A Primer on Purgatory

by Lourdes Policarpio

What is Purgatory?

Purgatory comes from the Latin word purgare, which means to purify or to cleanse. (Purgatory: Myth or Reality by Guillermo Tejon, O.P.p. 22) It is a place or state of purification for souls that have been saved, but still need to be purified of their imperfections:

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. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1030,p.243)

The Council of Trent has taught that the debt or penalty due to sin is not always completely erased by the forgiveness of the sin (through confession), and therefore such debt or penalty has to be paid either in this world or in purgatory. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “Purgatory is the state in which those who die guilty of venial sins, or without having satisfied for the punishment due to their sins, will suffer for a time.” (Catechism by Alfredo Reyes, p. 398)

Why the Need for Purgatory?

Nothing impure or imperfect can enter Heaven, the dwelling place of the All-Holy Almighty God. Describing the New Jerusalem (heaven), the Book of revelation concludes with these words: “Nothing unclean may come into it: no one who does what is loathsome or false, but only those who are listed in the Lamb’s book of life.” (Rv 21:9-27)

Souls that die in God’s grace and are saved from the fires of hell, but nonetheless still have imperfections due to the effects of sins, necessarily have to go to a place of purification before enjoying God. Purgatory is actually the ultimate proof of God’s mercy. If Purgatory did not exist, meaning that in the after-life there is only Heaven and Hell, nothing unclean or totally spotless can enter Heaven then most of us would end up in Hell!

What is Purgatory Like?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “the souls in purgatory endure two kinds of sufferings: the pain of loss, which is the temporary privation of the vision of God; and the pain of sense, which is the endurance of physical pain.” (Alfredo Reyes, Catechism, p. 398)

The Church teaches that a real, purifying fire exists in Purgatory – a fire that burns and purifies the soul of its imperfections.

However, the pains associated with the fires of purgatory are mild compared to the greater pain of separation from God. The soul, we must remember, was made for God – upon death, as soon as the soul is liberated from the bondage of the body, it is overwhelmed by an intense longing for God. We do not feel this while on earth, for our soul is blinded by the numerous destructions of this world, and the trappings of the human body, but upon death, the full nature of the soul is revealed, and all the desires that so consumed as while on earth – wealth, power, pleasure – dissipate, and we will be possessed by that single, overpowering desire for seeing God. That fulfilled longing for the Greatest Object of desire constitutes the greatest suffering in Purgatory.

How do we Know it Exists?

Several texts from the Bible clearly point out the existence of Purgatory:

  1. Colossians 3:13-15: "St. Paul says that fire will be the test for everyone” and that some “will be saved, but it will be as if passing through fire.”
  2. Macchabees 12:46: "It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from sins.”

The basic argument, however, for the existence of Purgatory (and this should appeal to minds that thrive on logic) is as follows:

  1. Nothing defiled or unclean can enter into Heaven, the eternal abode of the All-Pure and All-Holy God.
  2. Souls who die in God’s grace yet who, because of sins they have committed during life are in a state of imperfection, cannot immediately enter Heaven. Purgatory, therefore, necessarily exists as a temporary state of purification for such souls.

The testimony of many saints, like St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, who have had contacts with souls in Purgatory also strengthens the belief in its existence.

Is this a Dogma of Faith?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly proclaims the existence of Purgatory. Likewise, this doctrine has been declared to be a part of the Catholic Faith by the ecumenical councils of II Lyons (1274), Florence (1439) and Trent (1563) and reaffirmed by the Second Vatican Council in 1964.

What Is The Best Way For Us On Earth To Help The Souls Of Purgatory?

The offering of the Mass is the best way. Aside from the Mass, we can help the poor souls through prayers like the Station of the Cross, and most especially the Rosary.

Our sacrifices and trials – big or small – offered to God in union with the sufferings of Christ, also have tremendous value.

Can We Avoid Or Shorten Our Purgatory? How?

By leading a good Christian life, by regularly attending the Holy Mass and receiving the Holy Eucharist, availing of the Sacraments, frequent prayer, and devotion to the Blessed Mother, especially through the Rosary.

Catholics should also strive to merit indulgences offered by the Church. Indulgences can be applied to the souls in Purgatory.

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