(This post isn't meant as a defense of the doctrine of purgatory, but as more of an explanation of purgatory. So you might notice missing Bible verses usually cited as "proofs," like 2 Maccabees 12:39-46, Matthew 5:24-26, Matthew 12:32, and 1 Corinthians 3:11-15 )
The Church teaches us that the Body of Christ is one, but we exist in three separate states (CCC954):
1.The Church Triumphant; these are the souls that have obtained the beatific vision of heaven. (See my post on The Communion of Saints )
2.The Church Militant; this is our current state on earth, the army of the Kingdom.
3.The Church Suffering (or the Church Penitent); this is the souls who are being purified in purgatory.
All three are the body of Christ, we are all one Body, separated by our ability to see and hear one another, but not separated by death, "for He is not the God of the dead, but of the living"(Luke 20:38a). Since we are all one body, we must pray for each other both the living, and the dead in Christ.
The Particular Judgment
When we die there are two ultimate destinations for our soul. Where we end up is determined at the very moment we draw our last breath. After our earthly bodies die, the time to seek forgiveness is over, and any mortal sin remains on our soul for all eternity.
CCC 1022: "Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven-through a purification or immediately,---or immediate and everlasting damnation"
At the particular judgment, immediately upon our death, we will have our ultimate eternal destination determined. Once this judgment has taken place there is no changing our eternal destiny, either we will spend all of eternity with God, the saints and His angels or with Satan and his (fallen) angels.
Souls bound for hell go there immediately upon judgement. But souls bound for heaven hit what is basically a fork in the road; either immediate entrance into the presence of God and achieving the beatific vision, or a period of purification to ready and cleanse our souls so we are pure enough to behold our God.
CCC 1030: "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."
Since we don't know if the concept of time will survive with our souls, we can't know how long our cleansing will take. It could be 1 second or 1000 years, we just have to trust in the power and mercy of God to cleanse us and prepare us for heaven.
Some mystics and saints of the Church have taught that purgatory should be thought of as a process and not so much a place. A process of purification that should not be understood as if it were a divine prison where we serve a sentence before admittance to heaven, but more akin to a hospital where we can be cleansed of our "attachment to sin" and it's temporal effects.
What some people get wrong about purgatory:
Some people mistakenly believe purgatory to be a sort of third option; a place for those not bad enough for hell but not good enough for heaven. But this is a dangerous belief, there is no middle ground for the "not so bads," it's either admittance to the kingdom of heaven or damnation. I've heard people, sometimes jokingly, say "I'm not going to make it to heaven, but if I'm not too bad then at least I should make it to purgatory." This kind of thinking shows a basic misunderstanding of the process of salvation as taught by the Catholic Church
Knowing this then we can see that purgatory is not a place for lukewarm Catholics who aren't good enough for heaven, it's not some sort of consolation prize for people not bad enough for hell but not good enough for heaven. No one is good enough for heaven, if we were then we wouldn't have needed a savior, we are justified through the death and resurrection of Christ. We are made "good enough" not by anything we've done, but by what He's done. Through the shedding of His precious blood we've been justified before God and granted entrance to heaven. Heaven is destination of all human souls in accordance with the will of God, but unfortunately some may chose eternal separation from God and reject His offer of salvation.
If you aim for purgatory as where you want to end up for all eternity then you need to get more involved in the Church and learn more about your faith, because that is a very dangerous goal. If that is truly your goal, or the goal of someone you know, then study the teachings on purgatory and you'll see that we can't aim to go there.
Purgatory is also not a place for second chances, it's not a Catholic mulligan. If we die outside a state of sanctifying grace (with unrepentant mortal sin on our souls) then there is no second chance, and we have chosen eternal separation from God. We can't do what we want and think that after we die we'll get another shot.
Purgatory is often envisioned, in writing and art, as burning and as fire. This is mostly due to the fact that one of the Bible verses most often associated with purgatory mentions fire (1 Corinthians 3:15). Some people think this will be a cleansing fire with a penitential pain, others believe it is the burning love of Christ for his bride, and some people think there will be no pain inflicted on us except for our realization that our sins have offended our perfect and all loving God.
Whether it lasts a second or a very long time, we should never consider it as punishment. All punishment due for our rebellion against God (that's what all sin is) has been expiated by the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary. What happens in purgatory is a gift, a final expiation to rid our souls of any venial sins, attachment to sin and all its temporal effects. Some saints have described the fires of purgatory not as a kind of divine torture, but as burning love of Christ's sacred heart, a fire that burns not of vengeance but of love.
Don't fear purgatory
Purgatory shouldn't be feared either; some people worry about going there with a fear that should be reserved for hell. We should thank God for His mercy and for providing us with an opportunity to burn away all imperfections before we are admitted into heaven. As we know, nothing impure can enter heaven but we must be refined like gold going through fire: "In this you rejoice,though now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ." (1 Peter 1:6-7)
The Church has never changed its teaching regarding purgatory
Some people believe that the Church no longer teaches or believes in purgatory. This shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the way dogma and doctrine work. A dogmatically define doctrine, such as purgatory, cannot just be cast aside. It is taught by the Church as a foundational and divinely revealed truth. The Church very much believes and teaches this doctrine, and always will.
Can anyone skip purgatory and go directly to heaven? Yes, but this is not up to us and is the providence of God to decide such things. All we can do is pray and believe in God and His mercy.
(This post originally appeared on my site )