Church Fathers on Purgatory

Carracci-Purgatory


This is a small compilation of citations from the early Fathers on the purgatorial process after death for those whose virtue did not expiate all of their sins. You will notice there is representation from the See of Alexandria, the Catechetical school of Jerusalem, , Thmuis (Egypt), Cyrus (Greece), North Africa, France (Gaul), and Rome. I purposefully chose these selections as they prove the doctrine was universal.

** Most English Translations from William Jurgens “Faith of the Early Fathers” (Vol I-III)

St. Clement of Alexandria (150-+215) – “Accordingly the believer, through great discipline, divesting himself of the passions, passes to the mansion which is better than the former one, viz., to the greatest torment, taking with him the characteristic of repentance from the sins he has committed after baptism. He is tortured then still more— not yet or not quite attaining what he sees others to have acquired. Besides, he is also ashamed of his transgressions. The greatest torments, indeed, are assigned to the believer. For God’s righteousness is good, and His goodness is righteous. And though the punishments cease in the course of the completion of the expiation and purification of each one, yet those have very great and permanent grief who are found worthy of the other fold, on account of not being along with those that have been glorified through righteousness.” (Stromata 6.14)

St. Cyril of Jerusalem (315-+386) in his 23rd Catechetical lecture describes the various prayers offered during the sacred liturgy. He comments on that which is for the dead: Then, after the spiritual sacrifice, the bloodless service, is completed, over that sacrifice of propitiation we entreat God for the common peace of the Churches, for the welfare of the world ; for kings; for soldiers and allies; for the sick; for the afflicted; and, in a word, for all who stand in need of succour we all pray and offer this sacrifice.Then we commemorate also those who have fallen asleep before us, first Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles, Martyrs, that at their prayers and intercessions God would receive our petition. Then on behalf also of the Holy Fathers and Bishops who have fallen asleep before us, and in a word of all who in past years have fallen asleep among us, believing that it will be a very great benefit to the souls , for whom the supplication is put up, while that holy and most awful sacrifice is set forth. And I wish to persuade you by an illustration. For I know that many say, what is a soul profited, which departs from this world either with sins, or without sins, if it be commemorated in the prayer? For if a king were to banish certain who had given him offense, and then those who belong to them should weave a crown and offer it to him on behalf of those under punishment, would he not grant a remission of their penalties? In the same way we, when we offer to Him our supplications for those who have fallen asleep, though they be sinners, weave no crown, but offer up Christ sacrificed for our sins , propitiating our merciful God for them as well as for ourselves.” (Catechetical Lecture #23)

St. John Chrysostom (349-+407) –  “Not in vain was it decreed by the Apostles that in the awesome mysteries remembrance should be made of the departed. They knew that here there was much gain for them, much benefit. For when the entire people stands with hands uplifted, a priestly assembly, and that awesome sacrificial Victim is laid out, how, when we are calling up God, should we not succeed in their defense? But this is done for those who have departed in the faith, while even the catechumens are not reckoned as worthy of this consolation, but are deprived of every means of assistance except one. And what is that? We may give alms to the poor on their behalf” (Homily #4 Philippians – Patrologia Graeca 66.295 or NewAdvent)

St. Serapion, Bishop of Thmuis, Egypt (+370) – In an 11th century manuscript found in the Mouth Athos Laura by an A. Dimitrijewsky which was determined to be a Euchologion (Missal) and whose authorship is attributed to Serapion of Thmuis. It consists of 30 unique prayers, and dates back to 350 A.D. The Liturgy of Divine Service resembles the so-called Liturgy of St. Mark. F.E. Brightman put the prayers in proper sequence in a published text for the Journal of Theological Studies, Vol. 1 (1900), pp. 880113 and 247-277. The standard text, however, is F.X. Funk’s Didascalia Et Constitutiones Apostolorum, Vol. 2, and can be accessed here in both Greek and Latin. I will quote an English translation found in William Jurgens Vol. II, page 132: “Full also is this Sacrifice, with your strength and your communion; for to You we offer this living sacrifice, this unbloody oblation…we beeseech You also on behalf of all the departed, of whom also this is the commenoration — after the mentioning of their names — Sanctify these souls, for you know them all; sanctify all who have fallen asleep in the Lord and count them all among the ranks of Your saints and give them a place and abode in Your Kingdom.” (Anaphora of the Eucharistic Sacrifice)

St. Epiphanius of Salamis (310-+403) – “Furthermore, as to mentioning the names of the dead, how is there anything useful in that? What is more timely or more excellent than that those who are still here should believe that the departed do live, and that they have not retreated into nothingness, but that they exist and are alive with the Master? And so that this most august proclamation might be told in full, how do they have hope, who are praying for the brethren as if they were but sojourning in a foreign land? Useful too is the prayer fashioned on heir behalf, even if it does not force back the whole of guilty charges laid to them. And it is useful also, because in this world we often stumble either voluntarily or involuntarily, and thus it is a reminder to do better. For we make commenoration of the just and sinners; of sinners , begging God’s mercy for them; of the just and the Fathers and Patriarchs and Prophets and Apostles and Evangelists and martyrs and confessors, and of bishops and solitaries...” (Panarion 75.8)

St. Augustine of Hippo (354-+430) – “There is an ecclesiastical discipline, as the faithful know, when the names of martyrs are read aloud in that place at the Altar of God, where prayer is not offered for them. Prayer, however, is offered for other dead who are remembered. For it is wrong to pray for a martyr, to whose prayers we ought ourselves be commended” (Sermo 159.1)

But by the prayers of the Holy Church, and by the salvific sacrifice, and by the alms which are given for their spirits, there is no doubt that the dead are aided, that the Lord might deal more mercifully with them than their sins would deserve. For the whole Church observes this practice which was handed down by the fathers: that it prays for those who have died in the communion of the body and blood of Christ, when they are commemorated in their own place in the sacrifice itself; and the sacrifice is offered also in memory of them, on their behalf. If, then, works of mercy are celebrated for the sake of those who are being remembered, who would hesitate to recommend them, on whose behalf prayers to God are not offered in vain? It is not at all to be doubted that such prayers are of profit to the dead; but for such of them as lived before their death in a way that makes it possible for these things to be useful to them after death”  (Sermo 172.2)

We read in the book of Maccabees that sacrifice was offered for the dead. But even if it were found nowhere in the Old Testament writings, the authority of the universal Church which is clear on this point is of no small weight, where in the prayers of the priest poured forth to the Lord God at His altar the commendation of the dead has its place” (The Care to be had for the Dead)

Temporal punishments are suffered by some in this life only, by some after death, by some both here and hereafter; but all of them before that last and strictest judgment. But not all who suffer temporal punishments after death will come to eternal punishments, which are to follow after that judgement.” (City of God, Book 21-Ch. 13)

For some of the dead, indeed, the prayer of the Church or of pious individuals is heard; but it is for those who, having been regenerated in Christ, did not spend their life so wickedly that they can be judged unworthy of such compassion, nor so well that they can be considered to have no need of it. As also, after the resurrection, there will be some of the dead to whom, after they have endured the pains proper to the spirits of the dead, mercy shall be accorded, and acquittal from the punishment of the eternal fire. For were there not some whose sins, though not remitted in this life, shall be remitted in that which is to come, it could not be truly said, They shall not be forgiven, neither in this world, neither in that which is to come” (City of God, Book 21- Ch. 24/2)

During the time, moreover, which intervenes between a man’s death and the final resurrection, the soul dwells in a hidden retreat, where it enjoys rest or suffers affliction just in proportion to the merit it has earned by the life which it led on earth. Nor can it be denied that the souls of the dead are benefited by the piety of their living friends, who offer the sacrifice of the Mediator, or give alms in the church on their behalf. But these services are of advantage only to those who during their lives have earned such merit, that services of this kind can help them. For there is a manner of life which is neither so good as not to require these services after death, nor so bad that such services are of no avail after death; there is, on the other hand, a kind of life so good as not to require them; and again, one so bad that when life is over they render no help. Therefore, it is in this life that all the merit or demerit is acquired, which can either relieve or aggravate a man’s sufferings after this life. No one, then, need hope that after he is dead he shall obtain merit with God which he has neglected to secure here. And accordingly it is plain that the services which the church celebrates for the dead are in no way opposed to the apostle’s words: “For we must all appear before the judgment-seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he has done, whether it be good or bad” ; for the merit which renders such services as I speak of profitable to a man, is earned while he lives in the body. It is not to every one that these services are profitable. And why are they not profitable to all, except because of the different kinds of lives that men lead in the body? When, then, sacrifices either of the altar or of alms are offered on behalf of all the baptized dead, they are thank-offerings for the very good, they are propitiatory offerings for the not very bad, and in the case of the very bad, even though they do not assist the dead, they are a species of consolation to the living. And where they are profitable, their benefit consists either in obtaining a full remission of sins, or at least in making the condemnation more tolerable.” (The Enchiridion on Faith, Hope and Love – #109-110)

St. Caesar of Arles (470-+543) – ““Although the Apostle has mentioned many grevious sins, we nevertheless, lest we seem to promote despair, will state briefly what they are. Sacrilege, murder, adultery, false witness, theft, robbery, pride, envy, avarice, and, if it is of long standing, anger, drunkenness, if it persistent, and slander are reckoned in their number. For if anyone knows that any of these sins dominates him, if he does not do penance worthily and for a long time, if such time is given him, and if he does not give abundant alms and abstain from those same sins, he cannot be purged in that transitory fire of which the Apostle spoke [1 Cor 3], but the eternal flames will torture him without any remedy. But since the lesser sins are, of course, known to all, and it would take too long to mention them all, it will be necessary for us only to name some of them. As often as someone takes more than is necessary in food or drink, he knows that this belongs to the lesser sins. As often as he says more than he should or is silent more than is proper; as often as he rudely exasperates a poor beggar; as often as he wills to eat when others are fasting, although he is in good physical health, and rises too late for church because he surrendered himself to sleep; as often as he knows his wife without a desire to have children….without a doubt he commits sin. There is no doubt that these and similar deeds belong to the lesser sins which, as I said before, can scarcely be counted and from which not only all Christian people, but even all the Saints, could not and cannot always be free. We do not, of course, believe that the soul is killed by these sins; but still, they make it ugly by covering it as if with some kind of pustules and, as it were, with horrible scabs, which allow the soul o come only with difficulty to the embrace of the heavenly Spouse, of whom it is written: ‘He prepared for Himself a Church having neither spot nor blemish’…If we neither give thanks to God in tribulations nor redeem our own sins by good works, we shall have to remain in that purgaotrial fire as long as it takes for those above-mentioned lesser sins to be consumed like wood and straw and hay. But someone is saying: ‘It is nothing to me how long I stay there, so long as I go finally to eternal life’. Let no one say that, beloved brethren, because that purgatorial fire itself will be more difficult than any punishments that can be seen or imagined or felt in this life” (Sermon 179)

St. Gregory the Great (+604) – “Peter: ‘Desirous I am to be informed, whether we ought to believe that after death there is any fire of Purgatory‘. Gregory: ‘But yet we must believe that before the day of judgment there is a Purgatory fire for certain small sins: because our Saviour saith, that he which speaketh blasphemy against the holy Ghost, that it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, nor in the world to come.66 Out of which sentence we learn, that some sins are forgiven in this world, and some other may be pardoned in the next: for that which is denied concerning one sin, is consequently understood to be granted touching some other. But yet this, as I said, we have not to believe but only concerning little and very small sins, as, for example, daily idle talk, immoderate laughter, negligence in the care of our family (which kind of offences scarce can they avoid, that know in what sort sin is to be shunned), ignorant errors in matters of no great weight: all which sins be punished after death, if men procured not pardon and remission for them in their lifetime: for when St. Paul saith, that Christ is the foundation: and by and by addeth: And if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble: the work of every one, of what kind it is, the fire shall try. If any man’s work abide which he built thereupon, he shall receive reward; if any mans work burn, he shall suffer detriment, but himself shall be saved, yet so as by fire.6For although these words may be understood of the fire of tribulation, which men suffer in this world: yet if any will interpret them of the fire of Purgatory, which shall be in the next life: then must he carefully consider, that the Apostle said not that he may be saved by fire, that buildeth upon this foundation iron, brass, or lead, that is, the greater sort of sins, and therefore more hard, and consequently not remissible in that place: but wood, hay, stubble, that is, little and very light sins, which the fire doth easily consume. Yet we have here further to consider, that none can be there purged, no, not for the least sins that be, unless in his lifetime he deserved by virtuous works to find such favour in that place.” (Dialogues – Book 4, Ch 39)

 

 

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