Question: Does the Catholic Church still believe in purgatory? I spoke to a number of priests who said that the Church has discarded this belief. Also, I have been to many funerals where the priest stated outright that the deceased was now in heaven. How can the priest know this for sure?
— Walter E. Marston, San Francisco, Calif.
Answer: The Catholic Church most definitely still believes in purgatory. The Church does not devise and discard its doctrines over the centuries. One can be sure that if the Church believed in a matter of faith and morals in the past, it still holds it today.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but are still imperfectly purified, are assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” (No. 1030). The Church “gives the name purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent” (No. 1031). This doctrine is based on biblical texts that speak of a cleansing fire (1 Cor 3:15; 1 Pt 1:7) and on the Old Testament practice of prayer for the dead. Accordingly, the priests to whom you spoke are misinformed on the Church’s belief in purgatory.
The matter of priests stating definitively in a homily the status of one who has died is theologically and pastorally unsound. A homilist may well state the hope that the one who has died is in heaven, but the fact is we can never know for certain. My opinion is that the vast, vast majority of people go to purgatory on their way to heaven. And here is where the doctrine of purgatory needs some development. Purgatory is not a lesser or temporary hell or a kind of precelestial jail; it is a place of joy in which the deceased who died imperfectly are purified by the God of love so that they are fully conformed to Christ. St. Catherine of Siena stated that the “fire” of purgatory is the purifying fire of the Holy Spirit’s love. Blessed John Henry Newman stated: “To live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often.” The suffering of purgatory is the suffering of spiritual change, of breaking out of the old self, of the renovation of soul that follows a life imperfectly lived and now responding to the love of God. Purgatory is the fulfillment of baptism.
Greeters at Mass
Question: At our parish there are greeters at every Mass who enthusiastically welcome everyone at the door. Some people do not like this. Where did this practice come from?
— N.M., city withheld, New Mexico
Answer: The introduction of training and scheduling greeters at Sunday Masses is one that emerged after the Second Vatican Council — though there is nothing in official Church documents about greeters. At one extreme are churches that have greeters who engage those entering the church in an overly effusive and enthusiastic manner — like they are encountering long-lost relatives.
At the other extreme are parishes where nothing like greeters exist and you could be dead for all those in the church vestibule care. I suggest a happy medium, where greeters simply say “Good Morning,” hand you the bulletin, and leave it at that.
Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.