THE DURATION OF PURGATORY.
Two extreme errors have been put forth regarding the length of time that Purgatory lasts. The sponsors of each error, respectively, were Origen and Luther, who could lose no occasion of indulging his usual appetite for novelty.
The first error is that of Origen, who asserted that the pains of Purgatory are to last even after the Resurrection. Here is his opinion, given in his own words : (Homil. 14, in Lucam.) " I think that even after the resurrection from the dead we may need a baptism, ("Sacramento.") washing, and purging us, for no one can rise again without filth."
This opinion of Origen is contrary to the teaching of Jesus Christ on the circumstances of the General Judgment. Our Lord (Math. 25.) speaks only of two orders or classes of men—the blessed and the reprobate— who are to be judged. There is mention made of no other class. Hence, St. Augustine (Lib. 21, de Civit. Dei. cap. 16.) says : " Let it be believed that there are to be no purgatorial pains, unless before that last and dreadful judgment." It will not avail to say that the soul and body sinned together, and on this account should be purified together. It will not avail, I repeat, to say this, be cause the wicked soul, separated from the body, is at present punished in hell: "I am tormented in this flame;" (Luke, xvi. 24.) whilst the just soul is enjoying the delights of heaven: "This day thou shalt be with me in paradise." (Luke, xxiii. 43.)" It is but meet that the soul by itself should be punished, because the soul is the efficient cause of sin. It is in the will alone that sin is formally found. It is in it alone that sin is said to be committed; for sin is the act of a free will. When the man dies, the sin alone and intact, if the justice of God be not satisfied before then, is found in his will. Through the will it adheres, not to his corpse, but to his soul. As it is in the soul it is found, it is there, and not in his body, it should be punished.
In the other extreme, Luther restricted the duration of Purgatory entirely too much. He pretended that all the relics of sin are washed away by the pains of death in those who die in faith. According to this innovation, there should be no Purgatory, except death.
Amongst the relics of sin, in their fullest sense, must be understood the debt of temporal punishment for mortal sin that has been forgiven, and for venial sin. It is for these Purgatory exists. These relics of sin are sometimes certainly wiped out in the pangs of death ; sometimes, certainly not; and sometimes, most probably, in part. Let us see the reason for each clause of this assertion.
1. The relics of sin are sometimes certainly wiped out by death. Martyrdom, which is called the baptism of blood, certainly washes away all relics of sin. It is for this reason that the Church never prays for martyrs. It is in the same spirit we are to understand St. Augustine when he says : (Serm. 17, de Verbis Apostoli.) "It is an injury to pray for a martyr, to whose prayers we should rather be recommended." St. Cyprian (Lib. 4, Epist. 2.) clearly says, that all sins are cleansed by martyrdom. He does not speak of mortal sins; because in the same place he says that martyrdom is of no avail without charity. This shows that he now speaks of mortal sin. He does not speak in reference to mortal sin in the first instance, when he says that all sins are cleansed by suffering or martyrdom. In saying that martyrdom, without charity, is of no avail to wipe out mortal sin, St. Cyprian is only following the doctrine laid down by St. Paul to the Corinthians.( i Cor. xiii.)
2. The relics of sin are sometimes certainly not taken away by death. The pains of death cannot purify those who die against their will; or without the use of reason, such as persons asleep or out of their mind ; or who are carried off by some sudden accident. If such persons were purified from the relics of sin, this should be caused either by death itself, or by some voluntary act concurrent with it. But neither could be the cause of their purification. Death itself could not cause it, because death, in itself, is natural to man, at least after the fall of our first parents. It awaits the good as well as the bad, man as well as beast. But, by what must of necessity come, and is natural to us, we cannot pay those debts which we voluntarily contracted and owe to the justice of God. Hence, if we be purified by death, our purification must be the result of some voluntary act which we perform at that time. However, there is no question at all at present of any voluntary act, but of death itself. The question is not whether a voluntary act, such as of love or sorrow, performed by those who are dying, obliterates the relics of sin, but whether death itself does so. A further proof that the relics of sin are sometimes not effaced by death is that we often see good and virtuous men to suffer the most bitter death, while men of indifferent, or even of bad habits, die with less pain. The contrary, of necessity, should be the case, if the relics of sin were to be effaced by death. Furthermore, it may be added that death sometimes comes without any sense of pain, as in the case of those who are struck down by some sudden accident. In such a circumstance death would cause no pain, and consequently could not serve as an atonement to God.
3. It is most probable that the relics of sin are sometimes partly taken away by death. There are many who bear death, with the pains that attend it, in a true Christian spirit, as a penalty due to their sins. Though we can never know whether their patience is equivalent to the atonement they owe to the justice of God, yet, doubtless, it pays a part of their indebtedness to Him.
Dominicus Soto advanced another opinion, which has found little favour among theologians. He thought (In 4, dist. 16, q. 3, art. 2.) that no one is detained in Purgatory as long as ten years. He was led so to think for two reasons. The first was, that by suffering some pains for a short time in this life, we can be delivered from all pain. But we can get rid of pain more quickly in the other life, where pain can be made in finitely more intense than in this life. The second reason that led him into this opinion was, that in the other life pain can be made most intense without killing the soul. Pain is of long duration here, be cause it could not be made very intense without killing us. It is quite different in Purgatory, where pain can be most intense without killing the soul, because this is immortal. It was likely then, thought Soto, that God, who desires to translate the soul to glory, would cleanse it in a very short time by most intense pain.
Against his first reason it can be said, that from the pains of this, we can draw no conclusion as to the pains of the other life. Whilst this is a time of mercy, the other is a time of justice.
Against his second reason it may be answered, that God can, if He wishes, make compensation for longer suffering by more intense pain. This is entirely in His power, if He so wills it. But He does not so will. God could reduce Purgatory to one hour, by inflicting most intense torture on the soul. But no one believes that He reduces Purgatory to so short a space.
The practice of the Church is opposed to the opinion of Soto. The Church has been accustomed to celebrate anniversary Masses for the souls of the faithful, even though they may have been gone out of this life for centuries before. If she believed that souls are not punished for ten years, she would not offer up Masses for those who, for long ages be fore, had departed this life. Then the practice of the Church is clearly against the opinion of Soto. So much so, that Pope Alexander VII. condemned the following proposition;(Num. 43 ; Annuum legatum pro anima relictum non durat plus quam per decem annos.) "An annual bequest left for a soul does not last more than for ten years." As we cannot know, without revelation, that the soul does not still, and for ages to come, need the Mass, the obligation of offering it continues.
Moreover, visions of saints, such as are found in Ven. Bede, Denis the Carthusian, and others, are opposed to this opinion. Bede (Lib. 5, Historiæ, cap. 13.) writes that in one vision the pains of Purgatory were seen, and at the same time it was said that all the souls there are to be saved on the day of judgment, though some of them may be freed before that, if assisted by the alms and prayers of the living, and especially by the holy sacrifice of the Mass. There is here a clear indication that some souls are to be detained in Purgatory until the day of judgment.
Though we cannot know how long Purgatory lasts, it is very much to be feared that many souls are tormented there for a long time. The holy Fathers were of this opinion.
'St. Augustine (L. 6, Contra Julianum, n. 12, 22 and 30.) seems to think that Adam was for some thousands of years in suffering, and that he was liberated from it only " when Christ, having died for us, descended, not by necessity, but by power, to the places of the dead, and loosed the sorrows of hell." This great doctor, twenty years after the death of his holy mother, not only himself prayed for her, but even recommended her to the future readers of his book of Confessions (Lib. 9, C. 13, n. 4.) in this manner: "Do thou inspire, O Lord, my God, do thou inspire Thy servants, my brethren, Thy children, my masters, whom I serve with my voice, and my heart, and my writings, that as many as shall read this may remember at thy altar thy handmaid Monica, with Patricius, formerly her husband. . . . That so what my mother made her last request to me, may be more plentifully performed for her by the prayers of many, procured by these my Confessions, and by my prayers." Twenty years after the death of a sainted mother, her son, likewise a saint, along with being a luminary in the Church, thought it advisable to re commend her soul to the future readers of his book. St. Cyprian is of a similar sentiment. ( (Epist. 59, ad Antonianum.) ) He encourages the faithful to endure martyrdom with courage and constancy, and in so doing gives us as his opinion that Purgatory lasts for a long time. He says: "It is one thing to arrive at glory, and another thing to be thrown into prison, and not to get out of it until one pays the last farthing. It is one thing to receive immediately the reward of faith and virtue, and another thing to be cleansed by being tormented by a long pain for sins, and to be purged long by fire." St. Cyprian, then, would teach us that there is a long pain in Purgatory, and that the souls in it long endure fire.
St. Cæsar, of Aries, (Serm. 104, n. 4.) also writes: " Since it is written of the day of judgment that one day shall be as if a thousand years, and a thousand years as if one day, how does each one know whether for days, or months, or perhaps also even years, he may be about to pass through that fire ? "
Finally, those visions, to which we have awhile ago referred, would indicate that souls are often punished for a very long time in Purgatory. In fact some of them intimate that many souls, and perhaps I ought to say the greater number, are punished till the last judgment. Personally I should not prefer this latter opinion ; nor have I seen it defended by any theologians. It is certain, however, that we cannot know for what period, from this till the day of judgment, the soul is detained in captivity. It would be rashness on our part to attempt to deter mine the term of its suffering. Hence Bellarmine concludes : (De Purg. lib. 2, cap. ix.) " The thing is most uncertain, and cannot be defined, unless rashly."