The Official Teaching of the Church on Purgatory

By Virginia G. Guzman-Manzo, MD

The Catholic Church teaches that there is such a state known as purgatory, as there is heaven and hell. Other religions and even non-Catholic Christians do not believe in purgatory. They say that there is no mention of purgatory anywhere in the Holy Scriptures.

What is purgatory?

Purgatory comes from the word “purge” which in turn comes from the Latin word purigare or purgare which means to purify by clearing or eliminating something that is bad, poisonous or obnoxious. According to Roman Catholic doctrine, purgatory is an intermediate state after death for expiatory purification.It is a state for punishment of souls who die in God’s grace but need satisfaction for past sins in order to be fit to enter heaven.

What the Bible says

The Church’s belief in a state or place of purification of the soul after death goes right back to the beginning as early as the Old Testament. In the Second book of Maccabees, we read how Judas the Macabee, discovering that his comrades who had been killed in battle were all wearing tokens of false gods, prayed that their souls might be forgiven. He took up a collection to be sent to Jerusalem to have a sacrifice offered “so that they might be delivered from their sins” (2 Mac 12:45). This a clear proof that the Jews in the second century BC believed there was a resurrection of the dead and that persons could be helped to be freed from their sins by prayers and sacrifices. Luther was troubled with these verses in Maccabees because he rejected the age-old teaching of purgatory. As a result, he removed the Maccabees from the canon of the Bible used by the Protestants.

In Baruch 3:4, Baruch asks the Lord to hear the prayers for the dead of Israel. Prayers for the dead are unnecessary in hell and unnecessary in heaven. This means that the prayers for the dead are for those in purgatory. In Heb. 12:23, we read that the spirits of just men who died in godliness are made perfect. They do not necessarily arrive perfect.

They are made perfect after death. But those in heaven are already perfect, and those in hell can no longer be perfect. Therefore those who need to be perfected are in purgatory.

In Matt. 5:48, Jesus says, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” We are only made perfect through purification, and in Catholic teaching, this purification, if not completed on earth, is continued in a transitional state we call purgatory. Again in Matt. 12:32, Jesus says, “And anyone who says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven, but no one who speaks against the Holy Spirit will be forgiven either in this world or in the next. Thus Jesus clearly indicates that there is forgiveness after death. The phrase “in the next” refers to the afterlife.

Forgiveness is not necessary in heaven and there is no forgiveness in hell. This means that there is another state after death called purgatory where sins can be forgiven after purification.

Remember the gospel about the rich man who, during his lifetime, ignored Lazarus, the beggar? Luke 16:19-31 tells about the dead rich man, suffering but still feels compassion for his brothers and wants to warn them of this place of suffering. But there is no suffering in heaven or compassion in hell, so where is the rich man? He is in purgatory.

There are many other verses in the Bible that shows the presence of purgatory but due to constraint of space they cannot all be recounted in this article.

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The end of the road

Death is inevitable for every one of us. Life eventually comes to an end.

We are just pilgrims passing through this earth to our final destiny which is heaven. For some, the road is short, for some long. For some the road is narrow and full of thorns; for some it is wide with few obstacles, but we all end up the same way. We die.

At the moment of death, our mortal flesh separates from our immortal soul. While the flesh is just starting to go into rigor mortis, the immortal soul is facing our Lord at the particular judgment. Our Catholic faith teaches that a person who dies in a state of mortal sin, refuses to be repentant and rejects reconciliation with God up to the last minute of his dying breath, has lost God forever and his soul is damned to the fires of hell for eternity.

There is “wailing and grinding of teeth” in hell due to the enormous and unrelenting hatred of the souls for themselves and for those around them. Hatred and remorse are the only emotions felt in that horrible prison because the damned souls realize they can no longer attained the reason for which they were created which is heaven. God does not want anyone ending up in hell but he has to respect man’s freedom, even if he chooses hell. “God does not need us to create us but he needs us to save us.”

Dying in sanctifying grace

If a person dies in the state of sanctifying grace, has been forgiven of all mortal sins in confession and fortified by the last sacraments, does this mean that his soul immediately goes to heaven? The answer could be “yes,” or “not yet.” It is yes for the one who had loved God and neighbor during his lifetime and if at the time of his death he has totally and sincerely reconciled with God and had fully paid his debts due to his sins with prayers, sacrifices, indulgences and the sacrament of the dying, then eternal happiness in heaven is his reward.

The answer is not yet if he still has some traces of sins for which he does not deserve hell and yet is not fit for heaven either. The need for integrity obviously becomes necessary after death in order to enter into perfect and complete communion with God. The soul without mortal sin is saved from hell but he cannot face God if he has venial sins, or if his life was lived in spiritual mediocrity, if his had been a “comfortable” religion, if he had been stingy in his prayers or in his love of neighbor, if he had confessed his sins mainly because of fear of hell and not because of love of God (imperfect contrition), if his disposition was not fully sincere, and for other reasons. Then it is very likely, at the moment of death, that he is incapable of that perfect love of God for him to enter heaven.

In this case, the soul is not deserving of hell but not fit for heaven.

Why should there be purgatory?

It is here that the doctrine of purgatory is clearly manifested in its reasonableness. Although some may say that this doctrine is not found in the Bible, reason alone would indicate that there must be a process of purification in order that the lesser imperfections would not become a barrier between the soul and God. And that process is purgatory.

God’s holiness demands that in order to enter heaven, where all is light, beauty, love and purity – holiness, in short – the soul must be completely pure, free from every stain of sin. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “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 (CCC 1030).

It is also a matter of God’s justice. When two people committed the same sins during their life, and one tried to make up for them by means of prayers, good works, penance, indulgences, etc., and the other has done very little to make up, would it be just and fair that both would directly go to heaven and enjoy the same happiness?

Or a person stole money from his neighbor. Later, he feels sorry and went to his neighbor, apologized, gives back the money and was forgiven.

So all is well that ends well. But let us suppose, the man has already spent all the money and has no means of returning it. If he is sincere and truly sorry, he will find means of paying back what he stole, perhaps by working or doing menial jobs for his neighbor. This is the temporal punishment for his offense. If he dies without fully paying his debt, then he pays it in purgatory.

What is purgatory like?

One may ask, “Is it better to suffer on earth than in purgatory? The answer is yes. First, suffering on earth is definitely easier and less painful.

The fire that purifies us in purgatory is just like hell: there is also the pain of sense and the pain of loss. However, the soul in purgatory knows he will eventually enter heaven and that prospect comforts him and lessens his pain.

Second, all our sufferings on earth have merits and they can be a means of purification on earth and make us escape purgatory. Suffering in purgatory does not earn any merit because all opportunity to gain merit and forgiveness ends at death. Third, every time we embrace suffering here on earth with love, we not only bring grace and merits to ourselves but to all men who compose the Mystical Body of Christ.

Can we help the souls in purgatory?

Yes, we can help them to shorten their stay in purgatory and move on to heaven. The souls in purgatory cannot ask God for forgiveness nor pray for themselves because the time of mercy and forgiveness is over.

It is now the time for justice. However, we can help them facilitate their ascent to heaven by our prayers and sacrifices. In turn, although they cannot pray for themselves, they can pray for the living. The saints in heaven pray for the dead and the living, and this united prayer among the faithful on earth, the saints in heaven and the souls in purgatory is what is known in the Catholic teaching as “communion of saints.”

Can we escape purgatory?

Yes, after death we can jump over purgatory and go straight to heaven. In fact, that should be our aim as we live our life in this earth.

We must make use of all the instruments that God has provided us for our salvation: loving God and neighbor, obeying God’s commandments and following the teachings of the Church, availing of the sacraments, prayer, and mortifications; practicing the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity infused in us in baptism, as well as the cardinal and human virtues which we should develop through our own efforts. And we should embrace with love any kind of suffering God permits us to experience in this world because that could stand for our temporal punishment and save us from purgatory in the next life.

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