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 not only a doctrine of the Catholic Faith, it is very important and beautiful. 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.
In heaven, we believe that all will be perfected. Above all, heaven is a state of complete 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 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, or we will not be able to enter heaven. As it is, however, our lives become attached to worldly creatures (this is not merely sins—it is good things and even people to whom we attach). 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 for the sake of making us suffer. Rather, think of the suffering you have when you give 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 can not truly enter into the perfected state of heaven.
Thus, we who are on earth are called not only to start letting go of attachments for the sake of unity with God. Rather, we can accept 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. We are urged to pray for those in purgatory so that these souls will more easily be purified and 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; thus, if you ever wondered why there is a name of a person after each Mass in the weekly Mass schedule inside the bulletin – it is because that the fruits of the Mass are offered on behalf of the named person.) 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.