In the eyes of many purgatory is a bit of a ‘nuisance’ teaching belonging in the same category as angels and indulgences and even hell. It’s not easy to explain because not many understand it deeply and so it’s always making us run up not only against our own ignorance but the disbelief of our modern world as well – and that’s a real nuisance.
The word purgatory comes from the Latin "purgare" to make clean or to purify. The Catholic Encyclopaedia defines it as: a place or condition of temporal punishment for those who, departing this life in God's grace, are, not entirely free from venial faults, or have not fully paid the satisfaction due to their transgressions.
The language can be a bit confusing here. In years gone by we spoke more of punishment while today we speak more of purification or purgation. Whatever word we use the Sacred Scriptures clearly teach that purification from, or punishment for, sin may remain even after the sin has been forgiven by God. We need only remember the Original Sin of Adam and Eve which, although forgiven in Christ, nevertheless had ongoing consequences for all of humanity (With sweat on your brow shall you eat your bread, until you return to the soil. Genesis 3:19).
Again, God took away the sins of Moses and Aaron and David and Solomon and yet they suffered painful consequences for their sins.
I liken it to a heavy smoker, such as I used to be, who declares his intention never to smoke again. This moment of very real liberation is then followed by the equally real sufferings of the withdrawal period which could last for some time.
Actually, this is what the Church means by the term ‘temporal punishment’. Like smoking withdrawals (mine lasted many months) it has a beginning and an end; it is temporal. Eternal punishment, on the other hand, has no end; it is the punishment of hell.
Looking at this matter from another perspective we can note that repentance for sin has always included a firm purpose of amendment and the intention to do penance, that is, make up for our sin. Clearly, the man who steals money has an obligation to pay it back if he can, or to make some other form of restitution. If you admit to me you stole my car I may forgive you, but you are still obliged to return it.
In the same way God will always forgive a sin when we repent. However, forgiving our guilt does not always mean release from punishment. In his mercy God forgives our guilt; in his justice God requires satisfaction.
The Church has always believed that prayer, fasting and almsgiving, indeed any penance, can purify us in this life and, consequently, those who fail to do so in this life will need to do so elsewhere if they are not to suffer the loss of heaven - which nothing impure can enter.
This leads us to make one other thing clear about purgatory. It is also the state or place in which we are freed from our venial sins. A venial sin wounds our relationship with God whereas a mortal sin destroys it. A person who dies in the habit of venial sin is still capable of heaven but needs first to be purged of those habits.
Commonly we fail to see the merciful love of God in this and somehow expect that God should not ask us to participate in our salvation at all. We might say, and correctly, as the Protestants do, that Jesus ‘paid the price’ for our sins! Yes, he did, and that’s why we are now forgiven - but let us not refuse this opportunity to share in the very sufferings of Christ which saved us. As St Paul says: It makes me happy to suffer for you, as I am suffering now, and in my own body to do what I can to make up all that has still to be undergone by Christ for the sake of his body, the Church (Colossians 1:24).
Naturally enough, the Catholic teaching on purgatory is intimately bound up with the practice of praying for the dead. Those who pray for the dead must believe in purgatory; those who do not believe in purgatory will have no reason to pray for the dead; the two realities are always mentioned together in the oldest texts of the Fathers of the Church.
Without going into the historical details, which can be discovered from the Catholic Encyclopaedia, let me simply assert that praying for the dead and belief in the existence of purgatory were well established in the Church from the earliest times. Indeed, the Fathers maintained that the practice of prayers for the dead came from the Apostles themselves.
If we look at the liturgies of these early times we can see that the punishment or the purifying process undergone by the souls in purgatory is the experience of being ‘shut out’ from the sight of God for which they long with unbelievable intensity. This painful longing is made bearable only by the awareness it will one day be fulfilled.
The souls in purgatory have finished with sin and their purifying sufferings prepare them more and more for entrance into the eternal happiness of heaven. Purgatory is therefore a place of suffering, peace and joy.
We here on earth remain in communion with the souls in purgatory and we can aid them with our prayers and works of love. This is clear from the earliest Catholic teaching. Already in the 2nd Century it is recorded that Mass was offered for the faithful departed. Let us do so now and invoke on them and on ourselves the wonderful mercy of God.