Purgatory, the idea of a place or process by which the souls of the dead make final atonement for and are purified of their sins, is one of the most closely held tenets of the Roman Catholic faith. Yet the concept can be puzzling. If not the eternal joy of Heaven or the never-ending torment of Hell, what is it? To what Bible verse can we turn to learn about it? For non-Catholic Christians, purgatory is one of the great stumbling blocks in the teachings of the Church.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 1030) teaches that “All who die in God’s grace, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of Heaven.” The Catechism further notes (CCC 1031) that “this final purification of the elect… is entirely different from the punishment of the damned.”
To many Protestants this seems to imply that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross to redeem us from our sins was somehow incomplete. They further object that no explicit mention of purgatory is made in the Bible.
Lawrence Cunningham, professor of theology emeritus, University of Notre Dame, explains that modern society remains deeply influenced by the images portrayed by Durante degli Alighieri, best known as Dante, of purgatory as a place between heaven and hell with compartments where people suffer in various ways.
He notes that the Catholic teaching on purgatory has a long history of development from the early Church through the Reformation to the present. “In many ways, the basic idea of purgatory is based on common sense,” Dr. Cunningham explains. “A person’s sins must be purged before he sees God.”
So unless we repair the damage of our sins by cooperating with God’s grace through the sacraments, by acts of charity and penance, we must make reparation in purgatory; thus being purged. It is a state in which we are offered cleansing before we see the face of God.
The existence and necessity of purgatory can be gleaned from Scripture verses as well. In the Gospels of Matthew (5:26) and Luke (12:59), Jesus condemns sin and speaks of liberation only after expiation. “Amen, I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny.” As there is no need to pay “the last penny” in Heaven and there is no hope of liberation from Hell, this reference must apply to a third place. Jesus also indicates in the Gospel of Matthew (12:32) that some sins can be forgiven in the world to come when He says “And whoever speaks a word 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.”
As to the subject of Jesus’ sacrifice and its relation to the subject of purgatory, we cannot lose sight of the fact that His death on the cross makes us worthy to stand before God the Father. However, we have not been abdicated from our own personal responsibility. If we accept Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and confess Him as Lord, yet continue to commit sins, God will judge us accordingly. As Scripture tells us (James 2:26), “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.”
So what should we as Catholics see when we look at the possibility of purgatory? Do we see a punishment to be feared or a saving grace to be welcomed?
Fr. Damien Giap, chaplain at JSerra High School in San Juan Capistrano, explains. “At the moment of death, the soul is separated from the body,” Father Damien says. “The soul is immortal and never ceases to exist. Immediately upon death, the soul of each person is judged by God, either to eternal life or the damnation of Hell. For those damned to Hell, such a soul immediately experiences Hell thereafter. For a soul judged to Heaven, then it may immediately experience the fullness of Heaven. We call such souls the saints.
“For those who are judged to eternal life yet still have some attachment to sin or there is some temporal punishment due for sin, such a soul experiences purgatory in the manner that God determines,” he adds. “This is a grace to be welcomed. Purgatory is really a blessing, for not only does the soul know that it is destined for Heaven, but purgatory purges anything from the soul which would limit the vision and enjoyment of God in Heaven.”