In recent years, Catholics in our culture have pretty much forgotten about the doctrine of purgatory. When people die, we often don’t pray for them, and even when we do, it’s usually more of a memorial than a real prayer. We basically just canonize the dead and imagine them to be in instant bliss. However, that’s not what our faith teaches. Instead, we’re supposed to pray for our departed loved ones that they may be purified of every last remnant of sin so they can enter heaven and enjoy eternal bliss with God. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:
From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. (CCC 1032)
So why does this doctrine go almost entirely unmentioned in our Church today? I would suggest that it’s because a key part of the reasoning behind it has also been forgotten. To see what I mean, let’s take a quick look at the basis of this important belief.
Called to Perfection
Despite what most people today think, our calling as Christians is not just to be good people or “decent folk.” No, we’re called to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48), and when Scripture says that, it’s not exaggerating. It really means what it says. Elsewhere, the New Testament describes the souls in heaven as “just men made perfect” (Hebrews 12:23), and it teaches that our calling is “to be conformed to the image of his Son [Jesus]” (Romans 8:29) and to “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). In other words, our ultimate purpose is to become like Jesus, who himself was perfect (see also 1 John 3:3), and to enter into the communion of perfect love that the three persons of the Trinity share.
Now, it’s fair to say that most of us don’t live up to this lofty calling. The overwhelmingly vast majority of us never reach perfection in this life, and for good reason: it’s impossible. On our own, we can never live up to this standard, but luckily, God doesn’t just leave us to our own devices. No, “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26), and as St. Paul tells us, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts” (Romans 5:5), allowing us to love just like he does. Simply put, while perfection is impossible for us on our own, God gives us the grace we need to achieve it.
However, we don’t become perfect all at once. It’s a process, one that takes an entire lifetime, and for most of us, even that isn’t long enough. Like I said before, most of us never reach perfection in this life, so if perfection is the prerequisite for entering heaven, then almost all of us will need to undergo a final purification before we can enter into the bliss of God’s presence. And that purification is purgatory.
Remember Our Calling
From this brief look at the reasoning behind the doctrine of purgatory, it’s easy to see why so many people today ignore it. It’s fallen by the wayside because we’ve forgotten that our calling as Christians is to be perfect. Most of us like to think that we’re good people, and we tend to think that’s good enough. Sure, we’re not perfect, but who is? That’s not a realistic goal for us imperfect humans, so good is good enough. And if that’s the case, then we don’t need purgatory. If we’re good people, then we don’t need any further purification when we die.
And the reverse is also true. If we understand our call to perfection, if we understand that we can’t get to heaven without removing every last remnant of sin, then the need for a final purification becomes quite obvious.
Consequently, the cure for our collective amnesia about purgatory is clear: we need to bring back an awareness that we’re called to be perfect. We need to understand that good isn’t good enough, and once we get that through our thick skulls, we will stop immediately canonizing the dead at funerals and memorial masses. Instead, we’ll remember that the vast majority of us will need to stop off in purgatory on our way to heaven, and we’ll pray for our deceased loved ones that their stops there may be as short as possible.