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Purgatory: A book of Christian comfort

On the inside cover of this book was this:Purgatory,: A book of Christian comfort, by Bernhard Bartmann



This complete exposition of dogmatic theology concerning Purgatory will supply an important lack among available textbooks in English. As a professor of dogmatic theology the author knows his subject thoroughly, and he presents it with admirable clarity and completeness. Yet he is by no means too technical for the ordinary reader. While eliminating all the so-called visionary evidence of the existence and nature of Purgatory, he presents it in the clearest objective light; and the book is aptly described in its sub-title as "a Christian book of consolation."



PROFESSOR BARTMANN'S book on Purgatory has met with great success in Germany and there are French and Italian translations. We have not a very great choice of works on the subject in English, so that a new book will probably be welcome. I have endeavored to render the thought of the original as faithfully as possible but have ventured to omit a couple of pages dealing with 'St. Patrick's Purgatory,' which may or may not be apropos, but which might ruffle feelings in Ireland. I have also left out a page dealing with the German name for Purgatory. The discussion is irrelevant for English readers. It may be that some surprise will be created by certain statements here and there, but it will be a definite gain if we base our ideas of Purgatory on Scripture and theology rather than on visions and revelations. However, in this respect, we need not be perhaps quite as severe as the author. In any case, though I faithfully reproduced his opinion on the effect of some of the Saints' austerities upon their mental powers, I am very far from sharing it. The book can hardly fail to be for many what its sub-title promises, viz., a book of Christian comfort; for it puts before the reader a view of Purgatory which, unfortunately, is not always sufficiently understood. Let us once for all get rid of the notion that Purgatory is a suburb of Hell: it is the anteroom of Heaven.


St. Michael's Day, 1936.




This Introduction is being written on the eighth Sunday after Pentecost. It is one of those Sundays on which the liturgical prayers express in particularly glowing and fervent terms the Christian's sure and certain hope of salvation. The whole Church, even as the individual just man, lives by faith. Hope in turn builds on faith; for we hope to obtain the object of our belief. We believe because God has given us a revelation; we hope because of His promises. In both respects the sure and immovable ground of our mental attitude is not ourselves but God, of whom Christ says that He alone is good. The texts of today's Mass are particularly calculated to feed and strengthen these dispositions of the soul. Then in the epistle the priest reads St. Paul's words to the Romans:

'Brethren, you have not received the spirit of bondage again in fear, but you have received the spirit of adoption of sons, whereby we cry: Abba, Father. For the Spirit himself gives testimony to our spirit, that we are the sons of God: and if sons, heirs also: heirs indeed of God and joint heirs with Christ.'1

The Gradual and the Communion of the Mass, which the Church takes from the Psalter, are in a like strain:

'Be thou unto me a God, a protector, and a place of refuge to save me: In thee, 0 God, have I hoped: 0 Lord, let me never be confounded.'

And again:

'Taste and see that the Lord is sweet: blessed is the man that hopes in Him.'

Thus the Old Testament vies with the New in an effort to fill the faithful and loving soul with trust in God. The Church, as teacher and guide of the faithful, carefully stresses sayings such as these in her Liturgy and makes of them the vehicle of her hope of salvation.
Lex orandi lex credendi. As the Church prays, so she believes, and as she believes, so she prays. In these prayers of faith she embraces all the aeons of the present world and the next. Her saving care is as wide as the spiritual membership of her mystical body whose head is Christ, our Saviour, who quickens all the members and by whom every particular member lives, as the branches live by the tree that bears and feeds them. Nor is He only the head that crowns this mystical body; He is also its heart whose constant pulsation drives the vital sap of grace into all the members.

'Without me you can do nothing.'2

And since in Him, in the words of St. Paul,

'the goodness and humanity of God our Saviour hath appeared,' He is also the visible guarantee of the boundless and everlasting mercies of God who ' is not willing that any should perish '3

but that all should attain salvation. In this spirit, which is that of primitive Christianity, and in a spirit of optimism which has its strong roots in divine revelation, this book on Purgatory has been written. It is written for the purpose of comforting believers, in accordance with the epistle of the Mass which is said on the day of a burial, at the conclusion of which the Church exhorts us in the words of St. Paul: 'Wherefore comfort ye one another with these words.' The new Preface of the Mass for the dead contains a similar promise. The Church will not have us stand by the grave of our dear ones in utter desolation, like the pagans who, bereft of all hope, put on the graves of the dead a figure of Grief with an extinguished torch in its hand, as if to signify that the best part of existence is at an end.


On the contrary, the Church erects in her cemeteries the victorious emblem of the cross, and in the Mass of All Souls she declares that through our Lord Jesus Christ, God has given us the victory over death — tuis enim fidelibus, Domine, vita mutatur, non tollitur — for those who believe in Thee, life is not destroyed but changed — and, in the words of an ancient variant, we add: in melius — changed, not for worse, but for better. 'Nearer to God! ' is the last cry of the dying Christian. There is extraordinary comfort in the dogma of Purgatory when rightly understood as the doctrine of a purification after death, granted and prepared by divine mercy, for the cleansing and expiation of sin. It is but a practical application of the mercy and longsuffering of God in regard to sinners as explained by our Lord in His parables. Assuredly there are limits to that mercy, but they are determined not by God, but by man. If a man strays so far from God as not to retain any link with Him, and if he brings about this ' godless' condition by his own deliberate act, his state beyond the grave can be but the perpetuation of his present condition: this is what we call Hell. Hell is too frequently represented as something utterly incomprehensible. When we read the books which our modern freethinkers try to spread among the people, which preach not only an undisguised atheism, but in which God is blasphemed with expressions of truly diabolical hatred, we begin to understand what is meant by the mysterious word Hell. However, this book deals not with Hell, but with Purgatory, for we have to do with the normal condition of the Christian, not with an abnormal state of aversion from God and His grace. We have learnt from the lips of Jesus Christ that resistance to the Holy Ghost is not forgiven, either in this life or in the next. However, it is necessary to make a profound distinction between the sin which Holy Scripture calls 'a sin unto death' and those venial sins for the forgiveness of which we daily plead in the Lord's Prayer, and which is granted when we say 'forgive us our trespasses.' And since there is a profound distinction between these sins, there is likewise a clear and profound difference between the penalty due to them. The present book is a strong and emphatic protest against a rigorism which would attempt to turn Purgatory into a kind of Hell, as if between them there were practically no difference except their respective duration.


St. Thomas lays it down as an elementary principle of dogmatic theology that everything must be viewed from God's standpoint. Nowhere is this rule more necessary than in the study of eschatology. A great post-Tridentine theologian4 has written an appalling passage when, speaking of Purgatory, he says that:

'God deals more sternly and more cruelly with the souls in Purgatory than ever man did with his bitterest foe, for even the most cruel of men cannot behold without pity a criminal who burns for one brief quarter of an hour in a fire that devours his whole being.'

The above-mentioned theologian supports this assertion by an appeal to private revelations. But what does our Lord teach? 'If you then being evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more your Father who is in Heaven?'5 All created or human goodness is but an overflow of divine goodness. But for Him who alone is good, there would be no goodness of any kind.


The present treatise on Purgatory rests on strict theological principles and resolutely discards all 'vision-literature.' In their eschatology, the Middle Ages were freer than we are. People then felt but little need of a critical examination of sources, for they imagined the next world somewhat after the manner of Dante, and in accordance with the categories of time and space to which the present life is subject; in our days even the simple people are no longer so naive as to take such materialistic pictures for dogmatic facts. St. Thomas says that we should refrain from supporting eternal truths by bad or inadequate arguments,
for by so doing we expose them to the sneers and the contempt of our opponents. The comforting words of Christ to His disciples, that their names were written in Heaven and that He had given them power to tread on snakes and scorpions and on every hostile power, are applicable to the faithful of all times and conditions, and most emphatically to those who have entered into the life beyond the grave. Thus we remove out of the way every vestige of superstition or pagan demonology which would have us imagine that the souls of the departed fall a defenseless prey to the wickedness and cunning of evil spirits from whose grip they are not able to free themselves at the judgment: 'If I, by the finger of God, cast out devils, doubtless the kingdom of God is come upon you.'6 The sombre demonism which runs amuck in nearly all the descriptions of Purgatory of bygone times does not redound to the credit of those ages; it belongs to the same category as the belief in witchcraft which disgraced past centuries. These things are but instances of mass hysteria. It is high time for our teaching on Purgatory to base itself exclusively on a dogmatic foundation, as is prescribed by the Vatican Council for every other dogma.


One word more on the origin of the idea of a purification after death. It arose of necessity out of three truths firmly grounded on Scripture and religious experience. The first is an unshakable faith in God's holiness which cannot stand contact with what is not pure and holy. 'Be ye holy even as I am holy,' we read already in the Old Law. Christ, on His part, put this eschatological question:

'Friend, how did thou come in here without having on the wedding garment?'

And St. John declares that there shall not enter anything defiled into God's everlasting city,7 Then a true understanding of the stark realities of life led to a perception that not all the dead have attained absolute purity. Lastly a keen realization of the mystical body of Christ, that is, the mysterious oneness of all the faithful with Christ, at once suggested the idea of intercession for the departed. Subsequently Holy Writ supplied several texts in further illustration, support, and explanation of a belief which was already a definite and firm conviction.

The purpose of these introductory remarks is to make it easier to understand certain sections of this book. What is here set down rests on a strictly theological foundation, but since the book is intended for a wider circle of readers, I did not hesitate to repeat certain truths of special importance. Anyone interested in all that concerns the next world — and who is not? seeing that the peoples of all times have taken it into account — will find that the study of this book is an introduction to Catholic thought on an important point, and that the seriousness of the subject is not devoid of comfort. Even in this stern matter, the gospel of Christ retains its indestructible character of 'glad tidings' of salvation. Our Catholic faith is a believing of these 'glad tidings' and firmly establishes us on the solid foundation laid down by St. Paul when he wrote to the Romans:

'None of us lives to himself, and no man dies to himself; for whether we live, we live unto the Lord; or whether we die, we die unto the Lord. Therefore, whether we live, or whether we die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ died and rose again; that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.'8

Introductory Footnotes


1 Roman. 8,15.16.
2 Joshua 15.5
3 2 Peter 3, 9.
4 Lessius, De Perfectionibus divinis, I, XIII, c. 17.
Quanta ergo est illa Dei severitas qua in suos amicos, in suos filios, et regni sui haeredes ita saevit, in Ioca teterrima illos procul a suo conspectu ablegans, et tanto tempore tantis cruciatibus subjiciens? Quis unquam ita suos tractavit hostes? quis inimici sui etiam juratissimi non moveatur misericordia, si eum vel ad quadrantem horae in medio ignis colligatum tenuerit, flammis undique corpus ejus vique ad viscera depascentibus ?
5 Luke 11,13.
6 Luke 11,20.
7 Apocalypse 21,27.
8 Romans. 14,7 seq.

Table of Contents

Translator's Note


Part I. Preliminary Questions

  1. Sources

  2. The Way To The Next World-Death

  3. Where Is The Next World?

  4. The Psychology Of The Hereafter

  5. After Death The Judgment

Part II. Purgatory

  1. Its Existence In Holy Scripture

  2. Purgatory In The Church Of The Fathers

  3. The Object Of The Purgatorial Cleansing

  4. How Souls Are Cleansed

  5. How We May Help The Holy Souls

  6. The Limits Of Our Help

  7. Misrepresentations And Exaggerations.

  8. Is It Possible To Avoid Purgatory?

  9. The Joys Of Purgatory