Last month the members of our national Lutheran/Catholic Dia-logue spent two days in intense conversation regarding the teaching of our respective churches about the existence of purgatory. As I have explained before, this was part of our current Round XI established five years ago to study the theme “Hope of Eternal Life.” We gathered, all 14 of us with support staff, to explore aspects of our faith regarding the final destiny of the baptized and justified Christian.
After carefully sorting out related elements in that ancient conviction of Christian faith … such as the meaning of physical death for someone baptized in Christ, the enduring effects of personal sin in our individual lives, the reality of judgment, the possibility of eternal condemnation, the interim state between personal and final general judgment, the gift of eternal happiness and all the graces inherent in that final journey to God … we came to the teaching on purgatory. It was necessary to sift out the imagery of unbridled popular piety and enthusiastic preachers, Lutheran and Catholic alike, who had contributed mightily to a false understanding of the idea.
We quickly agreed in common that purgatory is not a place, and I recalled the minor furor among some circles of intense lay Catholic piety some years ago when Pope John Paul II casually stated that fact in one of his brief Angelus messages.
A closer analogy to our Catholic teaching is that of quasi process, namely a cleansing or purification needed by absolutely everyone except the Blessed Virgin Mary, before entering the presence of God forever.
Such purification is needed for two reasons in traditional Catholic teaching. First, we need “cleansing” because of the utter purity of God before whom nothing sinful can exist. Secondly, we need cleansing because of the enduring nature of evil in our lives. Once we tell a lie or engage in greed, our minds and personalities become somehow twisted by that evil and inclined to it. Habits are formed easily. The first and primary effect of every sin is upon ourselves. Lutherans and Catholics agree on the need for cleansing after death.
It is Catholic to note that we can be somehow assisted in our final process of purification by the prayers and good works of other Christians since we are all united in Christ by the baptismal bond we call the Communion of Saints.
After death we are no longer held captives by time as in this age; so it is by definition problematic to speak of the duration of cleansing, even though it is easy to slip into that mode of thinking. Indulgences complicate the problem because people think of time qualifications and presume that indulgences refer to time needed for the purgation … rather than the more accurate origin, namely equivalent time devoted to penitential works of charity and justice in this life.
The Apostle Paul speaks (1 Cor 3:10-15) of the need for the works of an evangelist to be tested so that anything less than noble can be burned away like so much wood and straw, with the precious gold remaining. Thus enters the metaphoric idea of fire. Moreover, Catholics are quick to point out 2 Mc 12:39-45 where sacrifices are offered for deceased soldiers found with idols hidden in their tunics. Mt 12:32 quotes Jesus speaking of the possibility of forgiveness in the age to come.
All this seems to give basis for a doctrine of testing of human works after physical death and some sort of purifying forgiveness. Our liturgies always pray for the dead, at least commending them to God’s mercy, and our Lutheran colleagues recall the admonition of Martin Luther not to pray too much for the dead lest we give the impression of doubting God’s mercy.
Although the Eastern Churches, Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic alike, pray for the dead in Christ, they have never developed much of a doctrine of purgatory. In the 15th century Council of Florence which attempted to heal the east west schism (and almost succeeded), it would seem the Orthodox were told they need not hold the Western doctrine of purgatory for reconciliation with Rome.
All of this suggests that Catholic teaching is firm about the need for some type of purification after death for every human being except the Blessed Virgin, but little more is known about that reality … except that we can help each other as a result of the bond of unity we share with Christ and each other as a result of baptism. The teaching is basic, yet much more marginal in the larger scheme of things than people would realize.
Some years ago Cardinal Ratzinger suggested that perhaps what we call purgatory may be nothing more than an instantaneous encounter at death with the searing love of Christ which purifies us and welcomes us into the merciful presence of God forever. Our dialogue members thought that was a perfect expression of what we hold in common.
This is God’s action, not our own, and should be viewed as a happy moment because it is a pause on the way to heaven for those who are saved, not a second thought about those destined for eternal loss of God! It is gift indeed and consolation during November when we pray for our deceased loved ones.