Is Purgatory still “on the books”?

Posted by Alice L. Camille
Wednesday 02, November 2011 | Category:   Doctrines & Beliefs

Yes. Church teaching about Purgatory was made official as early as the 15th-century Council of Florence and endorsed again at the Council of Trent (1545-1563). Here’s the gist of it: “Purgation” is not a punishment. It’s an option granted by God’s mercy for which we should be very grateful. Occurring after death and before heaven (not between heaven and hell—purgation’s only available to those guaranteed salvation), it’s a “condition” more than a “place” in which the soul is prepared for the perfection of God’s presence.

This teaching emerges from long tradition based on several scriptural ideas. First, Jesus named blasphemy against the Holy Spirit an unpardonable sin “both in this age and in the age to come.” That presupposes there is an age to come in which other sins might be forgiven. Second, the biblical practice of praying for the dead indicates that the fate of “those who go before us” can be influenced to their advantage. Other passages speak to the possibility of making reparation for the sins of others through good works. Taken together these ideas framed the church’s understanding of a time of purgation for those who need it due to their own lack of readiness for the total experience of perfect divine love.

The Council of Florence noted that the church is composed of three kinds of citizens: “wayfaring pilgrims” (the living); those who have died and are being purified; and those who are “in glory” with the Triune God. The glorified ones or saints intercede for the good of the pilgrim church on earth. In the same way we pilgrims can intercede for those in Purgatory for their good. It’s a sort of economy of grace that flows from one member to another.

Members of the pilgrim church are in a position to make choices about their fate; citizens of Purgatory, having passed beyond volition and not yet one with the will of God, can do nothing for themselves. Their passivity makes them vulnerable in their need, which is why God offers the remarkable gift of purgation to remove whatever obstacle remains to receiving the vision of eternal beauty ahead. The mystic Saint Catherine of Genoa (1447-1510), sensing herself united to the experience of souls in Purgatory for a time, wrote movingly of how the “joyful souls” would choose purgation 1,000 times over, knowing it will deliver them to God’s embrace. That our prayers might speed them to this joyful union is a tremendous idea.

Scripture
2 Maccabees 12:46; Job 1:5; Matthew 12:31; 1 Corinthians 3:15; 1 Peter 1:7

Online
Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 1030-1032
• The Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), nos. 49-50

Books
Fire of Love! Understanding Purgatory by Saint Catherine of Genoa (Sophia Institute Press, 1996)
Purgation and Purgatory: The Spiritual Dialogue by Saint Catherine of Genoa (Paulist Press, 1979)

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