What do we make of purgatory? (Is it real or myth?) How do you get out of it?
I am at one and the same moment very pleased that this question was submitted and disturbed that this question needs to be answered, for the same reason: that our catechism teaches us that purgatory is real (no, Vatican II did not get rid of it), and that it is God’s mercy at work.
Purgatory is the state in which, after death, those who are judged worthy of heaven are purged or purified of any imperfections that remain on their souls. Very simply put, we acknowledge two final realities that remain unto eternity: heaven and hell.
Any souls that are in hell have freely chosen to renounce God and His loving plan through their sins, rooted in pride, choosing instead their own way (whatever that may be) and not God. A person who dies with their soul in a state of mortal sin risks the eternal loss of life with God (hell) – as they, by their committing of mortal sin of which they have not repented or have not received God’s
forgiveness, have freely chosen to live without God, and hence they have chosen to live in the eternal absence of God, which is hell – and hell is immediate upon death for these persons.
On the other hand, a person who dies whose soul is in a state of grace will be judged as worthy of heaven, though life in heaven may not be immediate. For nothing impure or no one who is not in perfect union with God is able to enter heaven. Plainly said, many and even most people do not fit this description of perfection in their
relationship with God at the moment of death. The imperfections in this relationship may not be the sins themselves, but false attachment to material things, the presence of unresolved hurts or feelings of division with others, or what might simply be called “unfinished business,” wherein the consequences of their choices on earth have not been resolved in a just manner. In this way, even though they are judged as worthy of heaven, they are not completely united to God, and need first to be purified or purged of these weaknesses, attachments, or impurities that prevent one from full union with God – such purification is the state of being called “purgatory.”
Scripturally, the word purgatory is not to be found. However, the reality is clear in multiple places (as in 2 Maccabees 12, where an offering is made on behalf of the dead; in Matthew 5:26, where Jesus alludes to imprisonment and not being released “until you have paid the last penny,” regarding those who hold something against their brother at the time of judgment; etc.). What is important to remember is purgatory is not eternal – but a transitory period between life on earth and life in the eternity of heaven. All souls in purgatory are destined for heaven. Hence, we pray for these persons and offer Mass on behalf of all those who have died – for our prayers assist them in being purified and released into heaven. No one is in purgatory forever, and all who are in purgatory have been judged worthy of heaven. Since they are in God’s hands, it is by His mercy that they are purified. Such purification of souls will last as long as necessary unto being perfected.
Hopefully no one doubts the existence of purgatory – for it is a doctrine of faith. However, in case you do, consider this: if there were no purgatory, your soul would need to be absolutely perfect at the moment of death. Because there is purgatory, God in His mercy purifies the souls who, though imperfect, are judged worthy of
heaven, that in eternity we may live forever in heaven. (Maybe you have noticed that funeral homilies rarely [and hopefully never] refer to the deceased person as already being in heaven). This teaching is not optional; it is the faith of the Church. Never deny it, but please pray for the souls of the deceased regularly, for this is an act of love, as it aids them in being purified and made ready for the fullness of life in heaven.