence of purgatory. In the parable, the accused person is not in prison for lifelong but until he paid the last penny, the least valuable coin. Most humans are gray, and not black or white in their spiritual status. Though sins are forgiven or absolved through sacraments, especially sacrament of reconciliation and anointing of the sick, the stains of sins are to be cleansed and compensations are to be made.
Though Jesus speaks of eternal punishment for grave sinners, there are others whose punishment will be temporary. In the parable on “Settlement with an Opponent,” Jesus says, if you do not settle the dispute with your opponent before you reach the magistrate, you will end up in prison and “you will not be released until you have paid the last penny” (Lk 12:57-59). In the parable of the unforgiving servant, Jesus concluded, “in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt” (Mt 18:34). In these parables, the accused persons are not in prison for lifelong but until they paid the last penny, the least valuable coin. Since there is an opportunity to compensate for the mistakes, the church recommends prayers and charity works as compensation for the venial sins of the deceased faithful.
Paul speaks of a test on the day of judgement in fire. He says “the fire itself will test the quality of each one’s work” (1 Cor 3:13). “If someone’s work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor 3:15). There is salvation for those who die in minor sins. They will reach the perfection in heaven after a stage of purification.
The prayer for the deceased has been a church tradition. The Catholic church encourages that tradition based on the Bible and tradition of the church. “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. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead: Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them” (CCC-1032).
Through the grace of baptism, all Christians are eligible to enter the Kingdom of God. However, the heaven can admit only holy people. Because of human weakness, we are prone to sin. God is not cruel to send all to eternal punishment. Though we do not know the exact nature of the afterlife, the Bible gives us hope and glimpses of heavenly glory. With that hope, while leading a virtuous life, let us pray for our deceased faithful.