From: Steve Hesse
This is in response to a letter from David Foss posted in the Dec. 29 Winona Post regarding purgatory. He wrote (and I quote), “Billions of people (the whole world) could read the bible and not one person would find anything in the bible about purgatory.” Mr. Foss, where in Sacred Scriptures does it state that the Christian faith is based on Scripture alone? It doesn’t, because Scripture is to be interpreted within its natural context of the entire deposit of the faith that was passed on to us by the early church in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, as Saint Paul points out in 2 Thessalonians 2:15, "So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.” The word Œpurgatory‚ (like the word ŒTrinity‚) is not found in Sacred Scripture because it’s the name given to the doctrine on the final purification of the elect.
All Christians would agree that to be in heaven, a soul has to be absolutely pure and free of all sin and the stain of sin. We also agree that those who make it to heaven are not pure and free of all sin at the moment of their death. So we need to be made pure from the moment of our death until we enter heaven. This process of purification is what the Church calls purgatory. By Christ’s death and resurrection, we have been given the grace of this purification, for without it, most of us would never make it to heaven.
Some imagine that the Catholic Church has an elaborate doctrine of purgatory worked out, but there are only three essential components of the doctrine: (1) that a purification after death exists, (2) that it involves some kind of pain, and (3) that the purification can be assisted by the prayers and offerings by the living to God. Other ideas, such that purgatory is a particular "place" in the afterlife or that it takes time to accomplish, are speculations rather than doctrine.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of Heaven (CCC 1030).” This purification involves suffering (Saint Paul uses the analogy of fire to better understand and emphasize this purification), as the process of God’s fiery love that “burns” away all impurities that may remain.
Purgatory is, however, well attested to in the Old and New Testaments. Matthew 5:21-26, Luke 12:58 and 1 Corinthians 3:10-16 are passages that specifically talk about how suffering is used to purify. Revelation 21:27 states that nothing unclean shall enter heaven. Matthew 22:1-14 is a parable comparing the kingdom of heaven to a wedding feast. At this feast, a guest without a wedding garment is cast out into the darkness. Both of these show the importance of being pure and spotless in God’s presence. Matthew 12:32 is not only helpful in showing that some sins are remitted in the “age to come” (i.e. purgatory), but it also illustrates that Christians can lose their justification through serious sin (see also Matthew 18:21-35).
The Jews already believed in the doctrine of purgatory, or the final purification, before the coming of the Messiah as revealed in the Old Testament (2 Maccabees 12:41-45) and other pre-Christian Jewish works. One such work records that Adam will be in mourning "until the day of dispensing punishment in the last years, when I will turn his sorrow into joy"(The Life of Adam and Eve 46-7). Orthodox Jews to this day believe in the final purification, and for 11 months after the death of a loved one, they pray a prayer called the Mourner’s Kaddish for their loved one’s purification.
Jews, Catholics, and the Eastern Orthodox have always historically proclaimed the reality of the final purification. It was not until the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century that anyone denied this doctrine (and removed books from the bible such as 2 Maccabees). The early Church Fathers (such as Paul, Thecla, Abercius, Tertullian, Perpetua, Cyprian of Carthage, Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom and Augustine, to name a few) wrote about purgatory, which shows that this teaching has been part of the Christian faith from the very beginning.
When questioning the Catholic Church’s interpretation of Sacred Scripture, it’s important to remember that Christ didn’t give us the bible. He gave us the Church, and Church gave us the bible under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.