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Teachings of the Church Fathers: evidence supporting the Dogma of Purgatory

Fr. Samuel Waters |The Daily Knight |Sermon Three on Purgatory


Teachings of the Church Fathers and Church Councils


Teachings of the Church Fathers:


We call on the Church Fathers because they are our spiritual fathers in the Faith. They were the closest to Christ, the Apostles and the original transmission of the Gospel. These were men who wrote the first commentaries on scripture, organized the Catholic Church’s earliest councils and helped formulate the core dogmatic teachings of Christianity that even the Protestants accept (the Trinity, the Hypostatic Union, etc.).


All of the Church Fathers claimed membership in the Catholic Church, “The pinnacle and bulwark of Truth (I Timothy 3:15) This is because there was no other Church around. Protestants are quick to dismiss the Church Fathers writings as “extra biblical tradition.” This is contrary to the mandate of the Scriptures. St. Paul commands us to obey the written and the oral revelation which we have received from Christ and the Apostles.


The Oral Revelation (Sacred Tradition) has been preserved in the writings of the Church Fathers as well as the Church Councils, catechisms and liturgies. God has entrusted both the Oral and Written Revelation to the Catholic Church that Christ built upon the Rock of Peter and his successors, the Roman Catholic Church (Matt 16: 18).


St. Peter says, “Scriptures is not a matter of one’s own interpretation (2 Peter 1:20). “Scripture is a matter of the public interpretation of the Church to which Christ gave the authority to bind and loose (Matt 16;19 and 18: 18).


The Protestant Church rejects the Fathers of the Church all together because they believe their writings are inaccurate and even fraudulent. They put their complete faith in Scripture. The Patristic Writings (Church Fathers) bear witness to the early Church interpretation of the Scriptures and are just as authentic as the copies of the Scriptures themselves.


As I said previously, the Church Fathers were unanimous in their belief in Purgatory. They all believed in a place of purgation after death which was gotten from the Scriptures.


There is more Patristic evidence supporting the Dogma (Dogma is a formally defined Doctrine) of Purgatory than there is for other Catholic Dogmas. The Dogma of Purgatory was never questioned until the Protestant Reformation became present in the 16th Century. The Protestant leaders by dismissing the Patristic Writings are “burying their heads in the sand” and accusing the earliest Christian leaders of falling into mass apostasy.


In the Early Church inscriptions could be found on the tombs, in the sepulchers and in the Catacombs of the first martyrs and the faithful departed of the Catholic Church begging for the prayers of the living.


A documented tomb had the following inscription “In your prayers remember us who have gone before you.” These inscriptions reveal the Early Church’s belief in Purgatory and the power of prayers to assist the dead. There is a book entitled “The Early Church in the light of the Monuments.”


The earliest liturgies of the Catholic Church also reflect a belief in Purgatory. From the beginning, the Church in the Holy Mass would remember the faithful departed with prayers for their peace and the forgiveness of their sins.


One of the oldest liturgies attributed to the Apostle James has the following prayer in it:


“We commemorate all the faithful dead who have died in the true faith… We ask, we entreat, we pray Christ our God, who took their souls and spirits to Himself that by His many compassions He will make them worthy of the pardon of their faults and the remission of their sins."


Cyril of Jerusalem said, “the souls of those for whom prayers are offered (during Mass) receive great relief." The Immemorial Roman Rite of Mass which was composed by Ss. Peter and Paul in Rome is offered for the living and the dead so that both will be availed salvation unto everlasting life. In the canon, the priest also asks God to grant to the dead, “a place of refreshment, light and peace.”


Now I will look at what two or three Church Fathers have to say/think about Purgatory and the souls that go there:


St. Cyprian of Carthage:

St. Cyprian equates Purgatory with “Pardon” which means venial (not mortal) sin is forgiven. He further describes Purgatory as torture and suffering for sin through purgation by fire.”


St. Basil the Great:

He says that if souls are found with venial sins or temporal punishment at their personal judgement, they are detained which references the term “prison” in Matthew 5: 25-26. If found without these wounds they immediately enter heaven.


St. Ambrose:

St. Ambrose offers prayers and oblation which is the Sacrifice of the Mass for the dead. He offers this for the emperors Valentinian and Gratin. These prayers are not only to honor the dead but to free them from their sins.


The Church Councils:

As the early Church spread, communities in their locations and local councils to establish customs concerning prayers for the dead.


In the African Church prayers for the deceased were to be made in the afternoon. This was established at the Third Council of Carthage.


In the Spanish Church at the First Council of Braga. It was commanded that prayers were not to be prayed for those who committed suicide. They also said that prayers for the dead were to be divided up among the clergy so that they might pray for the dead.


In the French Church at the Council of Cabilonense, it was the prayers at the Holy Mass that were to be beseeched for the spirits of the dead in a fitting place. In the German Church at the Council of Worms, the prayers for the dead were to include those who were hanged.


In the Italian Church at the Sixth Council under Symmachus that said that it would be a sacrilege to cheat the souls of the dead of prayers.


In the Greek Church under the authority of Bishop Martin of Bracarens said that Holy Communion was not to be forced into the mouths of those who were already dead.


Concerning the General Councils of the Universal Church, the Third Lateran (Pope Innocent), The Council of Florence, in the last season and the Council of Trent all support prayers for the dead in the Holy Mass and outside of Holy Mass. These practices were also included in liturgies of the Eastern Church (St. Basil the Great and St. John Chrysostom) and the Western Church (St. Ambrose and St. James).


The Council of Trent confirm the teachings of the Catholic Church in response to the Protestant Reformation. These teachings would include the teachings on the Dogma of Purgatory. It can be found in the Twenty-Fifth Session of the Council of Trent dated 3rd and 4th December 1563 in the Decree on Purgatory.


It states:

1- There is a Purgatory;

2- The Souls are helped by the prayers and sacrifices of the Church Militant, especially by Holy Mass;

3-Bishops are to teach this doctrine and this is to be believed, maintained, taught and everywhere proclaimed by the Faithful of Christ;

4- Bishops are to take care that the offerings of the faithful, prayers, Holy Masses, Alms, and other works of piety that are offered for the faithful departed be piously and devoutly performed. These should be offered diligently and accurately by priests and ministers of the Church and others bound to render this service.


We have walked through the ways to help the souls in Purgatory (sermon one); the Scripture basis for the belief in the revelation of Purgatory (sermon two) and the Church Fathers and Ecumenical Councils of the Church (sermon three).


In our Catholic charity we should always remember the Poor Souls in Purgatory, every month, not just in the month of November.

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