What is Purgatory?

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Friday 05, October 2012 | Category:  

We've talked about Purgatory before, but with All Saints and All Souls Days coming up, here's another take on the subject.

The Christian imagination has traditionally depicted Purgatory as a kind of “Hell-lite”: fires and torment but with an end-date at which time souls, having paid for their sins with suffering, get promoted to Heaven. Vivid though these images are, they tend to make Purgatory into a place that exists in time, and really it’s neither. After the death of the body, the soul enters eternity, which is a spiritual realm beyond our sense of place and, by definition, beyond time.

Bosch
"PURGATORY" from The Last Judgment (c. 1500)
by Hieronymous Bosch. Wikimedia Commons.

So what is Purgatory? Every Christian life is a pilgrimage that begins when someone enters earthly life and is baptized into the Body of Christ and reaches its fulfillment in communion with God and all the angels and saints in Heaven.

Death of course is a major step in that journey, but it’s a big leap to go from human life with all its limitations to perfect unity with God. Even those who die with the full benefits of the sacraments of the church—in a “state of grace”—still carry with them the aftereffects of sin. Purgatory supplies the necessary transition into eternal life: It’s a state in which a soul is purified or “purged” of all that still might separate it from God.

It’s the last “stop” on the journey toward communion with God and all the angels and saints that began when someone entered earthly life and was baptized into the Body of Christ. If there is suffering in Purgatory, it’s the pain of the soul’s awareness that it is still separated in some way from God, and that this separation is the consequence of sinful actions in earthly life.

Catholic doctrine says that God’s judgment of each soul occurs at death. For those who led lives of faith and repentance, the way to Heaven is before them, though the remaining obstacles to eternal glory need to be cleared away (and for those who lived and died in deliberate estrangement from God, the possibility exists for that separation to become permanent, which would literally be Hell).

God, however, does not want anyone to be condemned and wishes that all will be saved and enjoy life with God forever. Some theologians today, moreover, think that the state of Purgatory may be as instantaneous after death as is personal judgment.

Whether that's true or not, Purgatory is not only about what happens after death. It also has a lot to do with life in the present. For one thing, those on earth and those “in” Purgatory can pray for another, and thus Purgatory is an expression of intercessory prayer and the communion of saints between this world and the next. What’s at stake in praying for the souls in Purgatory is not a matter of holding them up lest they slip into Hell; the souls in Purgatory are already promised the Heavenly state. Those prayers, though—as well as anything else you offer for them, like an act of charity or a work of mercy—can help move them along the path towards full and complete life with God.

Purgatory is also a powerful reminder that the decisions you make in your relationships with God and neighbor today make a big difference both now and in the end.

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