Purgatory, the condition, process, or place of purification or temporary punishment in which, according to medieval Christian and Roman Catholic belief, the souls of those who die in a state of grace are made ready for heaven. Purgatory (Latin: purgatorium; from purgare, “to purge”) has come to refer as well to a wide range of historical and modern conceptions of postmortem suffering short of everlasting damnation.
Roman Catholic Christians who believe in purgatory interpret passages such as 2 Maccabees 12:41–46, 2 Timothy 1:18, Matthew 12:32, Luke 16:19–16:26, Luke 23:43, 1 Corinthians 3:11–3:15 and Hebrews 12:29
The Catholic Church holds that “all who die in God’s grace and friendship but still imperfectly purified” undergo the process of purification which the Church calls purgatory, “so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven”. It bases its teaching also on the practice of praying for the dead, in use within the Church ever since the Church began, and mentioned in the deuterocanonicalbook 2 Maccabees 12:46
The suffering endured by souls in purgatory isn’t physical pain.
Through the centuries, artists striving to convey the sufferings of purgatory have depicted men and women tormented by a burning fire. But those illustrations aren’t a literal representation of the goings-on in the purgative state. They can’t be. In purgatory, the soul remains separated from its body, so it can only suffer spiritually, not physically.
That’s not to say, however, that the flames of purgatory aren’t real. They are.
“The fire by which we’re purified is an interior burning for the love of God,” explained Susan Tassone, author of seven books on purgatory, including “Prayers, Promises, and Devotions for Holy Souls in Purgatory” . “Immediately after their death, the souls in purgatory saw God in all his glory. They saw his love, his goodness, and the plans he had for us. And they yearn for that. They burn for it, with a yearning that surpasses the heat of any earthly fire.
In other words, the primary pain endured by those in purgatory is the loss of the sight of God. They suffer from what Tassone called, “a spiritual fever.”
As that fever rages, it separates the soul from sin, a process almost equally painful.
“To the extent we’re attached to our sin, becoming detached from it hurts,” said Corzine. “Seeing it in all its horror — how it wounded us and wounded others, how it led us away from God’s perfect plan — no physical flames could be as painful as that.”
The suffering is voluntary
St. Catherine of Genoa, author of a treatise on purgatory, says that once the soul sees what is in store in heaven, immediately casts itself into purgatory. Of course, purgatory is not voluntary in the sense that someone could choose not to go there. But it is voluntary in the sense that souls submit willingly to it, which is what Aquinas also says.
The souls in purgatory experience joy, as well as pain.
In the “Divine Comedy,” as Dante makes his way through purgatory, the souls he encounters suffer, but unlike the souls he met in hell, they suffer willingly and gladly, with no self-pity and always eager to return to their sufferings when Dante’s questions cease.
In their eagerness, those fictional souls testify to the enduring Catholic teaching that purgatory isn’t the outermost room of hell, but rather the anteroom of heaven. Every soul in purgatory is bound for glory. Their fate has been sealed, and ultimately it’s a blessed fate. Therefore, the time they spend in purgatory, whether short or long, is a time marked not only by suffering, but also by joy.
“Anything worthwhile requires pain to make progress, but it’s pain with a reward at the end,” said Father Longenecker. “Sometimes, it helps to think of purgatory like the process of getting physically fit. There’s pain, but it’s a sign of progress. It means you’re on the road to where you eventually want to be. That makes it a joyful pain.”
Pope Benedict XVI recommended to theologians the presentation of purgatory by Saint Catherine of Genoa, for whom purgatory is not an external but an inner fire: “The Saint speaks of the soul’s journey of purification on the way to full communion with God, starting from her own experience of profound sorrow for the sins committed, in comparison with God’s infinite love. […] ‘The soul’, Catherine says, ‘presents itself to God still bound to the desires and suffering that derive from sin and this makes it impossible for it to enjoy the beatific vision of God’. Catherine asserts that God is so pure and holy that a soul stained by sin cannot be in the presence of the divine majesty. We too feel how distant we are, how full we are of so many things that we cannot see God. The soul is aware of the immense love and perfect justice of God and consequently suffers for having failed to respond in a correct and perfect way to this love; and love for God itself becomes a flame, love itself cleanses it from the residue of sin.”
In his 2007 encyclical Spe salvi, Pope Benedict XVI, referring to the words of Paul the Apostlein 1 Corinthians 3:12–15 about a fire that both burns and saves, spoke of the opinion that “the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses.
Our prayers for the dead matter eternally.
The souls in purgatory may be bound for glory, but the process of purgation still can be long and painful. Save for humbly submitting to the purifying fire of Christ’s love, there’s nothing those souls can do to speed up the process or mitigate the pain.
That’s where we come in.
“We need to be greedy for graces for the souls in purgatory,” said Tassone. “When the soul leaves the body, the time for merit is up. The soul is helpless. That’s why they need our prayers — the Rosary, adoration, the Way of the Cross and, most of all, the Mass. The Masses we have offered for the souls in purgatory are the best thing we can do for our beloved dead. That’s because the Mass is the highest form of worship, the highest form of prayer.”
Praying For the Holy Souls
How can you help the souls in purgatory?
1. Pray the Rosary for departed friends, relatives and the most forgotten souls.
2. Daily, recite this simple prayer: “Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.”
3. Visit a loved one’s grave and say a brief prayer for them.
4. Have a Mass celebrated for loved ones on the anniversary of their death.
5. Have 30 days of Gregorian Masses celebrated for loved ones through the Pious Union of St. Joseph or other missionary orders that offer this ministry.
“It really is one of the most consoling doctrines of the Church,” added Martin. “None of us stands alone. We stand on the shoulders of giants, the foremost giant being Christ. Our sufferings and sacrifices can be parlayed into actual assistance for the holy souls because of his suffering and sacrifice.”
In many ways, he continued, our relationship to those in purgatory is simply an extension of “the logic of love,” where “You extend yourself so that another might have an easier time of it. And that principle isn’t bound by death.”
It’s also not bound by time. The Church teaches that purgatory operates outside of space and time as we on earth experience it. Which means we should never stop praying for those we’ve lost.
“No prayer is ever wasted,” Tassone said. “The prayers we pray for our loved ones throughout the entirety of our lives play a part in helping them enter into heaven.”