Purgatory is often misunderstood and misinterpreted. In order to understand our role in praying for the dead, and to gain a greater glimpse of the glory of God’s love for us then we must be able to understand purgatory.
We must understand purgatory is not an actual place, contrary to what many believe. Purgatory is a state of being, not a physical location.
“All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire:
As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come.
This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture: ‘Therefore (Judas Maccabeus) made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.” 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. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead:
Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice, 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.” (CCC 1030-1032)
We are called to enter into God’s own self-giving love in this life. It is God’s self-giving, life-giving love that we, as Christians, are called into being with one another and with God. The difficulty comes when we understand and realize that we are not always capable of entering into that kind of love. Jesus came to earth and poured forth his life for the forgiveness of our sins. He suffered and died on the cross for us. God the Father sent His only Son to suffer and die an excruciating death for our failures, our mistakes, and our atrocities against God. Most of us, if we are honest, can admit we would not be willing to die for someone else’s crimes.
It is crucial to understand the three misconceptions about purgatory. Purgatory is not a physical place, it is not a second-chance, and it is not a “do-over” for our life. Purgatory is a process of being purged. We all have attachments to this world that get in the way of us loving like Christ loves and how we fully love him. The attachments we have to this life and this world prevent us from fully serving, loving, and experiencing God. It is those attachments that are burned up in the process of purgatory. St. Paul writes about this process to the Corinthians.
“But if someone’s work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire.” (I Corinthians 3:15)
We trust in the Lord and He knows what is best for us and what we need better than we even know ourselves. Purgatory is not a punitive place where God beats us, condemns us, and reminds us of how terrible we are as His children. It is a state of purification that is also a recognition of our own limitations and weaknesses in this life while simultaneously acknowledging the infinite power of God’s love.
Purgatory is not a place where God is saying that you’re not good enough. It is a state of God, in fact, proclaiming that you indeed are good enough to be called a child of God.