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The Faith of Our Fathers


The Faith of Our Fathers

XVI. Purgatory and Prayers for the Dead

The Catholic Church teaches that, besides a place of eternal torments for the wicked and of everlasting rest for the righteous, there exists in the next life a middle state of temporary punishment, allotted for those who have died in venial sin, or who have not satisfied the justice of God for sins already forgiven. She also teaches us that, although the souls consigned to this intermediate state, commonly called purgatory, cannot help themselves, they may be aided by the suffrages of the faithful on earth. The existence of purgatory naturally implies the correlative dogma--the utility of praying for the dead--for the souls consigned to this middle state have not reached the term of their journey. They are still exiles from heaven and fit subjects for Divine clemency.

The doctrine of an intermediate state is thus succinctly asserted by the Council of Trent: "There is a Purgatory, and souls there detained, are helped by the prayers of the faithful, and especially by the acceptable Sacrifice of the Altar."[Sess. xxv.]

It is to be noted that the Council studiously abstains from specifying the nature of the expiating sufferings endured therein.

It is not strange that this cherished doctrine should also be called in question by the leveling innovators of the sixteenth century, when we consider that it is clearly taught in the Old Testament; that it is, at least, insinuated in the New Testament; that it is unanimously proclaimed by the Fathers of the Church; that it is embodied in all the ancient liturgies of the Oriental and the Western church, and that it is a doctrine alike consonant with our reason and eminently consoling to the human heart?

First--It is a doctrine plainly contained in the Old Testament and piously practiced by the Hebrew people. At the close of an engagement which Judas Machabeus had with the enemy he ordered prayers and sacrifices to be offered up for his slain comrades. "And making a gathering, he sent twelve thousand drachms of silver to Jerusalem for sacrifice to be offered for the sins of the dead, thinking well and religiously concerning the resurrection. For, if he had not hoped that they that were slain should rise again, it would have seemed superfluous and vain to pray for the dead. ... It is, therefore, a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins."[II. Mach. xii. 43-46.]

These words are so forcible that no comment of mine could render them clearer. The passage proved a great stumbling-block to the Reformers. Finding that they could not by any evasion weaken the force of the text, they impiously threw overboard the Books of Machabees, like a man who assassinates a hostile witness, or like the Jews who sought to kill Lazarus, lest his resurrection should be a testimony in favor of Christ, and pretended that the two books of Machabees were apocryphal. And yet they have precisely the same authority as the Gospel of St. Matthew or any other portion of the Bible, for the canonicity of the Holy Scriptures rests solely on the authority of the Catholic Church, which proclaimed them inspired.

But even admitting, for the sake of argument, that the Books of Machabees were not entitled to be ranked among the canonical Books of Holy Scripture, no one, at least, has ever denied that they are truthful historical monuments, and as such that they serve to demonstrate that it was a prevailing practice among the Hebrew people, as it is with us, to offer up prayers and sacrifices for the dead.

Second--When our Savior, the Founder of the New Law, appeared on earth, He came to lop off those excrescences which had grown on the body of the Jewish ecclesiastical code, and to purify the Jewish Church from those human traditions which, in the course of time, became like tares mixed with the wheat of sound doctrine. For instance, He condemns the Pharisees for prohibiting the performance of works of charity on the Sabbath day, and in the twenty-third chapter of St. Matthew He cites against them a long catalogue of innovations in doctrine and discipline.

But did our Lord, at any time, reprove the Jews for their belief in a middle state, or for praying for the dead, a practice to which, to His knowledge, prevailed among the people? Never. On the contrary, more than once both He and the Apostle of the Gentiles insinuate the doctrine of purgatory.

Our Savior says: "Whosoever shall speak a word against the Son of man it shall be forgiven him. But he that shall speak against the Holy Ghost it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world nor in the world to come."[Matt. xii. 32.] When our Savior declares that a sin against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven in the next life, He evidently leaves us to infer that there are some sins which will be pardoned in the life to come. Now in the next life, sins cannot be forgiven in heaven, for, nothing defiled can enter there; nor can they be forgiven in hell, for, out of hell there is no redemption. They must, therefore, be pardoned in the intermediate state of Purgatory.

St. Paul tells us that "every man's work shall be manifest" on the Lord's day. "The fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is. If any man's work abide," that is, if his works are holy, "he shall receive a reward. If any man's work burn," that is, if his works are faulty and imperfect, "he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as by fire."[I. Cor. iii. 13-15.] His soul will be ultimately saved, but he shall suffer, for a temporary duration, in the purifying flames of Purgatory.

This interpretation is not mine. It is the unanimous voice of the Fathers of Christendom. And who are they that have removed the time-honored landmarks of Christian faith by rejecting the doctrine of purgatory? The are discontented churchmen impatient of the religious yoke, men who appeared on the stage sixteen hundred years after the foundation of Christianity. Judge you, reader, whom you ought to follow. If you want to know the true import of a vital question in the Constitution, would you not follow the decision of a Story, a Jefferson, a Marshall, a Taney, jurists and statesmen, who were the recognized expounders of the Constitution? Would you not prefer their opinion to that of political demagogues, who have neither learning, nor authority, nor history to support them, but some selfish end to further? Now, the same motive which you have for rejecting the opinion of an ignorant politician and embracing that of eminent jurists, on a constitutional question, impels you to case aside the novelties of religious innovators and to follow the unanimous sentiments of the Fathers in reference to the subject of purgatory.

Third--I would wish to place before you extended extracts from the writings of the early Fathers of the Church bearing upon this subject; but I must content myself with quoting a few of the most prominent lights of primitive Christianity.

Tertullian, who lived in the second century, says that "the faithful wife will pray for the soul of her deceased husband, particularly on the anniversary day of his falling asleep (death). And if she fail to do so she hath repudiated her husband as far as in her lies."[De Monogam., n. x.]

Eusebius, the historian (fourth century), describing the funeral of Constantine the Great, says that the body of the blessed prince was placed on a lofty bier, and the ministers of God and the multitude of the people, with tears and much lamentation, offered up prayers and sacrifice for the repose of his soul. He adds that this was done in accordance with the desires of that religious monarch, who had erected in Constantinople the great church in honor of the Apostles, so that after his death the faithful might there remember him.[Euseb., B. iv., c. 71.]

St. Cyril of Jerusalem, fourth century, writes: "We commemorate the Holy Fathers, and Bishops, and all who have fallen asleep from amongst us, believing that the supplications which we present will be of great assistance to their souls, while the holy and tremendous Sacrifice is offered up." He answers by an illustration those that might be disposed to doubt the efficacy of prayers for the dead: "If a king had banished certain persons who had offended him, and their relations, having woven a crown, should offer it to him in behalf of those under his vengeance, would he not grant a respite to their punishments? So we, in offering up a crown of prayers in behalf of those who have fallen asleep, will obtain for them forgiveness though the merits of Christ."[Catech., n. 9, 10, p. 328.]

St. Ephrem, in the same century, says: "I conjure you, my brethren and friends, in the name of that God who commands me to leave you, to remember me when you assemble to pray. Do not bury me with perfumes. Give them not to me, but to God. Me, conceived in sorrows, bury with lamentations, and instead of perfumes assist me with your prayers; for the dead are benefited by the prayers of living Saints."[Apud Faith of Catholics, Vol. III, p. 162 and seq.]

St. Ambrose (same century), on the death of the Emperors Gratian and Valentinian, says: "Blessed shall both of you be (Gratian and Valentinian), if my prayers can avail anything. No day shall pass you over in silence. No prayer of mine shall omit to honor you. No night shall hurry by without bestowing on you a mention in my prayers. In every one of the oblations will I remember you." On the death of the Emperor Theodosius he offers the following prayer: "Give perfect rest to Thy servant Theodosius, that rest which Thou hast prepared for Thy Saints. May his soul return thither whence it descended, where it cannot feel the sting of death. ... I loved him and therefore will I follow him, even unto the land of the living. Nor will I leave him until, by tears and prayers, I shall lead him ... unto the holy mountain of the Lord, where is life undying, where corruption is not, nor sighing nor mourning."[See Faith of Catholics, Vol. III, p. 176.]

St. Jerome, in the same century, in a letter of condolence to Pammachius, on the death of his wife Paulina, writes: "Other husbands strew violets and roses on the graves of their wives. Our Pammachius bedews the hallowed dust of Paulina with balsams of alms."[Ibid., p. 177.]

St. Chrysostom writes: "It was not without good reason ordained by the Apostles that mention should be made of the dead in the tremendous mysteries, because they knew well that they would receive great benefit from it."[Ibid., Vol. II.]

St. Augustine, who lived in the beginning of the fifth century, relates that when his mother was at the point of death she made this last request of him: "Lay this body anywhere; let not the care of it in anyway disturb you. This only I request of you, that you would remember me at the altar of the Lord, wherever you be."

And that pious son prays for his mother's soul in the most impassioned language: "I therefore," he says, "O God of my heart, do now beseech Thee for the sins of my mother. Hear me though the medicine of the wounds that hung upon the wood. ... May she, then, be in peace with her husband. ... And inspire, my Lord, ... Thy servants, my brethren, whom with voice and heart and pen I serve, that as many as shall read these words may remember at Thy altar, Monica, Thy servant. ..."[Confessions, Book ix.]

These are but a few specimens of the unanimous voice of the Fathers regarding the salutary practice of praying for the dead.

You now perceive that this devotion is not an invention of modern times, but a doctrine universally enforced in the first and purest ages of the Church.

You see that praying for the dead was not a devotion cautiously recommended by some obscure or visionary writer, but an act of religion preached and inculcated by all the great Doctors and Fathers of the Church, who are the recognized expounders of the Christian religion.

You see them, too, inculcating this doctrine not as a cold and abstract principle, but as an imperative act of daily piety, and embodying it in their ordinary exercises of devotion.

They prayed for the dead in their morning and evening devotions. They prayed for them in their daily office, and in the Sacrifice of the Mass. They asked the prayers of the congregation for the souls of the deceased in the public services of Sunday. On the monuments which were erected to the dead, some of which are preserved even to this day, epitaphs were inscribed, earnestly invoking for their souls the prayers of the living. How gratifying it is to our Catholic hearts that a devotion so soothing to afflicted spirits is at the same time so firmly grounded on the tradition of ages!

Fourth--That the practice of praying for the dead has descended from Apostolic times is evident also from the Liturgies of the Church. A Liturgy is the established formulary of public worship, containing the authorized prayers of the Church. The Missal, or Mass-book, for instance, which you see on our altars, contains a portion of the Liturgy of the Catholic Church. The principal Liturgies are the Liturgy of St. James the Apostle, who founded the Church of Jerusalem; the Liturgy of St Mark the Evangelist, founder of the Church of Alexandria; and the Liturgy of St. Peter, who established the Church in Rome. These Liturgies are called after the Apostles who compiled them. There are, besides, the Liturgies of St. Chrysostom and St. Basil, which are chiefly based on the model of that of St. James.

Now, all these Liturgies, without exception, have prayers for the dead, and their providential preservation serves as another triumphant vindication of the venerable antiquity of this Catholic doctrine.

The Eastern and the Western churches were happily united until the fourth and fifth centuries, when the heresiarchs Arius, Nestorius and Eutyches withdrew millions of souls from the centre of unity. The followers of these sects were called, after their founders, Arians, Nestorians and Eutychians, and from that day to the present the two latter bodies have formed distinct communions, being separated from the Catholic Church in the East, just as the Protestant churches are separated from her in the West.

The Greek schismatic church, of which the present Russo-Greek church is the offspring, severed her connection with the See of Rome in the ninth century.

But in leaving the Catholic Church these Eastern sects retained the old Liturgies, which they use to this day, as I shall presently demonstrate.

During my sojourn in Rome at the Ecumenical Council I devoted a great deal of my leisure time to the examination of the various Liturgies of the schismatic churches of the East. I found in all of them formulas of prayers for the dead almost identical with that of the Roman Missal: "Remember, O Lord, Thy servants who are gone before us with the sign of faith, and sleep in peace. To these, O Lord, and to all who rest in Christ grant, we beseech Thee, a place of refreshment, light and peace, through the same Jesus Christ our Lord."

Not content with studying their books, I called upon the Oriental Patriarches and Bishops in communion with the See of Rome, who belong to the Armenian, the Chaldean, the Coptic, the Maronite and Syriac rites. They all assured me that the schismatic Christians of the East among whom they live have, without exception, prayers and sacrifices for the dead.

Now, I ask, when could those Eastern sects have commenced to adopt the Catholic practice of praying for the dead? They could not have received it from us since the ninth century, because the Greek church separated from us then and has had no communion with us since that time, except at intervals, up to the twelfth century. Nor could they have adopted the practice since the fourth or fifth century, inasmuch as the Arians, Nestorians and Eutychians have had no religious communication with us since that period. Therefore, in common with us, they received this doctrine from the Apostles. If men living in different countries drink wine having the same flavor and taste and color, the inference is that the wine was made from the same species of grape. So must we conclude that this refreshing doctrine of intercession for the dead has its root in the Apostolic tree of knowledge planted by our Savior.

Fifth--I have already spoken of the devotion of the ancient Jewish church to the souls of the departed. But perhaps you are not aware that the Jews retain to this day, in their Liturgy, the pious practice of praying for the dead. Yet such in reality is the case.

Amid all the wanderings and vicissitudes of life, though dismembered and dispersed like sheep without a shepherd over the face of the globe, the children of Israel have never forgotten or neglected the sacred duty of praying for their deceased brethren.

Unwilling to make this assertion without the strongest evidence, I procured from a Jewish convert an authorized Prayer-Book of the Hebrew church, from which I extract the following formula of prayers which are prescribed for funerals: "Departed brother! mayest thou find open the gates of heaven, and see the city of peace and the dwellings of safety, and meet the ministering angels hastening joyfully toward thee. And may the High Priest stand to receive thee, and go thou to the end, rest in peace, and rise again into life. May the repose established in the celestial abode ... be the lot, dwelling and the resting-place of the soul of our deceased brother (whom the Spirit of the Lord may guide into Paradise), who departed from this world, according to the will of God, the Lord of heaven and earth. May the supreme King of kings, through His infinite mercy, hide him under the shadow of His wing. May He raise him at the end of his days and cause him to drink of the stream of His delights."[Jewish Prayer Book. Edited by Isaac Leeser, published by Slote & Mooney, Philadelphia.]

Among the many-sided merits of Shakespeare may be mentioned his happy faculty of portraying to life the manners and customs and traditional faith of the times which he describes. How deep-rooted in the Christian heart in pre-Reformation times, was the belief in Purgatory, may be inferred from a passage in Hamlet who probably lived in the early part of the eighth century. Thus speaks to Hamlet the spirit of his murdered father:

"I am thy father's spirit,
Doom'd for a certain time to walk the night;
And for the day confin'd too fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purg'd away."[Act. I]

I am happy to say that the more advanced and enlightened members of the Episcopalian church are steadily returning to the faith of their fore-fathers regarding prayers for the dead. An acquaintance of mine, once a distinguished clergyman of the Episcopal communion, but now a convert, informed me that hundreds of Protestant clergymen in this country, and particularly in England, have a firm belief in the efficacy of prayers for the dead, but for well-known reasons they are reserved in the expression of their faith. He easily convinced me of the truth of his assertion, particularly as far as the Church of England is concerned, by sending me six different works published in London, all bearing on the subject of Purgatory. These books are printed under the auspices of the Protestant Episcopal church; they all contain prayers for the dead and prove, from Catholic grounds, the existence of a middle state after death and the duty of praying for our deceased brethren.[See Path of Holiness, Rivington's, London. Treasury of Devotion, Ibid. Catechism of Theology, Masten, London.]

To sum up, we see the practice of praying for the dead enforced in the ancient Hebrew church and in the Jewish synagogue of today. We see it proclaimed age after age by all the Fathers of Christendom. We see it incorporated in every one of the ancient Liturgies of the East and of the West. We see it zealously taught by the Russian church of today, and by that immense family of schismatic Christians scattered over the East. We behold it, in fine, a cherished devotion of three hundred millions of Catholics, as well as of a respectable portion of the Episcopal church.

Would it not, my friend, be the height of rashness and presumption in you to prefer your private opinion to this immense weight of learning, sanctity and authority? Would it not be impiety in you to stand aside with sealed lips while the Christian world is sending up an unceasing De profundis for departed brethren? Would it not be cold and heartless in you not to pray for your deceased friends, on account of prejudices which have no grounds in Scripture, tradition or reason itself?

If a brother leaves you to cross the broad Atlantic, religion and affection prompt you to pray for him during his absence. And if the same brother crosses the narrow sea of death to pass to the shores of eternity, why not pray for him then also? When he crosses the Atlantic his soul, imprisoned in the flesh, is absent from you; when he passes the sea of death his soul, released from the flesh, has gone from you. What difference does this make with regard to the duty of your intercession? For what is death? A mere separation of body and soul. The body, indeed, dies, but the soul "lives and moves and has its being." It continues after death, as before, to think, to remember, to love. And do not God's dominion and mercy extend over that soul beyond the grave as well as as this side of it? Who shall place the limits to God's empire and say to Him: "Thus far Thou shalt go and no father?" Two thousand years after Abraham's death our Lord said: "I am the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob. He is not the God of the dead, but of the living."[Mark xii. 26, 27.]

If, then, it is profitable for you to pray for your brother in the flesh, why should it be useless for you to pray for him out of the flesh? For while he was living you prayed not for his body, but for his soul.

If this brother of yours dies with some slight stains upon his soul, a sin of impatience, for instance, or an idle word, is he fit to enter heaven with these blemishes upon his soul? No; the sanctity of God forbids it, for "nothing defiled shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven."[Apoc. xxi. 27.] Will you consign him, for these minor transgressions, to eternal torments with adulterers and murderers? No; the justice and mercy of God forbid it. Therefore, your common sense demands a middle place of expiation for the purgation of the soul before it is worthy of enjoying the companionship of God and His Saints.

God "will render to every man according to his works,"--to the pure and unsullied everlasting bliss; to the reprobate eternal damnation; to souls stained with minor faults a place of temporary purgation. I cannot recall any doctrine of the Christian religion more consoling to the human heart than the article of faith which teaches us efficacy of prayers for the faithful departed. It robs death of its sting. It encircles the chamber of mourning with a rainbow of hope. It assuages the bitterness of our sorrow, and reconciles us to our loss. It keeps us in touch with the departed dead as correspondence keeps us in touch with the absent living. It preserves their memory fresh and green in our hearts.

It gives us that keen satisfaction which springs from the consciousness that we can aid those loved ones who are gone before us by alleviating their pains, shortening their exile, and hastening their entrance into their true country.

It familiarizes us with the existence of a life beyond the grave, and with the hope of being reunited with those whom we cherished on earth, and of dwelling with them in that home where there is no separation, or sorrow, or death, but eternal joy and peace and rest.

I have seen a devoted daughter minister with tender solicitude at the sick-bed of a fond parent. Many an anxious day and sleepless night did she watch at his bedside. She moistened the parched lips, and cooled the fevered brow, and raised the drooping head on its pillow. Every change in her patient for better or worse brought a corresponding sunshine or gloom to her heart. It was filial love that prompted all this. Her father died and she followed his remains to the grave. Though not a Catholic, standing by the bier she burst those chains which a cruel religious prejudice had wrought around her heart, and, rising superior to her sect, she cried out: Lord, have mercy on his soul. It was the voice of nature and of religion.

Oh, far from us a religion which would decree an eternal divorce between the living and the dead. How consoling is it to the Catholic to think that, in praying thus for his departed friend, his prayers are not in violation of, but in accordance with, the voice of the Church; and that as, like Augustine, he watches at the pillow of a dying mother, so like Augustine, he can continue the same office of piety for her soul after she is dead by praying for her! How cheering the reflection that the golden link of prayer unites you still to those who "fell asleep in the Lord," that you can still speak to them and pray for them!

Tennyson grasps the Catholic feeling when he makes his hero, whose course is run, thus address his surviving comrade, Sir Bedivere:

"I have lived my life, and that which I have done
May He within Himself make pure; but thou,
If thou shouldst never see my face again,
Pray for my soul. More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of. Wherefore, let thy voice
Rise like a fountain for me night and day.
For what are men better than sheep or goats
That nourish a blind life within the brain,
If knowing God they life not hands of prayer
Both for themselves and those who call them friend?
For so the whole round earth is every way
Bound by gold chains about the feet of God."[Morte D'Arthur.]

Oh! it is this thought that robs death of its sting and makes the separation of friends endurable. If your departed friend needs not your prayers, they are not lost, but, like the rain absorbed by the sun, and descending again in fruitful showers on our fields, they will be gathered by the Sun of justice, and will fall in refreshing showers of grace upon your head: "Cast thy bread upon the running waters; for, after a long time, thou shalt find it again."[Eccles. xi. 1.]

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Next:XVII. Civil and Religious Liberty: A man enjoys religious liberty when he possesses the free right of worshiping God according to the dictates of a right conscience, and of practicing a form of religion most in accordance with his duties to God.