Purgatory: The Purifying Fire of God’s Love

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is prudence.

– Proverbs 9:10

Today is All Souls’ Day. The Catholic Encyclopedia defines the feast as follows:

The commemoration of all the faithful departed is celebrated by the Church on 2 November … The theological basis for the feast is the doctrine that the souls which, on departing from the body, are not perfectly cleansed from venial sins, or have not fully atoned for past transgressions, are debarred from the Beatific Vision, and that the faithful on earth can help them by prayers, alms, deeds and especially by the Sacrifice of the Mass.

Commemoration of the souls of the departed at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass traces its inception back to the time of the apostles. The Council of Trent’s 25th session included a decree on Purgatory which formalized what the Church had long believed:

Whereas the Catholic Church, instructed by the Holy Ghost, has, from the sacred writings and the ancient tradition of the Fathers, taught, in sacred councils, and very recently in this oecumenical Synod, that there is a Purgatory, and that the souls there detained are helped by the suffrages of the faithful, but principally by the acceptable sacrifice of the altar; the holy Synod enjoins on bishops that they diligently endeavour that the sound doctrine concerning Purgatory, transmitted by the holy Fathers and sacred councils, be believed, maintained, taught, and everywhere proclaimed by the faithful of Christ. … But let the bishops take care, that the suffrages of the faithful who are living, to wit the sacrifices of masses, prayers, alms, and other works of piety, which have been wont to be performed by the faithful for the other faithful departed, be piously and devoutly performed, in accordance with the institutes of the church; and that whatsoever is due on their behalf, from the endowments of testators, or in other way, be discharged, not in a perfunctory manner, but diligently and accurately, by the priests and ministers of the church, and others who are bound to render this (service).

Belief in Purgatory is not optional for Catholics. It is a real place, and one with which many of us, if we are fortunate, will find ourselves familiar. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1030) makes this simple assertion about the nature of Purgatory:

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.

We believe that the soul cannot attain heaven until every attachment to sin has been cleansed. It is impossible to be in perfect union with God while these vestiges of earthy corruption remain. Even a person who dies in a state of grace, having received the Last Rites of the Church may yet spend time in Purgatory before joining Our Lord in the Beatific Vision.

But there is much more worth knowing about this eschatological destination than we can glean from a technical understanding – particularly if we wish to live lives worthy of eternal felicity. It is not merely an ante-chamber to heaven, a sort of eternal waiting room whereupon we will await the healing touch of the Divine Physician. We know from the many saints who have had visions and experiences of Purgatory that it is a place of active and painful purification – an experience best avoided, if possible, despite the indescribable joy of the souls who find themselves there, assured of their salvation.

St. Catherine of Genoa, a 15th-century mystic who experienced Purgatory on earth, is considered the “theologian of purgatory.” Of the experience of Purgatory, she wrote:

When God sees the Soul pure as it was in its origins, He tugs at it with a glance, draws it and binds it to Himself with a fiery love that by itself could annihilate the immortal soul. In so acting, God so transforms the soul in Him that it knows nothing other than God; and He continues to draw it up into His fiery love until He restores it to that pure state from which it first issued. These rays purify and then annihilate. The soul becomes like gold that becomes purer as it is fired, all dross being cast out. Having come to the point of twenty-four carats, gold cannot be purified any further; and this is what happens to the soul in the fire of God’s love.

It isn’t difficult to imagine how this process of purgation would be at the same time be both rapturous and excruciating. As imperfections are literally burned away, the pain of the soul is balmed by an ever-increasing nearness to God and his all-consuming love. In fact, St. Catherine tells us:

“The greatest suffering of the souls in purgatory, it seems to me, is the awareness that something in them displeases God, that they have deliberately gone against His great goodness … I can also see … that the divine essence is so pure and light-filled — much more than we can imagine — that the soul that has but the slightest imperfection would rather throw itself into a thousand hells than appear thus before the divine presence.” Hence “the soul … aware that the impediment it faces cannot be removed in any other way, hurls itself into Purgatory …. That is why the soul seeks to cast off any and all impediments so it can be lifted up to God.”

(As cited in the book, Hungry Souls: Supernatural Visits, Messages, and Warnings from Purgatory, p. 41)

Armed with a knowledge of Purgatory, it is our job to bring an understanding of its rather stark reality to our modern world. We must do this in order to assist our fellow Catholics (and those we strive to convert) to live righteously, so as to attain this place whereof they are assured of salvation, and if possible shorten the time they may spend suffering there. After all, it is the task of the Church Militant on earth to free the Church Suffering from Purgatory, who in turn pray for our sanctification. They desire ardently to have our sacrifices and supplications, since they have no power, by their own prayer, to free themselves. As Our Lord said to St. Gertrude, “it would not be in opposition to my justice to release them [the souls]  immediately, if you would confidently pray for this purpose.”

We make it very difficult, however, to convince people to pray for these poor souls when we grant our deceased loved ones the assumption of instant sainthood – a false consolation for ourselves, and an unjust deprivation of needed graces for the departed. How often have we attended Catholic funerals, only to hear the priest say that the departed is “now with Jesus in heaven,” or to be confronted with similar platitudes (despite the prohibition of the Church) from grieving loved ones given an opportunity to speak? It often seems that we have skipped our lessons from the Church on the Last Things — death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell — which offer us no guarantees that we will go straight to Heaven after the particular judgment. In fact, it would seem, according to the Church’s long-held understanding, that such a happy occurrence is enjoyed by a select few. The majority of us, if we live well, will yet find ourselves subjected to the refiner’s fire.

In a culture where we have turned victimhood into a status symbol, where hurt feelings are to be avoided at all costs, where we hear the incessant refrain, “Who am I  to judge?”, where the faithful who live by close adherence to the Church’s teachings are accused of being “Pharisaical”, and where the license to choose and engage in every conceivable form of vice is treated with the reverence due to a cardinal virtue, we are confronted with the urgent need to instill in ourselves and in our fellow men a sense of objective reality. St. Thomas Aquinas defines love as “to wish good to someone.” How can we will the good of another if we are afraid to tell them the truth?

If a child is fatally allergic to peanuts, but craves peanut butter, do we love them by handing them a jar and a spoon? If a friend is insistent that they can drive home, despite being obviously drunk, do we love them by giving them the keys and sending them on their way? If a coworker is speaking in glowing terms about moving in with a boyfriend or girlfriend, do we love them by smiling and telling them how happy we are are for them?

Just before this article was published, a young woman committed suicide rather than enduring with courage the suffering imposed by her cancer. The reaction to her death echoed that surrounding the suicide of the famed comedian and actor, Robin Williams. We were admonished not to criticize, not to presume to understand what they were going through, and most importantly, not to judge.

And truthfully, it is not our place to judge. But this should not be taken to mean that these individuals will face no judgment. They will be judged by the Supreme Judge, the Author of Truth, who will unquestionably show His mercy, but will just as undoubtedly accuse them of their unrepented sins, according to His justice. The Judgment Seat of Christ is something we will all face, and it will be a terrible thing to behold. There will be nothing left hidden; there will be no place to escape from our shame. Seeing ourselves through God’s eyes means understanding, in a way more profound than mere nakedness can explain, why Adam and Eve felt compelled to cover themselves in the Garden after the Fall.

This is why the task does fall to us to call others to conversion. We may not judge souls — a task which belongs to God alone — but we may, and should, judge actions. We have been given the teachings of the law in order that we may properly form our conscience, and by the light of its guidance keep our feet on the narrow path that leads to heaven. When we see a man who has fallen from this path, how can it be considered cruel to pour oil and wine into his wounds, and to bind them, and to see to his convalescence? Is it mercy to allow a man to die in his sins? We know the answer! Christ Himself made it plain when he told the parable of the Good Samaritan:

Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Go and do likewise. This is the command of love – and of true mercy. We are called not just to kindness, but to correction. We are called to try to get as many people to heaven as possible. We should yet rejoice if, falling short, any of these souls must spend some time in Purgatory first along the way.

And for those souls languishing there, we must remember the same charity we hope will be offered by the living on our behalf if we find ourselves in that place. Prayer, fasting, penance, masses said for their souls. Plenary indulgences can also be gained for the faithful departed during the week of All Souls’ Day. Do not forget them! Do not assume that after a few years of prayer, your loved ones must have surely paid their debts! Our Lady told Sister Lucia at Fatima that one of the girls from her town who had died would be in Purgatory “until the end of the world.” Do we assume that we, or those we love, are so holy that we will escape this same fate?

When we arrive at our judgment, the truth of our lives will be made clear. Let us pray for each other, that we may suffer no worse fate than the purifying fire of God’s love, so that, confronted by our just Judge, we will with both rejoicing and sadness cry out like the psalmist:

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me.

You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.


Originally published on November 4, 2014. 

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