Part 3 of a 4-part series: Part I | Part 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. 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.
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.
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.” 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.
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.)
 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 :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.
 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’).”
 The Soul Afire, ed. H. A. Reinhold (New York: Meridian Books, 1960), pp. 246-47.
 Review of The Fire of Love (Sophia Institute Press), in New Oxford Review, December 1997, 39-40.
 Christian Discourses, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 102.
Dr. Peter Kwasniewski is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and The Catholic University of America who taught at the International Theological Institute in Austria, the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austria Program, and Wyoming Catholic College, which he helped establish in 2006. Today he is a full-time writer and speaker on traditional Catholicism whose work appears online at, among others, OnePeterFive, New Liturgical Movement, LifeSiteNews, The Remnant, and Catholic Family News. He has published eighteen books, including Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright: The Genius and Timeliness of the Traditional Latin Mass (Angelico, 2020), The Ecstasy of Love in the Thought of Thomas Aquinas (Emmaus, 2021), and Are Canonizations Infallible? Revisiting a Disputed Question (Arouca, 2021). His work has been translated into at least eighteen languages. Visit his website at www.peterkwasniewski.com.
The Modernist dumbos believe that we will simply all go to heaven after we die so hell and purgatory are not needed in the post-conciliar attitude of the faithful (or should we say faithless).
Divorced and remarried? No problem! Heaven for you!
Having sex with your partner without getting married. No problem! Heaven for you!
Gossiping at the workplace! No problem! Heaven for you!
Watching impure movies! No problem! Heaven for you!
Dolts will be surprised at their Judgment.
This is great stuff Peter. It all makes perfect sense. If, in order to get to heaven, you must be a saint, one would think it would be a good idea to start now. This is the kind of thing we should be hearing in Sunday sermons, the way of St. John of the Cross and St Teresa of Avila. By the Church’s failure to proclaim the need for holiness in this life and how to go about it they are, in effect, causing folks more suffering in Purgatory or Hell. This is the kind of thing Pope Francis should be proclaiming, instead of global warming which makes him appear absurd in the light of Christ’s teachings.
Needs commentary on plenary indulgences which remove all left over punishment after Penance due to forgiven sin in purgatory. For those put off by complexity, the Church has an at home plenary…one half hour of scripture reading in a devout manner with the usual 4 stipulations: confession, Eucharist, prayers for the Pope’s intentions and detachment from all sin including venial. Pray first for that last one in the week prior since if that detachment is imperfect, the plenary devolves to partial. A plenary can only be gotten for oneself or a deceased. This weekend is my second and for a deceased relative this time.. See Vatican site detail…e.g. Confession can cover several plenaries while the other 3 usual stipulations must be repeated per indulgence. Prayers for Pope’s intentions can be satisfied by one each…Our Father and Hail Mary.
Now, here is an article with a date of December 11, and I read it today and see that there have been a total of 3 comments made on this subject, which is a subject of vital importance to every single Catholic in the entire world. The Church believes and teaches the doctrine of Purgatory (I guess it is correct to identify it as a “doctrine?”)
So my question is: why aren’t there hundreds of comments where people are talking about this, like we do when we are discussing the latest scandal or arguing over the latest words in a statement from Rome? There could be lots of reasons and explanations, some of them not very gentle and charitable-sounding.
We can point our fingers at other people and we can blame pastors and bishops, but the truth is that Purgatory is part of Catholic teaching and it is in the Catechism, and it is our responsibility to pay attention to it and learn what we can about it. So here’s the biggest reason why I think we don’t want to learn about it and think about it — because it will scare the snot out of us, sort of like really thinking about dying and no longer existing in our body on this earth tends to scare the snot out of us. Who wants to die right now, I mean this instant, and go to be with Jesus? Who longs for that? Then, if you have to think “well, I probably, no almost certainly, will NOT go straight to be with Jesus, but I will go to Purgatory” — well, that’s just really awful.
There are things that have been shown to saints about Purgatory. I don’t have in my memory every single thing said and the name of every saint, but I’ve read them, because I had a good reason to read them. One of them was told, maybe St. Catherine, that Purgatory is worse suffering than any suffering we could ever endure on earth. I suppose we are not required to believe that. There was another obscure saint, and I can’t remember his name either but he was discussed in the 1960 version of the Divine Office, who was so desirous of NOT going to Purgatory, that he sought plenary indulgences and undertook pilgrimages to Rome and would climb the steps on his knees and do all those things they used to do in the old days. And he did this many times, because he apparently understood that little thing about attachment to venial sin. The requirements for seeking a plenary indulgence are not very hard, except for that one little part about attachment to venial sin, because that part is the vital and important heart of the whole thing.
We could learn just about everything we need to understand about Purgatory if we took maybe a week and read what the Church teaches from Scripture and what some of the Doctors of the Church teach and read about some of the words and visions given to some saints. Purgatory fits in so well with our understanding of what we’re supposed to be about while we are here on this earth and what happens when we leave this earth. We’re not just here to be able to go to Mass and receive all the beautiful Sacraments God has allowed to us in His mercy and love. We’re also here to strive for holiness and sanctity, which means we have to be chastised and go through whatever purification and purgative process God wills for each of us as individuals. Because we are all sinners and we’re not holy, not yet. Even venial sins will keep us from the Beatific Vision until we are clean. Read what St. John of the Cross and others say about all this stuff. It’s much, much better for us if we allow God to take us through the process of purification while we’re still here than to wait and have to go to Purgatory.
God sees our hearts and He sees all the way down to the bottom of us. We do not see everything that He sees about us. But one thing is certain — if we ask Him to show us and to do whatever it takes to clean us up, He will do it. As for me, I came really really close to dying not so long ago. Although I did not technically have a near-death experience, like my heart stopping sort of thing, I was close enough that the veil was so thin and I was so far gone that I was aware that I was still in this world but seeing shadows of the next world. Since I wasn’t “dead”, I sure didn’t see any bright lights and feel a lot of peace and awesomeness. And I didn’t see hell, because it just wasn’t hell..I knew that. It was more a shadowy impression of what I guess may have been angels. After that, I had emergency surgery and eventually recovered. Then I discovered I had acquired the holy fear of God, the kind we’re supposed to have. I had already been suffering physically and in some other ways for many years when this happened. I had, 20 years ago, asked God to do whatever it took to bring me totally into His will for me, and He was doing it. It was after this experience that I was given to understand that the biggest part of my suffering, then and now, is the purification process of addressing the temporal punishment for my sins. There are other elements to it, but my focus is supposed to be kept mostly on this aspect.
I wasn’t brought up as a faithful Catholic, and I had plenty of time to commit mortal sins before I came to the Church, so I have a lot of temporal punishment to be accounted for. I just know that I don’t want to have to go to Purgatory and be there until the Final Judgment. So I’m really concentrating on those plenary indulgences.