Last week, after attending a Mass offered for the repose of a family member's soul, I began writing about why we offer Mass for the dead, which lead me into wanting to write a bit more about Purgatory in general. I learned a lot & am excited to share -- I know the word Purgatory can evoke images of fire & brimstone or maybe some kind of eternal limbo so I'm hoping to work through any misconceptions we might have or had in the past. So let's get to it then!
When a person dies in friendship with God, we believe that their soul experiences a period of sanctification or purification, known as Purgatory, before entering into the glory of Heaven. The Catechism of the Catholic Church writes of Purgatory:
"1030 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.
1031 The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire:
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.
1032 This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture: "Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin." From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead:
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."
So, Purgatory Is Necessary.
If you believe that your soul is imperfect on earth, but will be perfect in Heaven, you already agree with the principle of Purgatory.
Because Scripture tells us that nothing unclean can enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Revelation 21:27), we believe that after death there is a necessary state of purification that souls must enter into. Without this purification, none would be able to enter Heaven because none of us have lived an entirely perfect life.
But what does it mean, then, when the Scriptures say that Christ's blood washed us white as snow? When Christ died on the cross, he paid for the eternal consequences of sin. Through Him, we are redeemed. However, because we are human and live in this fallen world, we are still faced with the temporal consequences of our sins.
I do something wrong, I can be forgiven, but I will still have to deal with the mess I made. Same goes for our souls after our death.
Purgatory Isn't "Limbo".
Purgatory isn't limbo; unlike Heaven and Hell, Purgatory is not an eternal state. Rather, it is a continual purification, an ongoing denial of one's sinful nature through Christ's grace, until the soul has become perfectly pure - and able to be brought into Heaven.
Purgatory is not a "second chance at salvation". & This is not "Works-Based" Salvation Either, while we're at it.
The only souls that will enter into Purgatory are those who have already been saved by the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are saved by faith and not works, but by making good choices in life, we can become closer to God and therefore more holy. And it's the same for those in Purgatory. This is where we need to understand the difference between the initial grace given to us through Christ's sacrifice, and and the continued grace we are given to grow more holy through obedience to Christ.
There is Both Suffering & Joy.
You may have heard "once saved, always saved" but we Catholics might say instead, "once in Purgatory, always saved." ;) Because while souls experience suffering through purification, there is also a great joy in its midst because salvation to those in purgatory is assured.
Sorry, You Can't Pay My Way Out of Purgatory, But your prayers will be quite helpful.
So this is about indulgences. The very word stirs up more controversy than perhaps any other Catholic teaching. Misconceptions about indulgences by Catholics and non-Catholics alike have created such a muddy situation, so the best way to go on with any discussion of Purgatory is to clear things up about what an indulgence actually is & isn't.
There is quite a long passage from the Catechism that I'd like to share because I feel like it explains things very well, so bear with me:
"Indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints...
To understand this doctrine and practice of the Church, it is necessary to understand that sin has a double consequence. Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the "eternal punishment" of sin. On the other hand every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called the "temporal punishment" of sin. These two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin. A conversion which proceeds from a fervent charity can attain the complete purification of the sinner in such a way that no punishment would remain.
The forgiveness of sin and restoration of communion with God entail the remission of the eternal punishment of sin, but temporal punishment of sin remains. While patiently bearing sufferings and trials of all kinds and, when the day comes, serenely facing death, the Christian must strive to accept this temporal punishment of sin as a grace. He should strive by works of mercy and charity, as well as by prayer and the various practices of penance, to put off completely the "old man" and to put on the "new man." (CCC 1471-1473)
Does that help at all? I hope so. Another article I found quite helpful was "Myths about Indulgences" by Catholic Answers, including the ideas that a person can buy indulgences, forgiveness, or salvation. I won't go on about it too much, but I really highly suggest reading the article.
What do you think about all of this? Before I joined the Church, I saw Purgatory as an unnecessary invention of those pesky Catholics -- something additional to the gospel, pointless at best, heretical at worst. But now I see it as another one of God's amazing graces & I am incredibly thankful for it. If you don't agree with the concept of Purgatory, please leave a comment to let me know -- I'd love nothing more than to have a virtual cup of coffee & talk about it! :)
I'm not a theologian but I do feel quite in love with Jesus & am always eager to learn and share about His Church. So if you have any other Catholic questions, let me know!
More Reading/Good Sources
- Catholic Herald: Straight Answers: Why Do We Offer Mass for the Dead?
- Catholic Answers: Purgatory
- Jimmy Akin: Can Unclean Things Enter Heaven?
- Douglas Beaumont: Explaining Purgatory to Protestants
- The Happy Catholic: Purgatory 101
- Beggars All: Did Tetzel Really Say "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs"? (Reformation/Lutheran Perspective)
- Martin Luther's 95 Theses
- Catechism of the Catholic Church: Indulgences
- Catholic Answers: Myths about Indulgences
- Catholic Answers Tract: Primer on Indulgences