I was talking recently with a Protestant friend about praying for a mutual acquaintance who had passed away and she denied there was any need for it since there is no Purgatory. Is there any evidence in the early Church of prayer for the faithful departed?
I answered a similar question many years ago, which appears as question 25 in my book Question Time 1 (Connor Court 2012). There I mentioned the text of the Second Book of the Maccabees in which Judas the Maccabean orders a collection to be taken up and sent to Jerusalem for a sacrifice to be offered for the souls of his fallen comrades killed in battle: “Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin” (2 Mac 12:45).
From this text it is clear that the Jews in the centuries before Christ believed in prayer for the faithful departed, and therefore in the possibility of a state of purification after death which we call Purgatory.
This belief carried over to the apostles who, undoubtedly following the teaching of Christ, continued the custom of praying and offering Mass for the faithful departed.
The custom is set in stone on the tombs of Christians of the first centuries, where we find inscriptions like: “Eternal light shine upon thee, Timothea, in Christ”; “Let [the reader] pray to God to take to himself her spirit holy and pure” and “Thee, O heavenly Father, we implore to have mercy.”
Around the year 216 Tertullian describes how the Church prayed for the dead and offered Mass for them on the anniversary of their death: “A woman, after the death of her husband … prays for his soul and asks that he may, while waiting, find rest; and that he may share in the first resurrection. And each year, on the anniversary of his death, she offers the sacrifice” (Monogamy 10:1–2).
In the middle of the fourth century, St Cyril of Jerusalem writes of the Mass: “Then we make mention … of all among us who have already fallen asleep, for we believe that it will be of very great benefit to the souls of those for whom the petition is carried up, while this holy and most solemn sacrifice is laid out” (Catechetical Lectures 23:5:9).
Around the year 392 St John Chrysostom writes of the holy souls: “Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice (Job 1:5), why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them” (Homilies on First Corinthians 41:5).
Also, we recall St Monica’s request to her son Augustine just before her death: “Lay this body anywhere…This only I ask of you, that you remember me at the altar of the Lord, wherever you may be” (St Augustine, Confessions 9, 10-11).
St Augustine himself around the year 421 wrote: “That there should be some fire even after this life is not incredible, and it can be inquired into and either be discovered or left hidden whether some of the faithful may be saved, some more slowly and some more quickly in the greater or lesser degree in which they loved the good things that perish, through a certain purgatorial fire” (Handbook on Faith, Hope, and Charity 18:69).
So widespread was the custom of praying and offering Masses for the faithful departed that St Isidore of Seville could write in the seventh century: “To offer the sacrifice for the repose of the faithful departed is a custom observed all over the world. For this reason we believe that it is a custom taught by the very apostles” (On ecclesiastical offices, 1).
These texts are just a handful of the many that could be cited from the early Church.
It is clear from them that the custom of praying and offering Masses for the dead, with the corresponding belief in Purgatory, was universally accepted and practised in the early centuries.
Not only Catholics but Eastern Orthodox and Jews live the custom to this day. The practice was not challenged until the sixteenth century, when Protestants denied it.
So belief in Purgatory rests on a very solid foundation indeed. It would be foolish and dangerous to deny it. Frankly, I pity those who deny the existence of Purgatory and who will one day end up there with no one to pray for them because they fostered the belief that it doesn’t exist.