Purgatory: Church Teaching

By Virginia Manzo 

What is purgatory? Is there really such a place or a state in the afterlife? 0ur non-catholic brethren do not believe its existence because nowhere in the Bible is the word "purgatory" ever mentioned. However, from the Holy Scriptures itself we can grasp certain elements that help us understand the meaning of this doctrine even if it is not formally described. 

What the Bible Says

According to the Old Testament religious law, what is destined for God must be perfect. For example, in the sacrificial level, there was burning of the animals offered to God (Lev 22:22) and in the human level, the priest or ministers of worship must be pure and without defect (Lev 21: 17-23). Total dedication to God requires physical integrity of individuals and of society as a whole (1Kgs 8:61). In Psalm 51, the sinner confesses and recognizes his guilt (v.3) asking immediately to be purified or "cleansed" 11, 16).

In l Cor 3:13-15, St. Paul says:

If the work of which any man has built on the foundation (which is Christ) survives, he will receive a reward. If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss though he himself will be saved but only through fire.

In Matthew 5:48, Jesus exhorts us during our earthly life "to be perfect as my heavenly father is perfect." Moreover, we are invited to "cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit" (2 Cor 7:1, 1John 3:3) because the encounter with God requires absolute purity.

What the Church Teaches

At death, the very instant the soul leaves the body, it is judged by the almighty God. Our Catholic faith teaches that a person who dies in a state of mortal sin, refuses to be repentant and rejects reconciliation with God to the very end, has lost God forever and his soul is damned to hell. If a soul dies in a state of sanctifying grace, fortified by the last sacraments, does this mean that it immediately goes to heaven? Maybe, or maybe not yet.

The need for integrity obviously becomes necessary after death in order to enter into perfect and complete communion with God. For those who find themselves being open to God but still imperfectly, the journey towards eternal beatitude requires a purification which the faith of the Church illustrates in the doctrine of "purgatory". Our mortal sins may have been forgiven in the sacrament of penance but if our life was lived in spiritual mediocrity, if ours had been a "comfortable" religion or if we had been stingy with our prayers, it is not likely that we shall be capable, at the moment of our death, of that perfect love of God that is required for the soul to enter heaven. For many of us this might be the state our soul will find itself when we face God in our particular judgment - not deserving of hell but not fit for heaven.

It is here that the doctrine of purgatory is clearly manifested in its reasonableness. Even if this doctrine has not come down to us from Christ and his apostles through the tradition of the Church, reason alone would indicate that there must be a process of purification in order that lesser imperfections would not become a barrier between the soul and God.

Purgatory is also a matter of justice. No one can enter heaven and be rewarded with beatific vision without being perfectly pure. This is the function of that temporary state of punishment which we call purgatory.

There is in purgatory, as in hell, the "pain of sense." This pain of sense is caused by some sort of "fire" that afflicts the soul. It is not like the fire we know in our stoves or campfires but its nature is such that it cannot be better described in our human language except by the word "fire."

But unlike in hell where there is endless suffering, hatred and agony, purgatory is a place full of hope. It is a state where everyone, while being purified with suffering, awaits the eternal reward of beatific vision. Here hope springs eternal and the souls are comforted by the Holy Spirit and our prayers.

How long does a soul stay in that place of purification? It depends upon the degree of cleansing and purification it needs and the power of prayers through the communion of saints.

The Communion of Saints

In the early Church, all faithful members of the mystical body of Christ were called saints. The word "saint" means holy. Every Christian soul, incorporated by Christ with baptism (as long as he is in the state of sanctifying grace) is holy, and therefore, considered a saint in the original meaning of the word. Nowadays, the word "saint" is generally limited to those who are in heaven. But in the Apostles' Creed when we say, "I believe in... the communion of saints" we are using the original meaning of the word.

The word "communion" means "union with". Here we believe that there exists a union, a fellowship, an interrelationship among all souls in whom the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ dwells. This union or communion of saints includes ourselves living here on earth and our "branch" is called the Church Militant - we are still struggling, still fighting against sin and error. The souls in purgatory are also members in this communion of saints, called the Church. Suffering because their minor sins and debts of penance have still to be purged though they are already established in grace forever. The saints in heaven are called the Church Triumphant; they have already won the battle and are enjoying their reward in heaven.

The communion of saints means that all of us who are united in Christ - the souls in heaven the souls in purgatory and we, on earth - must be mindful of the needs of one another. Each member of the communion of saints prays for one another. The saints in heaven no longer need our prayers but we pray to them for their powerful intercession. They pray for the souls in purgatory and focus here on earth.

We, the church militant, on our part must honor the saints. In doing so, we are honoring God since the saints are masterpieces of God's grace. We pray for the suffering souls in purgatory. They cannot help themselves but we can help them by our prayers to speed them onto heaven.

The souls in purgatory can no longer pray for themselves for the time of meriting for them is past but they can help us who are still here on earth with their prayers. The communion of saints is helping and loving each other through the power of prayer. It is an unending cycle of giving and receiving graces, a bond among the faithful in heaven, purgatory, and earth. 

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