“Purgatory, often imagined as a place, is actually a condition. Someone who dies in God’s grace (and therefore at peace with God and men) but who still needs purification before he can see God face to face is in purgatory. When Peter had betrayed Jesus, the Lord turned around and looked at Peter: ‘And Peter went out and wept bitterly’-a feeling like being in Purgatory. Just such a purgatory probably awaits most of us at the moment of our death: the Lord looks at us full of love- and we experience burning shame and painful remorse over our wicked or ‘merely’ unloving behavior. Only after this purifying pain will we be capable of meeting his loving gaze in untroubled heavenly joy.” YOUCAT (159)
Why is it that so many people, Catholics and Protestants alike, have such a hard time believing in the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory? Purgatory for me is so very simple and such a beautiful teaching of the Church. It is God’s great gift to us, his children, because he knows how hard it would be for most of us to achieve perfection during our earthly lives. He gives us this most incredible grace after we die to be purified of all stain of venial sin, selfishness and all of our attachments to our sins in order that we may be able to come face-to-face with Him in Heaven forever. Purgatory, according to the Catholic Bible Dictionary, is the Latin word for cleansing or purifying. It is an infirmary for souls. It would hurt us too much to be in the presence of the Almighty God, who is infinitely perfect, infinitely Holy, infinitely Just, if we were not perfected and so he affords us this gift to spiritually cleanse us before coming to heaven to be with Him for all eternity. “Nothing unclean will enter it.” (Revelation 21:27)
When you go to meet a friend for dinner or you go to an important meeting at work, do you take a shower and put on your best clothes or do you just wear the same clothes that you’ve been wearing all day? When we meet someone very special or go to an important event in our lives, we clean ourselves up, we make ourselves look our very best, don’t we? Don’t you think then we should all the more be spotless before seeing God? Well, God in His infinite wisdom, gave us Purgatory so that we could get spiritually cleansed before seeing Him.
As with so many teachings of the Catholic Church, there are so many people who believe the Church “invented” the doctrine of purgatory; they couldn’t be farther from the truth. And as with all of the teachings of the Church, the teaching of Purgatory is deeply rooted in Sacred Scripture. The Ancient Jewish people believed in an intermediate state between earth and heaven. It is so beautifully evidenced in the Old Testament Scriptures. In Jesus’ time, the Jewish people believed that yes, there was a state of the soul after death that they could go to be cleansed of their sins. They even prayed and offered sacrifices for their loved ones who had died. Pious Jews did then and they still do now even to this day; they consider it necessary. It is further evidenced by the passage in 2 Maccabees:
“On the following day, since the task had now become urgent, Judas and his men went to gather up the bodies of the slain and bury them with their kinsmen in their ancestral tombs. But under the tunic of each of the dead they found amulets sacred to the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear. So it was clear to all that this was why these men had been slain. They all therefore praised the ways of the Lord, the just judge who brings to light the things that are hidden. Turning to supplication, they prayed that the sinful deed might be fully blotted out. The noble Judas warned the soldiers to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened because of the sin of those who had fallen. He then took up a collection among all his soldiers, amounting to two thousand silver drachmas, which he sent to Jerusalem to provide for an expiatory sacrifice. In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection of the dead in view; for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been useless and foolish to pray for them in death. But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from this sin.” (2 Maccabees 12:39-45)
Now of course, Protestants do not consider the books of Maccabees to be inspired by God. We, as Catholic Christians do. However, even if you do not accept these books as inspired, you certainly must admit that it is truly a historical book. This is not fictional by any means. It is indicative of the life and beliefs of the Jewish people during Jesus’ time. In fact the Maccabeen revolt was about a century and a half before Jesus was born. Even if you will not admit the truth of the inspired word, you cannot refute history, can you? The Jewish people in fact reverence and consider the Maccabees books to be sacred.
I find it absolutely disheartening that there are even Catholics out there who refuse to believe in Purgatory considering Jesus himself spoke of it in Sacred Scripture. The most telling passage in my study of Scripture is in Matthew’s Gospel, “Therefore, I say to you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever speaks against the Son of Man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.” (Matthew 12:31-32) Now, I know that I am not a Bible scholar or a theologian but from this verse it is quite clear to me that there is obviously somewhere in between earth and heaven and it is not hell. Jesus is specifically saying here, is He not, that there is an age to come where sins can be forgiven? Well, if you are already in heaven you have no need to be forgiven anymore and if you are in hell there is no chance for further forgiveness; so quite clearly there is another place and Sacred Tradition indeed calls this place Purgatory. Saint Gregory the Great, pope and Doctor of the Church who died in the year 604, so eloquently explained the teaching when he said, “As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come.” (from CCC 1031)
Our Beloved Saint Paul so obviously believed in Purgatory which had been revealed to him by God, because he wrote so beautifully, “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: 13-15) This cleansing fire rids us of our sins which cannot enter into heaven. It is the fire of our eternal salvation. The works that are burned up are our sinful works. This verse is quite clear and I don’t think it needs further explanation, do you?
Now, you may indeed wonder who goes to Purgatory. Does everyone go? Well, I am positive that many of the Saints have gone straight to the arms of our Lord after their bodily death. However, I am also sure that the majority of us will have to undergo purification before reaching heaven. At least I know I will, for I indeed am a great sinner and pray that I’ll be found worthy of Purgatory. The more I read about the lives of the Saints, the more I realize how far I have to progress in the spiritual life to achieve their level of holiness. This should not discourage us in our journey of salvation but encourage us considering the teaching on the Communion of Saints. As we can help our loved ones on earth by our prayer, we can also pray for the dearly departed in purgatory. They can be helped by our prayers, sufferings, fasting and all of our sacrifices, and as much as we help them, they will indeed help us by their prayers when they reach heaven, whether we are still on earth or when we ourselves are in purgatory. There is only one Church. The Church in Heaven is the Church Triumphant, those on earth are the Church Militant and those in Purgatory are the Church Suffering. Yes, they suffer from the purifying fire, but it is indeed a joyous suffering because they know they have received their eternal reward; it is just a matter of being cleansed of everything that does not allow them to love God perfectly.
Let’s consider this. Suppose there is a thief who steals money from someone. He later regrets it and goes to his victim and begs for forgiveness. The victim forgives him the injustice committed against him but he still has a right to claim restitution, does he not? Or what about an individual who spreads vicious lies about someone then sometime later repents and goes to the person and begs forgiveness. They bestow forgiveness on the person but do you not think the offender should go out into the world and repair the damage done by telling the truth? The person must atone for the sin against his victim even though he has been forgiven. Do you not think that it is all the more necessary for God who is the only just judge, to claim Holy restitution for all of the sins we have committed against Him during our entire lives? Yes, God is all merciful and He is all just. It is a perfect balance that we will never in our weak, human minds be able to comprehend during this life on earth. The Lord of lords in His great goodness works that all out in a way only known to Him. Why do so many people believe they have God all figured out? If we knew everything about God, then he wouldn’t be God, would he? God is the greatest mystery! Yet, we must all find a way to understand that He is entitled to our making up for our sins against Him. Yes, He forgives us if we are truly sorry, but we must still pay the debt to His Infinite Justice for our sins that have been forgiven and if we don’t do it during our earthly life by our prayers, penances, fasts and sacrifices, then it must be done in purgatory.
Saint John Chrysostom, Doctor of the Church (died 407), said it quite well when he said, “Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.” (CCC 1032 – see also Job 1:5)
Saints Gregory the Great and John Chrysostom, pray for us and all the holy souls in Purgatory.