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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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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