Question; Protestants and Purgatory


Full question from Grace Cooke:

As Protestant converts to Catholicism what about our Protestant parents or family members who died in a Believing relationship with Jesus? Are they in purgatory? Should we have a Mass offered for them?Answer:

Another great question from Grace, and one that has probably been on the mind of every convert from Protestantism since 1517. 

I see three questions here so I'll break it up and take them one at a time.

  • Can Protestants Be Saved?

Since purgatory is not an eternal state, but is a transitory period of purification before entering into the eternal state of heaven, so all in purgatory will eventually enter heaven (see CCC 1054), it seems reasonable to ask the question of whether Protestants can go to heaven.

Protestant belief is far more varied than that of Catholics, there are approximately 30,000 plus Protestant denominations, so generalizing their beliefs is very difficult. But there are some foundational beliefs that bind them together, and many of these actually bind them to Catholics as well, because we are all one Body of Christ.

How is one "saved"? Many Protestants will say, "if you believe and accept Jesus as your 'personal Lord and Savior' you will go to heaven." This overly simplified plan of Salvation is kind of off the mark. Yes we must submit to Christ's lordship, and we also must believe Him to be our Savior, but there is more to it than simple intellectual assent.

In his epistle, Saint James reminds us that intellectual assent alone is not enough to save us, we must put our faith into action, the first action being getting baptized.

But some one will say, "You have faith and I have works." Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe-and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you foolish fellow, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works, and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, " Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness"; and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Ra'hab the harlot justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead.

James 2:18-26

Saint Peter lays out the plan of salvation in his sermon on the first Pentecost Sunday in Jerusalem, and the action we must take:

Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Brethren, what shall we do?" And Peter said to them, " Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him." Acts 2:37-39

St. Peter tells them to repent and be baptized, and this has been the means of incorporation into the Body of Christ ever since. The catechism says that baptism is the ordinary means of salvation, but that while we are bound by the sacraments, God is not. As such He can save anyone he pleases, whether they've been baptized or not. (See ccc 1213-1284 for the full treatment on this subject.)

The Lord himself affirms that Baptism is necessary for salvation. He also commands his disciples to proclaim the Gospel to all nations and to baptize them. Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament. The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude; this is why she takes care not to neglect the mission she has received from the Lord to see that all who can be baptized are "reborn of water and the Spirit." God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments. CCC 1257

Since there is one baptism (Ephesians 4:5), all who have been baptized into Christ are one.

There are real differences, to put it mildly, between Catholics and Protestants, but we are united in one baptism and one Body of Christ. The catechism speaks of this unity, despite the man made divisions that have separated us since AD 1517.

818 "However, one cannot charge with the sin of the separation those who at present are born into these communities [that resulted from such separation] and in them are brought up in the faith of Christ, and the Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers . . . . All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church."

819 "Furthermore, many elements of sanctification and of truth" are found outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church: "the written Word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope, and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as visible elements." Christ's Spirit uses these Churches and ecclesial communities as means of salvation, whose power derives from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church. All these blessings come from Christ and lead to him, and are in themselves calls to "Catholic unity."

Long story short, yes Protestants can go to heaven, but whether they will or not is dependent upon their cooperation with God's graces, just the same as it is with Catholics.

  • Will Saved Protestants Go To Purgatory?

Only God knows the state of someone's soul at the point of death. My own father died a few years ago as a faithful (non catholic) Christian and I believe he died in friendship with God, so I believe his eternal destiny is heaven.

He didn't believe in purgatory, but that doesn't mean he can't end up there, at least temporarily. Purgatory is for anyone needing to be cleansed from the temporal consequences of sins that had their eternal consequences forgiven by Christ.

Since Protestants don't, or can't, avail themselves of the treasure that the Church has to offer in the form of indulgences, they are more likely than not to have unremitted temporal consequences for forgiven sins on their souls. But Protestants do suffer, both for the faith and in every day life, and if they were to accept this suffering as a type of purgative experience here on earth then that may go a long way in freeing them from the attachment to sin that we all experience in this life.

I'm of the opinion that purgatory will not be a very painful experience, but we will rejoice and understand that mercy and justice have brought us there. It is in no way a "second chance" but it is the ultimate expression of God's mercy, that even though we may die with venial sin, we may still enter into heaven after we receive final purification. (See ccc 1030-1032)

Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw- each man's work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

1 Corinthians 3:12-15

I'm also of the opinion that most Christians will have to experience some amount of purgation before entering into heaven, and there will be lots of surprised Protestants in purgatory.

(For more on purgatory see this article from last year Purgatory: A Cleansing Fire )

  • Should We Have Masses Offered For Them?

You can absolutely have masses offered for living or deceased Protestants, and doing so would be a commendable deed. In fact, Protestants are in more need of having Masses offered for their souls than Catholics because their families most likely won't be praying for them after they died, but the Church always prays for all souls in purgatory, Catholic and non-Catholic alike.

I've known many people that have gone on to the next life, but only two have affected me in a deep and profound way. My grandfather passed away on Dec 20th 2013, he was a faithful Catholic and a big influence on my spiritual life. Then my father passed on Dec 20th 2014, exactly a year after his father-in-law. He was a faithful Christian, and also a huge influence in my life in more ways than I can count.

I've had several Masses said for both of them. Not a day goes by that I don't offer a prayer for both their souls, and hope that I will one day see them again.

(If you would like to ask your own questions about anything at all related to the Catholic faith, please visit this link: Questions )

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