Monday, November 2, 2015

Primer on Purgatory (since it's All Souls Day, after all!)

This is a re-run from about three years ago. A friend of the Bubble, Becky, suggested I run it on All Souls Day, and that makes perfect sense! So, as we pray for those in Purgatory, let's find out a little more about what Purgatory is...

  • Purgatory is a doctrine of our Faith. 

From the Catechism of the Catholic Church: "All who die in God's grace and friendship, 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 Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned." (1030-1031)

There are only two ultimate destinations for a human being: Heaven or hell. Purgatory is the "wash-room" of Heaven.

  • Purgatory is necessary.

The Bible, in Revelation 21:27, says, "Nothing unclean shall enter Heaven" -- and God was not joking. Are you utterly pure? Perfect? Sinless? Completely without fault or blemish? I'm not either. To get from here to there requires an actual change from imperfect to perfect. The purification of Purgatory is that transitional bridge. If you die in the friendship of God, and unless you are the rare soul perfected in love before that moment of death (think of a Mother Teresa or a newly baptized infant), you are going to be cleansed before you enter Heaven. You simply cannot enter otherwise.

  • Purgatory is logical.

If I repent of a sin, I not only ask forgiveness, but I make recompense. We instinctively form our own children this way, as we teach them to make amends when they have committed a wrong. Not only do we require a child to make his apology ("I'm sorry I recklessly ran over your flowerbed, Mrs. Jones"), we require that he make things right as well ("I will purchase new flowers and replant them for you"). Purgatory is the final "making things right" -- both in our own souls and in the Mystical Body of Christ, i.e., the Church, which is harmed by its members' sin.

That "making things right" after we are forgiven is called the temporal punishment for sin, and it can and should happen while a person is still on this earth. However, if temporal punishment (or "expiation") for our forgiven sins has not occurred fully by the time of death, the expiation is still logically required after death.

  • Purgatory is merciful.

C.S. Lewis, a non-Catholic Christian, understood the mercy of Purgatory, and how the soul cries out for it:
Our souls demand Purgatory, don't they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, 'It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy'? Should we not reply, 'With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I'd rather be cleaned first.' 'It may hurt, you know' -- 'Even so, sir.'  (Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer)
Amen, and thank God for the mercy of Purgatory.

  • Purgatory is just.

Benevolent Grandma was a baptized Christian who stayed close to Jesus and lived a good life of caring and love, but she was a mild gossip. Serial Killer was a baptized Christian who lived a life of evil, destroying people and goodness everywhere he went, but he sincerely repented on his deathbed.

Both souls are Heaven-bound, but the soul-cleansing required of Mr. Killer is going to be a lot more severe, prolonged, and painful than the mild purification required of Grandma.

And that's as it should be. That is how justice works.

We are not all the same. We are all individuals who come from different circumstances and who make different choices. God alone can read our hearts, and His justice for each of His children is very personal, not a rubber stamp.

As Jesus said, "You will not get out until you have paid the last penny." For some of us, the payment exacted will take longer, as the sum required to "make it right" is larger.

  • Purgatory is Biblical.

The clearest manifestation (and my favorite) is 1 Corinthians 3.

We read that by our life choices and works, we build on the foundation that is Jesus Christ:

If anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, the work of each will come to light, for the Day will disclose it. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire (itself) will test the quality of each one's work. 

"The Day" refers to the Day of Judgement. The first Day of Judgement for most of us will be the Particular Judgement, the day of our death, when we face God. So, keep in mind that all that follows happens after a person's death. There are three possibilities for a soul:

First possibility: If the work stands that someone built upon the foundation, that person will receive a wage. This is the soul who goes directly to Heaven.

Second possibility: But if someone's work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire. This is the soul who goes to Purgatory, who is cleansed by the fire of God's love before entering Heaven.

Third possibility: Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy. This is the soul who goes to hell.

Glance back at the second one: "suffering" "loss" "saved, but only as through fire". We call that Purgatory.

  • Purgatory is historical.

The doctrine of purgatory, or the final purification, has been part of the true faith since before the time of Christ. The Jews already believed it before the coming of the Messiah, as revealed in the Old Testament (2 Macc. 12:41–45) as well as in other pre-Christian Jewish works, such as one which records that Adam will be in mourning "until the day of dispensing punishment in the last years, when I will turn his sorrow into joy" (The Life of Adam and Eve 46–7). Orthodox Jews to this day believe in the final purification, and for eleven months after the death of a loved one, they pray a prayer called the Mourner’s Kaddish for their loved one’s purification. 
Jews, Catholics, and the Eastern Orthodox have always historically proclaimed the reality of the final purification. It was not until the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century that anyone denied this doctrine.  (Catholic Answers)
The witness of the Roman Catacombs (products of the early, pre-Nicene, persecuted Church) attests to a belief in Purgatory by their etchings and inscriptions. In fact,
so overwhelming is the witness of the early Christian monuments in favour of prayer for the dead that no historian any longer denies that the practice and the belief which the practice implies were universal in the primitive Church. There was no break of continuity in this respect between Judaism and Christianity. (New Advent)

  • Purgatory is painful.

Every cleansing of an open wound is painful. Every turning toward the purifying fire of God's love is an uncomfortable shock to the system, and every honest move to perfection (even in this life) is accompanied by a suffering.

Facing the judgement of our Father will not be a clean, comfortable adjustment. The man who looks through a dark veil his whole life and is then, in an instant, exposed full-on to the dazzling white light of the Son can expect to cry out in some initial pain.

But the pain of Purgatory is most rightly described, I believe, as the pain of loss. We are made for union with God, and we are not complete and satisfied until that union is achieved. When the soul knows without doubt that she is at long last on her way to be united with her Beloved, but also knows that she cannot yet get to Him, and when she knows that it was her own actions and choices that are keeping her from that final, perfect and eternal union with her Beloved, she experiences a great and melancholic longing, an aching sense of loss.

There is a reason that God speaks to His people through marital imagery: The Bride and the Bridegroom, The Wedding Feast, The Consummation, the final achievement of perfect, eternal union with the Beloved. Earthly marriage and physical consummation is the closest we can get to another human being on earth, but it is a pale reflection of true Marital Union with God. The knowledge that one could have rushed to His embrace sooner, but now must wait and long and pine, is a nearly unbearable suffering for the soul in Purgatory, as it would be (on a much lesser scale) for any bride who cannot yet, through her own fault, reach her lover.

  • Purgatory is joyful.

Although the suffering in Purgatory is intense, the joy of Purgatory great, even greater than any earthly joy. After all, total, ecstatic union with God is palpable now, as the beatific vision is nearing one's view. No jubilation on earth could ever compare to the clear knowledge that Pure Love is drawing the lovesick soul to Himself for completion.

Fr. Alvin Kimel summarizes Peter Kreeft:
Purgatory is joyful, not gloomy. Whatever pain may attend the process of purification, it does not diminish the profound joy and triumph of Purgatory. The holy souls have passed through death into life and know that their ultimate destiny is now secure. The sufferings of Purgatory are more desirable than the most ecstatic pleasures on earth.

  • After Jesus' Second Coming and the Final Judgement, Purgatory will cease to be.

When Jesus returns in glory and the end of the world comes, and when the Final Judgement separates the sheep from the goats for all eternity, and when the new heaven and new earth are established in perfection, there will be no more purification of souls necessary. Purgatory will cease to be, and all souls will be fixed in their final states forever.

“God is the Last Thing of the creature. Gained, He is its paradise; lost, He is its hell; as demanding, He is its judgment; as cleansing, He is its purgatory” --Hans Urs von Balthasar

Related post: Indulgences: No need to freak out!


  1. Thanks for re-publishing this, Leila. My thoughts this morning seemed to focus on the hope of Purgatory, and the type of cleansing going on there. I perceive it, from a logical point of view I guess, as a transition from our focus on earthly matters to one focused on heavenly matters --- a transition which is supposed to take place here on earth (we're all called to grow in holiness), but which some of us don't do too well. It's hard to not be focused on earthly matters, when we are here.

    But I suspect in Purgatory, without seeing and feeling the importance of earthly matters anymore, we can come to an awareness of how really unimportant they ultimately are --- they matter not a whit in Purgatory, and then we can better focus on our inner longings, which are part of every soul, this yearning for transcendence, for God, for completion. And I suspect that time in Purgatory would have that yearning, with the critical focus, grow in great magnitude, until it became an all-consuming thing for us there. Then, and only then, I reason, it would be fitting that our hope in the promises of Christ will be achieved, as He welcomes us into that place He has promised for us.

    Purgatory: pain? Fire? I guess I can understand that from the initial confusion I suspect will be there, as we perceive that all those things we still long for of earth will never be ours again; and we will burn with the loss. And then, the awareness of the promised happiness, beyond what we can even conceive, will replace the old, petty yearnings. And at some point we will realize that only Hope can be our focus: He promised!

  2. Good primer, Leila, but you forgot to mention the other significance: the MOST AWESOME PEOPLE are born on All Souls Day. **cough, cough**

    I believe those of us with this birthday get an automatic pass to Purgatory, correct? To think, I missed All Saints Day by one stinkin' day. ;-)

  3. CS Lewis illustrated the idea of purgatory in his Chronicles of Narnia, when Aslan removes Eustace's scales and changes him from a dragon back to a boy. In his adult work The Great Divorce, he also portrays a man at the gates of heaven who has to surrender his pet lust (a small lizard) to an angel to be killed. These fictional representations helped me understand the concept even before I accepted it logically. Never underestimate the power of story.

  4. Sarah, yes! The power of stories is soooooo underrated.

  5. Dear Leila, a dear friend of mine who is Protestant shared an article with me after I shared this post with her. I don't know how to respond or how to determine what is false. Any help would be appreciated. Thank you for all you do ��������

  6. There's too many incorrect assumptions and false ideas in that blog post. The point is that the reformed ideas this person holds to have no basis in the earliest formation of the Church. It was only the reformation that brought about all these rebuttals to the idea of an ultimate, conclusive purging of the soul. The Jews believed in this doctrine, before Christ came in the flesh and the Eastern Orthodox have always believed in this, too.

    Your friend pointed you to a blog posts with too many incorrect assumptions. Have her review the earliest beliefs of purgatory of the Jewish people, and have her line that up right next to how Catholicism understands and explains that reality, too. Nothing complicated. There are all kinds of scriptures you could toss back at her, too. But her scripture use is useless without the authority of the Church who gave her those scriptures to begin with -- which is the Catholic Church.

  7. Hi Nubby,

    "But her scripture use is useless without the authority of the Church who gave her those scriptures to begin with -- which is the Catholic Church."

    I like what you said here. I feel like I never have the right words when discussing these issues with some "Bible church" friends. They tell me the KJV is the supreme Bible, they tell me all that's needed to be saved is ABC (accept, believe, confess), etc. Obviously I know these are wrong, but I never thought of my replies in terms of authority. They're sola scriptura folks, so it's difficult getting anywhere with that to begin with, but this gives me a starting point. Thanks!

  8. Hi Beth,
    No problem. Glad to help. The best challenge to put to any "Bible only" friends who question our beliefs is the one of authority. They probably have never back-tracked far enough in history to realize that the biblical canon (authoritative scripture) they hold most dear was assembled by the Catholic Church.

    They refer to the Bible as the sole authority of Christianity, but the Bible itself says that it's actually the church which is the pillar and foundation of truth (1 Tim 3:15).

    So they point to the Bible, but the Bible points to the Church. Whoops.

    They probably don't realize this because they've been taught that God's authority rests in the Bible -- and it does, but it needs interpretation from outside of itself because it is not completely self-translatable and it takes an outside authoritative counterpart to dissect and translate the teachings within.

    To be intellectually honest, they will want to consider that. They can't use the Bible to prove the authority of the Bible. They need to look outside of the Bible (at Apostolic Tradition within the Church) to get to active authority.

    It's a key understanding of the grasping the fullness of the faith. Anyway, glad to help.

  9. Thanks, Nubby. Great points! How would you answer a "Bible only" friend who said to a Catholic, "Your Communion won't save you"?

  10. I'd say, "Actually, it is the very thing that saves me." And then I'd grab their own "authority", the Bible, and point them directly to John 6 which is the discourse on the Bread from Heaven. Then I'd start lobbing logical questions their way:

    Do you think Jesus was merely speaking figuratively in this chapter? Why would say that, when even He wasn't saying inferring that?
    Do you see how the followers left him after this discourse, saying "This is a hard teaching, who can accept it?" Why would they leave if he was only being dramatic and figurative?
    Why would they leave unless the teaching truly struck them that, yes, he is telling us outright to eat his flesh and drink his blood?
    Do you not see how Jesus gave his authority and power to the priests in this passage? Why don't you agree with that?
    Don't you think that it's actually you (bible only believer) who is missing out on salvation, since Jesus says directly here that whoever does not eat his flesh nor drink his blood will never have eternal life?

    Pin them down logically. Get them to connect their logic. At least get them to start thinking. It's really all we're called to do. God will bring them the light as they study.

  11. Thanks, you have a way with words I do not! They seem to throw out Romans 10 for anything concerning salvation - "if you confess with your mouth..."

  12. And Romans 10 is part of the truth, but not the whole truth, which only comes from the life within the Church. See, they don't have that universal Church, so they rely on their own take of Scripture. They're missing out on the entire portion of the pie that is the sacramental life of the Church which can give us the exact means to our salvation. No guesswork required. Thanks Be To God.

    They are left to interpret and wonder and be confused if they're interpreting correctly ... they don't have authority to interpret anything, as individuals.

    It's like to trying to construct a toy bridge without the full set of directions. You can guess at the pages that you're missing and kind of glob the parts together, but you have no certainty that you're construction of this bridge is correct. Chances are, it'll be a mish-mash of your own ideas with no foundation. Same applies to their assembly of ideas on salvation.

    I bet they ignore the parts of Romans that they don't like, too, right? I mean, the bible is not intuitive! It takes an authority to help us understand. These are important conversations to have with adamant bible-thumpers. Just kidding. With our "bible only" friends. :0)

  13. I agree with everything, Nubby! One friend doesn't seem confused, though. He's sure he's got it right and that's why he's non-denominational, because he follows the Bible only. I pointed out one time that many, many denominations claim to follow the Bible only as well yet have different doctrines. He said they aren't really following the Bible. Apparently he's found the one Main St USA Bible Church that is! 😉 There's also a lot of talk about witnessing to others in order to get them "saved" which he then takes credit for - "I've gotten four people saved so far in my life." And he's sure bc of one moment when they made an altar call or whatever that they're are going to heaven no matter what. What I don't understand is how they reconcile that with everything in the Bible that clearly shows we will be judged according to what we've done.

  14. Re: taking credit for conversion of other people. Have I got stories on my experience with bible groups and that whole topic. I used to attend a study where they purposely added an empty chair and it was like this pressure- imposed obligation to "bring someone" to the group next meeting. Like, I didn't join for these group-imposed quotas, thanks. I'll share my faith, but I don't need any weird pressure to bring someone along just to get a pat on the head from a self-appointed leader who knows 1/10th of what salvation history actually entails at full view.

    I love my "bible only" believing friends, but logically they live in a quagmire. Our job as Catholics is a lot easier than they make it seem. We live with love and great generosity of heart, lots of laughter and joy, and that's what will fill those empty chairs -- when they see God shining in us and they come to that marvelous light. Not via some hard sale tactics to come and "fill the empty chair" while someone prattles on about how "everyone else is wrong about the bible... except me. Which is why you guys are all so lucky you're here in my bible study! Whooopee!"

    It's like, "Whatev, sister. I got the Church. I love you, but, I am not sticking around for this non-authoritative nonsense. It's the Church you need, not just your idea of scripture. Peace, and here's my empty seat, too. Sorry about doubling your workload to fill those. Bye now." I love people, but sometimes nonsense in these types of study groups is overboard. Here's to hoping they all come to understand the necessity of the Church -- the entire body of Christ and not just one or two little chairs.

  15. Yes, Nubby! Reminds me of my Bible friend telling me at her church there was a special concert and they were instructed to bring along an "unsaved" friend. Ummm? Who are we to determine who's saved or not? That's playing God, and we won't know until we die. I kind of argued this point with her and noticed the next time it was brought up she used the word "unchurched." In my town, there is a Community Bible Study held at a church I would never go to, but even so, apparently at the Bible Study you're not even supposed to share which church you attend bc it's supposed to be inclusive and not about denominations. Well, someone casually mentioned this study to me once, and I thought no way - I would be denying my catholic faith, not to mention the bible study would be taught from a reformation theology point of view. I'll stick with Catholic bible studies!

  16. I know, it's very confusing to try and plug into all the non-denominational studies. I did that a few times. Was a real kick, lemme say. I didn't last long in one, in particular. Oh, boy. Good times, good times... Other studies I shared in were just fine because there wasn't much doctrinal hub-bub to set straight or to defend, really. (It's always the Catholic who's on the defense. LOL Bring it.)

    In all fairness, the people that run these studies with the idea that others are not saved mostly just show a misplaced fervor for Christ coupled with some loosely sewn together ideas of what salvation really encompasses and looks like in action. I mean, their faith is commendable, but their idea that it's completely accurate is the harmful part (for them). It's a turn-off when people start taking credit for "saving souls" or when they start a tally sheet of who is saved and who is not. That's nonsense and presumptuous, I agree. Good thing there's always Catholic blogs they can stumble upon -- or be directed to, right...

  17. I'm enjoying this conversation! Thanks guys!! :)

  18. One more question, Nubby. How would you gently respond to the assertion that the KJV is the superior Bible and only valid translation (aside from pointing out that it's missing OT books so it's not complete)? Thanks!

  19. I'd ask why that's the "authoritative" version when the Catholic Church never asked him nor demanded him to make that version. He didn't produce this under any legit authority. It'd be like anyone in politics making their own version and calling it valid.

  20. So Douay-Rheims was it prior to KJV? Sorry, I'm not an expert by any means. Guess I don't understand where they (the Bible Church folks) get that idea to begin with.

  21. Yes, 1609. But it's not original version just like the KJV is not the original version. There's no reason to cling to one version. You could let your KJV-only friends know that it's a pretty narrow way to study scripture -- using just one version. The most thorough bible studies are done using several versions. (heheheh....)

  22. Yeah, I've never really understood this idea that the KJV is the "authoritative" translation of the Bible? Makes no sense at all. It's as if any other political leader (let's say Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan or George Bush or Barrack Obama or Russia's Putin... or anyone) said, "This is my translation! It's the only valid one now for all of Christianity!" and then people actually believed it and went with that. Crazy!


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