Having meditated on the realities of Hell and Heaven, we turn to a third important topic in our reflections on the last things of life: Purgatory.
This doctrine is peculiar to Catholicism. It is not found in Orthodoxy or in Protestant forms of Christianity. Yet it is important for two reasons: it is a continuance of God’s mercy for us; and, secondly, it is what awaits most of us who are neither devils nor angels. In fact, it is a doctrine that clearly manifests the mercy of God.
St. Catherine of Genoa wrote the definitive text on the subject of Purgatory, The Treatise on Purgatory. In it, she sees Purgatory as a very joyful place. While we are on earth, we do not know where we will go after death. However, every soul in Purgatory knows that they will be going to Heaven at some point; Hell is out of the question for them! The souls who we mistakenly call ‘poor souls’ are preparing for their entrance into glory! They know that, before making it to this glory, they need to be purified and want it completely.
If you knew that you would be going to dinner with the Pope or the President, would you not want to get ready? Perhaps you would clean yourself up nicely, put on your “Sunday best” clothing, and rehearse the subjects that you would like to converse with them about. This preparation time would be very important for you.
This, St. Catherine says, is what Purgatory is all about: a time of preparation for the eventual entry into the glory of Heaven. In this preparation, there is a burning away of what is not of God, the cleansing of our minds and hearts for that blessed moment when we enter the presence of God!
It is the very reason we pray for the dead. The Church has taught us that somehow our prayers assist them in their preparation and hasten the moment of readiness. This is a very wonderful teaching that helps us stay in contact with the departed and gives us ways to continue to express our love for them. How this actually happens is shrouded in mystery. The spiritual law that God has established gives our prayers a power and an efficacy that can affect the heart of God Himself and gives the Mercy of God an upper hand in the hidden activity wherein the Justice of God juxtaposes its activity with His kindness. How very powerful God has made prayer! We can truly make a difference in our departed loved one’s future!
This power of prayer extends to our prayer for the living as well. We do not know, but will someday understand, things that did not happen because of our prayer, as well as those that did happen because of them. Prayer is the most powerful force on earth because it can influence the mind and heart of the Almighty!
Therefore, when one speaks of the state of Purgatory, we are basically talking about a joyful state that forms a bridge between the souls in transit to Heaven and their loved ones still in this present life. The desire for this connection is embedded in the desires of the family of the deceased to remain in contact with their loved one and to be able to ‘do something to help’ that person. This connection is as much a mercy for the family and friends of the deceased as for the soul itself in the state of purification.
This is a great gift for those left to grieve the departure of their beloved and reveals the interconnectedness of the plan of God to benefit the greatest number of people that it can. This is but a sign of the unmatched generosity of our loving Father.
But a question can be asked: why is Purgatory necessary? Could God not instantly purify a soul or just accept it in its compromised state as having been weakened and disfigured by sin? To answer this question, one must understand that God is completely pure and not, in any way, tainted by sin. We are just not capable, as God has created us, to sustain contact with such purity in our present state. We must be purified with our own cooperation so that we can withstand contact with the purity of God. We, otherwise, would find our encounter and our sojourn in bliss as something painful.
The souls in purgatory are happy there because this purification will enable them to enjoy and delight in the presence of God. While the saints have accomplished this during earthly life, most human beings need an extra experience of preparation so that they have the capacity for the kind of joy that they have never experienced before.
So, let us continue to pray for the souls in purgatory since we can give them the greatest assistance we have ever given them on earth: to prepare them to enter the Presence of God!