Purgatory and Hell: Forgotten Destinations – Part III

Souls Arrive in Purgatory - Gustave Doré

Souls Arrive in Purgatory, Singing Psalms; Canto II of The Purgatorio, by Dante Alighieri; Illustration by Gustave Doré

Part 3 of a 4-part series: Part IPart II | Part III | Part IV

Part 3: Purgatory—The Attractive Impulse of His Burning Love

Contemplating the prospects of heaven and hell helps us to see the purpose, indeed the necessity, of a state of purgatory, where a soul dying in God’s favor is made ready to behold the divine presence, the beauty of God’s Holy Face, by the extraction of all that is unworthy of this vision. Love purges the unlovely, fire melts the hard heart, light pierces through the shadows. Shame is uprooted, guilt destroyed. Nothing evil or ugly remains to obstruct union with an infinitely holy God. All evil, all ugliness, is burned off in the furnace of God’s merciful justice, because He wants His handiwork to be restored to its original splendor, its most perfect likeness to Him. The innocence and uprightness of the blessed will have been wholly renewed; every limb of the body and every power of the soul can then proclaim the glory of God.

The Catholic teaching on purgatory comes to us from the Church’s sacred Tradition. There are, for sure, scriptural hints of it.[1] St. Paul and St. Peter both speak of a cleansing fire (1 Cor 3:15; 1 Pet 1:7). St. Gregory the Great argued as follows: Jesus declares that “whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come” (see CCC 1031). In the Book of Maccabees, we read that Judas Maccabeus “made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin” (2 Macc 12:46).

As the Catechism teaches: “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” (1030). Because our earthly contrition and reparation are almost always lacking in some way, our penance for sin—in other words, the correspondence between the soul’s interior condition and Christ’s act of atonement on Calvary—must be brought to completion so that divine justice may be satisfied and divine mercy may fulfill its promise of presenting us immaculate to the wedding feast (see Eph 5:25-27). The soul that truly loves God desires to be made clean, to have its stains washed away forever; it would not want to enter heaven if it were not wholly sanctified, if it were not light and beauty alone but had some darkness and ugliness still mixed in. Christ saves us from within, by making us holy like Himself.

That this notion is not so difficult to see can be gleaned from the fact that a contemporary theologian who seemed unable to write about anything without introducing a heresy, Edward Schillebeeckx (1914–2009), nevertheless bore witness to it with clarity:

The notion of purgatory is a Catholic notion which I find essential for eschatology. Even if human beings have chosen the good and are to have an eternal life in heaven, they are not [yet] saints. . . They have imperfections, faults. Even if a person dies in a state of grace, as we say, he or she still remains a sinner. . . . God’s first act of charity [in the afterlife] is the purification of all our imperfections.[2]

Privileged with visions of the world to come, St. Catherine of Genoa explained purgatory as God’s work of rendering the soul worthy to stand in His presence by recalling it to the pristine nobility of its creation and the exalted dignity of its baptism. Let us hear the exquisite words of the saint herself:

I see that God is in such perfect conformity with the soul, that when He beholds it in the purity wherein was created by His divine Majesty, He imparts a certain attractive impulse of His burning love, enough to annihilate it, though it be immortal; and in this way so transforms the soul into Himself, its God, that it sees in itself nothing but God, who goes on thus attracting and inflaming it, until He has brought it to that state of existence whence it came forth—that is, the spotless purity wherein it was created. And when the soul, by interior illumination, perceives that God is drawing it with such loving ardour to Himself, straightway there springs up within it a corresponding fire of love for its most sweet Lord and God, which causes it wholly to melt away: it sees in the Divine light how considerately, and with what unfailing providence, God is ever leading it to its full perfection, and that He does it all through pure love; it finds itself stopped by sin, and unable to follow that heavenly attraction—I mean that look which God casts on it to bring it into union with Himself: and this sense of the grievousness of being kept from beholding the Divine Light, coupled with that instinctive longing which would fain be without hindrance to follow the enticing look—these two things, I say, make up the pains of the souls in purgatory. Not that they think anything of their pains, however great they be; they think far more of the opposition they are making to the will of God, which they see clearly is buring intensely with pure love to them. God meanwhile goes on drawing the soul by His looks of love mightily, and, as it were with undivided energy: this the soul know well; and could it find another purgatory greater that this by which it could sooner remove so great an obstacle, it would immediately plunge therein, impelled by that conforming love which is between God and the soul.[3]

Indeed, the soul’s very longing to be purified, its yearning to behold the Face of God and live, is the root cause, the moving force, of its own purification. “Its single desire, to be totally united with God, takes the form of burning love. The pain results from the fact that ‘encrustations’ on the soul—the ‘rust of sin’—block the desired union.”[4] So ardent is this yearning, so painful the remaining guilt and imperfection, that the soul, if it had a choice, would refuse not to be punished. Describing the fruits of suffering, Søren Kierkegaard says:

The one time of suffering is a passing through that leaves no mark at all upon the soul, or even more glorious, it is a passing through that completely cleanses the soul, and as a result the purity becomes the mark the passing through leaves behind. Just as gold is purified in the fire, so the soul is purified in sufferings. But what does the fire take away from the gold? Well, it is a curious way of talking to call it taking away; it takes away all the impure elements from the gold. What does gold lose in the fire? Well, it is a curious way of talking to call it losing; in the fire the gold loses all that is base—that is, the gold gains through the fire. So also with all temporal suffering, the hardest, the longest; powerless in itself, it is incapable of taking away anything, and if the suffering one lets eternity rule, it takes away the impure, that is, it gives purity.[5]

Having a foretaste of divine glory and knowing what sublime purity is necessary in order to share it worthily, the soul longs to be made pure, radiant, beautiful, like a bride preparing herself for the wedding feast. Earlier we quoted CCC 1030, which states that those who are “imperfectly purified” at the time of death must undergo further purification, “so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.” One should note how this excellent statement emphasizes the link between holiness and joy. Holiness is, in fact, the fundamental condition of perfect joy. A soul imperfectly sanctified does not have the wherewithal to share in the happiness of God, for the same reason that human lovers when their motives are selfish cannot fully experience the happiness of mutual surrender.

(This series includes material originally published in The Catholic Faith, vol. 5, n. 2, March-April 1999.)


[1] Cardinal Ratzinger argues that the tacit dismissal of Purgatory by contemporary Catholic theologians can be traced to a false attitude of “biblicism which was first developed in the Protestant tradition and which has rapidly come into Catholic theology as well. Here people maintain that those explicit passages of Scripture about the state which tradition calls ‘Purgatory’ (the term is certainly a relatively late one, but the reality was evidently believed from the very beginning) are inadequate and insufficiently clear. But as I have said elsewhere, this biblicism has scarcely anything to do with the Catholic understanding, according to which the Bible must be read within the Church and her faith” (The Ratzinger Report, trans. Salvator Attanasio and Graham Harrison [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985], 146). Nevertheless, Catholic authors have noted aspects of the doctrine of purgatory in numerous Scriptural passages: see, for example, Heb. 5:1, Ps. 66 [65]:9-12, Is. 4:4, Micah 7:8-9, Zech. 9:11, Mal. 3:3, 1 Cor. 3:13-15, Mt. 12:36, Lk. 12:57-59 and Mt. 5:25-26, Phil. 2:10, 2 Macc. 12:46, Mt. 12:32.

[2] Sono Un Teologo Felice—Colloqui con Francesco Strazzari, trans. John Bowden (New York: Crossroad, 1994), 66. See also Hans Urs von Balthasar, In the Fullness of Faith, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), p. 79: “According to Paul, we must all undergo the fiery judgment of God (1 Cor. 3:12-15). It will test each person’s life’s work, with quite different results: what some have built will stand, what others have built will burn away to nothing. In the Catholic milieu this personal ‘dimension’ or ‘intensity’ or ‘duration’ of the process of judgment (which cannot be expressed in terms of time) is called ‘purgatory’ or ‘place of purification’ (or better: ‘purification process’).”

[3] The Soul Afire, ed. H. A. Reinhold (New York: Meridian Books, 1960), pp. 246-47.

[4] Review of The Fire of Love (Sophia Institute Press), in New Oxford Review, December 1997, 39-40.

[5] Christian Discourses, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 102.

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