A review of the Church’s understanding of purgatory.
During November, our Church offers greater attention to the faithful departed. Through the celebration of All Saints and All Souls, we are invited both to reflect on the virtues and heavenly life of the saints and to intercede on behalf of those who have died and are still journeying—that is, for those who are in a state of purification in preparation for the perfect state of heaven. We know this state of purification as “purgatory.”
Unfortunately, people today either scoff at the notion of purgatory or altogether deny it. Purgatory, however, is a very important and beautiful doctrine of the Catholic Faith. Yes, purgatory is beautiful. In order to understand this beauty, consider for a moment the realities of heaven and of earthly life without an acknowledgement of the state of purgatory.
All that is in heaven is perfect. More particularly, heaven is a state of complete and perfect unity with God and with all who love Him (the communion of saints). Since heaven is truly perfect, there is no possibility of any blemishes. Obviously, this perfection means there is no sin in heaven. However, not so obvious is that there is not even anything that tempts us to turn away from God, nor do our relationships with others come ahead of our relationship with God—for God perfects all relationships. In so many words, our whole life will be one with God and His will—and we will have no attachments to this earth or its imperfect ways.
Frankly, if heaven is so perfect and if there was no purgatory, we would need to be completely detached from this world at the moment of death in order to be worthy and ready for admittance into heaven. As it is, however, our lives are often attached to worldly creatures (noting, too, that these attachments are not necessarily sins in themselves, as they can be an inordinate attachment to the good things and/or even the people we love). Purgatory, however, is that purification that transforms our lives into complete union with God—so that we can love all of God’s creation, especially His people in the most perfect way.
That purgatory is thought to be a time of suffering is not because God wants us to suffer. Rather, think of the suffering you have when you seek and act toward giving up an attachment (like how we give up good things during Lent). Or, think of the suffering that comes from a true desire to be with God. This is the “pain” of purgatory—the pain of letting go and of longing for God in His perfection. We need to be purged of all that keeps us from God, and until that purging is complete, we cannot truly enter into the perfected state of heaven.
Thus, we who are on earth can already begin to let go of attachments for the sake of unity with God, accepting our sufferings in this world for the sake of becoming
closer to God ourselves, or we can make such offerings on the behalf of others. As for those in purgatory, we are urged to pray for these souls so that they will be purified of any earthly attachments that remain so as to be drawn into heaven more peacefully and swiftly. (One of the traditional ways to pray for those in purgatory is through offering of Masses on behalf of their souls – that the fruits of the Mass may be applied on behalf of these persons.) This is not simply a kind gesture—it is a teaching and practice of our faith and a true act of charity. Thus, may we all fulfill God’s will, loving our neighbors as ourselves, by making our prayers and offerings for the souls of all the faithful departed.