“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.”
– Catechism of the Catholic Church
It seems we rarely discuss Purgatory. Yet the Catholic Church tells us it is the place where departed souls go to prepare to fully enter the presence of God.
Father William Saunders, professor of catechetics and theology at Notre Dame Graduate School, notes that our belief in Purgatory was affirmed by Vatican II’s “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” which confirms Catholicism’s long-held belief in “the living communion which exists between us and our brothers who are in the glory of Heaven or who are yet being purified after their death.”
Writing on the website catholiceducation.org, Fr. Saunders says the purification of Purgatory is important because Scripture teaches us that nothing unclean will enter the presence of God in Heaven. Most of us die with venial sins or other transgressions lingering on our souls.
While fundamentalist Christians argue that the Catholic Church invented Purgatory, graffiti in the catacombs where Christians hid during persecution in the early centuries record prayers for the dead. Monica, the mother of St. Augustine, asked her son in the fourth century to remember her soul in his Masses. Why would people need prayers after death, if not for their purification prior to entering Heaven?
The same fundamentalists claim that because Jesus died for our sins on the cross, He accomplished our salvation – and that Purgatory, then, is unnecessary. Yet Scripture says the process of sanctification through which Christians are made holy occurs over time; Purgatory, thus, is the final phase of Christ’s redemption, Fr. Saunders writes in a November 2005 article in the Arlington Catholic Herald.
“Indeed, the necessity of the purging is taught in other passages of Scripture, such as 2 Thessalonians 2:13, which declares that God chose us ‘to be saved through sanctification by the Spirit,’” he writes.
“Sanctification is thus not an option,” he writes, “something that may or may not happen before one gets into Heaven. It is an absolute requirement, as Hebrews 12:14 states that we must strive ‘for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.’”
But what is Purgatory like? Fr. Saunders reminds us that sanctification through fire is what we usually picture when we consider Purgatory. He says a more modern version might involve something akin to the radiation, or burning out, of the impurity in our souls.
“While such therapy is very painful, one has the hope of returning to good health,” he writes. Quoting St. Francis de Sales, who wrote of the sufferings of Purgatory, Fr. Saunders adds: “We may draw from the thought of Purgatory more consolation than apprehension. The greater part of those who dread Purgatory so much think more of their own interests than of the interests of God’s glory; this proceeds from the fact that they think only of the sufferings, without considering the peace and happiness which are there enjoyed by the holy souls.”