Catholics and non-Catholics alike, many times, have a skewed view of purgatory. Preconceived notions or inaccurate understandings of the theological truths behind purgatory lead away from the Church rather than to it. There are 7 truths about purgatory every Catholic (and non-Catholic) should understand:
1.) Purgatory means “to purge” – Purgatory is derived from the Latin word “purgatorium” which means “to purge”. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains purgatory as a “purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.” (CCC 1030).
2.) Purgatory exists- It is true that not everyone goes to heaven. Many would like to believe they can create their own version of truth, known as moral relativism, without imposing those beliefs onto others and accepting others’ beliefs as truth. Moral relativism is simply not truth. Not everyone goes to heaven, but those who do not go directly to heaven will not all be condemned to hell and eternal damnation. Purgatory exists to purify us from those attachments to the world and things which are not consistent with the love of God.
3.) Purgatory is not a punishment by God- Unlike eternal damnation (hell), Purgatory is not a punishment from God because of our sins, it is a cleansing from our sins. Scripture teaches “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God almighty and the Lamb. The city had no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gave it light and its lamp was the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and to it the kings of the earth will bring their treasure. During the day its gates will never be shut, and there will be no night there. The treasure and wealth of the nations will be brought there, but nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who does abominable things or tells lies. Only those will enter whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” (Revelation 21:22-27).
We need to understand that we cannot enter heaven in a state of sin. Sin is unclean and the Sacred Scriptures are clear about nothing entering the presence of God that is unclean. We must be cleaned before entering his presence. It is just as if we are invited to enter the Royal Palace in England to meet with one of the royal family members. We would certainly not show up to the appointment in dirty clothes full of mud. We would take a shower, put on clean clothes, wash our hair, and ensure we were clean to meet the royal family. How much greater and higher it is to stand in the presence of God Almighty than earthly royalty, yet we are doing ourselves a disservice in thinking we can show up dirty.
4.) Suffering endured in purgatory is not physical suffering- The suffering in purgatory is an intense suffering from longing to see God but yet not being in his presence. The suffering is intense and very painful, as St. Catherine of Genoa notes that “there is in purgatory as much pain as in hell.” (Treatise of Purgatory) She goes on in her writings to say “souls in purgatory unite great joy with great suffering. No peace is comparable to that of the souls of purgatory, except that of the saints in heaven.” Purgatory is this combination of peace and pain. The suffering is not a physical suffering because it is an intense suffering due to the separation from God. The soul suffers because the soul loves God and is unable yet to see Him. The more the person loves God, the more suffering one endures at not being able to see Him or be in His presence. The peace comes as a result of knowing that one will see God when the purification has been completed.
5.) Purgatory is not a physical place- Pope John Paul II said “the term (purgatory) does not indicate a place, but a condition of existence.” Purgatory is a preparation for and prelude of sorts to heaven. It is a state of suffering and cleansing before we are able to enter the presence of God.
6.) Purgatory can be avoided- It appears, at times, we are comfortable with relying on purgatory as our destination when we die. The reality is purgatory can be avoided. God desires for us to avoid purgatory and enter directly into eternal life with Him in heaven. We sell ourselves short when we make comments such as “I’m just hoping for purgatory at this point”. We must seek to become saints. We must live to become saints. We must not settle for less. We can avoid purgatory by doing our best to avoid sin, do penance for the sins we commit, partake in the sacrament of Reconciliation, receive the Holy Eucharist regularly, have a deep prayer life, gain indulgences, and accept suffering.
7.) We need to pray for those in purgatory- The first thing we must realize is that as Christians we should do everything out of a love for others. We are given the words of Jesus in John 13:34-35 “I give you a new commandment; love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” If you know a person you love is suffering, do you pray for them? We all pray for those we know are sick or suffering. If we pray for those on earth that are suffering, how much greater is it to pray for those suffering in purgatory? Praying for those in purgatory is a great act of love and we should regularly lift them up in prayer, offer Masses for them, pray the rosary for them, and offer our sufferings up for them.
The month of November is devoted to the souls in purgatory. We remember loved ones, and even those we do not know, in purgatory throughout the entire month. It is not enough for us to just stop with our prayers and remembrances for souls in purgatory on November 2 (All Souls Day). In fact, after gaining an understanding of purgatory, it should motive every Catholic to take time throughout the entire year to pray for the poor souls in purgatory and to aim to avoid it ourselves.