What is Purgatory? Many Catholics would question whether it’s still official Church doctrine. After all, Purgatory is not a popular topic heard in priests’ homilies or even taught in many catechism classes.
In a world driven by “what feels good,” the idea of a place where souls are purified, perhaps painfully, in order to attain the perfection required of heaven, isn’t something we like to hear.
Yet the Catholic Church teaches that Purgatory is real and alluded to in the Bible.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC):
“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” (CCC: 1030).
Even if you die in a state of grace, meaning you don’t have a mortal sin on your soul, you still aren’t necessarily ready for heaven. You still may have venial sins on your soul or be too attached to earthly life. Just like you wouldn’t go to Sunday dinner dressed in rags and covered in dirt, you wouldn’t go to God’s eternal feast in heaven attached to sin and earthly concerns.
What Happens in Purgatory?
According to the Catechism, “The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire” (CCC: 1031). Other than that, there is no official pronouncement on what happens in purgatory.
However, certain Saints have reported visions of Purgatory and the trials endured there. Saint Faustina Kowalska wrote of one such vision:
“In a moment I was in a misty place full of fire in which there was a great crowd of suffering souls. They were praying fervently, but to no avail, for themselves; only we can come to their aid. The flames which were burning them did not touch me at all…I asked these souls what their greatest suffering was. They answered me in one voice that their greatest torment was longing for God” (Diary of St. Faustina Kowalska).
St. Catherine of Genoa reportedly also had a vision of Purgatory and spoke about it as both a place of great suffering and great joy. Essentially, she explained that when a person dies in a state of grace, they see themselves as they were made to be by God and are ashamed of their fallen state and attachment to sin. As a result, they suffer out of burning love and desire to be with God but knowing that they’re not yet ready. They embrace the pain of Purgatory to purify themselves and join God in heaven.
Consider a smoker trying to quit. The withdrawal and cravings can be overwhelming. All he wants is another cigarette, but he knows he’s quitting for a very good reason—to lead a healthier life. He carries on because, despite his suffering, he knows that the joy of finally kicking the habit will be so much greater.
Souls in Purgatory never quite kicked the habit of earthly attachments and now willingly endure a period of withdrawal and detoxification to experience the joy of heaven.
Where is Purgatory in the Bible?
Purgatory is not explicitly mentioned in the Bible, but the Church points to a few verses which allude to it.
The Book of Maccabees in the Old Testament mentions praying for the dead (2 Maccabees 12:46). Praying for someone already in hell or heaven would be pointless. Praying for the dead only works if the soul is somewhere in between.
Later, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus speaks of “forgiveness in an age to come.”
“And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come” (Matthew 12:32).
This implies there are sins that can be forgiven in the next life. Again, souls in heaven or hell don’t benefit from forgiveness. Where else but Purgatory could this be referring to?
Finally, some Bible verses speak of a purifying fire, like in the Book of Peter:
“In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:6-7).
This verse implies that you have to be fully worthy to enter heaven. Before you make it in, you may undergo “various trials” or be “tested by fire.” The Church takes this to mean Purgatory.
How Do You Get Out of Purgatory?
No one knows how long Purgatory lasts. Our sense of time may have absolutely no meaning there. Everyone in Purgatory will eventually enter heaven—it’s just a matter of how strong their attachments were to venial sins and earthly life.
The Church, from the beginning, has encouraged us to pray for the souls in Purgatory, as these prayers can help send them to heaven sooner. That’s why we offer intentions for the deceased during Mass. It’s also why Catholics have dedicated “All Soul’s Day” to pray for the souls in Purgatory. Once more, praying for the deceased would be pointless if they were already in heaven or hell.
The souls in Purgatory need our prayers. Yes, theoretically they would eventually make it to heaven even without them, but we on earth have the power to lessen their pain significantly. There are many reports from throughout the centuries of God even allowing souls to briefly appear to those on earth and ask for prayers.
It’s up to us to help our friends and loved ones in Purgatory because, if nothing else, one day, we may be in their shoes.
Purgatory: An Act of Mercy
Ultimately, Purgatory is another example of God’s great mercy for us. Imagine if heaven and hell were the only options. You can’t enter heaven unless you’re perfect, so where would that leave most of us?
God loves us so much that He offers Purgatory as one more, guaranteed opportunity to enter heaven if we fall short on earth.
True, a few men and women are believed to have bypassed Purgatory and entered heaven right away—we call them Saints. In fact, being a true Saint is the only way to “skip” Purgatory. That’s a major reason to always strive for Sainthood during our lives on earth.