To begin anything well, we need to consider the end—where we want to be or what we want to accomplish. This is also true for spiritual goals. As human persons our ultimate end or goal is eternal union with God, and one of the states most of us will pass through to reach that blessed end is called purgatory. Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition—which together make up the one deposit of faith—enlighten us on the reality of purgatory. The formulations of Church councils, especially Florence and Trent, as well as the writings of the saints and scholars throughout history, deepen our understanding.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) defines purgatory as “a state of final purification after death and before entrance into heaven for those who died in God’s friendship, but were only imperfectly purified; a final cleansing of human imperfection before one is able to enter the joy of heaven” (CCC, Glossary; see also CCC 1031, 1472). As believers in God’s merciful love, we should want to be purified of our sins and imperfections; in this sense, we should desire purgatory. It is a state of hope, a furnace of divine love that purifies us so that we can be with God forever in heaven. Purgatory makes us perfect in God’s love. As C.S. Lewis, the great Christian apologist has said, “Our souls demand purgatory, don’t they?”
Here are some helpful ways I have found to talk about purgatory with non-Catholics (and those Catholics who think that purgatory is a relic of the Church’s pre-Vatican II past):
- God is perfect; he is all holy. Nothing unclean can enter his presence (see Revelation 21:27). Therefore, we must be perfectly holy before we can enter heaven (see Hebrews 12:14).
- Though we may strive to cooperate with God’s saving grace, most of us will die with imperfections and attachments to sin.
- Therefore, there must be an intermediate state between bodily death and heaven that will cleanse us from our imperfections and prepare us to enter into the all-holy presence of God. The Church has defined this state as “purgatory.”
Many Catholic Scripture scholars believe St. Paul is describing purgatory in his first letter to the Corinthians:
“According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and another man is building upon it. Let each man take care how he builds upon it. For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation 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 as through fire” (1 Corinthians 3:10-15).
After speaking about building our lives on the foundation of Christ, Paul turns to our death, when all of our works will be revealed. The term “the Day” speaks of our particular judgment after death (Hebrews 9:27). This purification is described as a fire and our works as different building materials. What is not worthy to be in God’s presence is burned away (like straw or wood), and what is valuable and eternal (like gold or silver) will not be consumed but refined by this purifying fire. You can find similar images in other parts of the New Testament (see 1 Peter 1:7). While there will be a kind of suffering or “fire,” the ultimate end is the person will be saved by it.
Understanding this purification of the soul after death is why we pray for the holy souls. Praying for the dead was a practice we see in the Old Testament (2 Maccabees 12:38-46; Sirach 7:33), one which was confirmed as a belief and practice by the first followers of Jesus (see the writings of St. Ephrem, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, among others).
Let me propose three spiritual exercises that can flow from our reflection on purgatory:
- Let us resolve to accept the gift of God’s forgiveness by participating in the sacraments, especially reconciliation, more frequently.
- Let us regularly examine our earthly attachments (what has hold of our attentions, affections and energy?). Are they healthy attachments? If not, create a spiritual plan for loosening their grip on your life.
- Finally, give the holy souls the gift of your prayers, and grace-filled works that they may be finally and fully united to God. Eternal rest, grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. Amen.
St. John Paul II offered a brief, but beautiful, reflection on purgatory, during one of his public audiences. You can find it here.
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