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What happens in Purgatory?

What happens in Purgatory? What's the point of it? Can the holy souls pray for us? Is Purgatory painful? Find answers to your questions on Purgatory in this blog.


What’s the point of Purgatory?

To enter into communion with the all-holy God in everlasting life we too need to be holy. As St John Paul II explained, “every trace of attachment to evil must be eliminated, every imperfection of the soul corrected. Purification must be complete, and indeed this is precisely what is meant by the Church’s teaching on Purgatory”. For those faithful who die in friendship with God but not yet entirely purified, the mercy of God provides a last cleansing of love which enables them to embrace the fullness of Love. This is Purgatory.

Purgatory is a purification of love. Those who undergo this final cleansing after death have indeed died in the love of God, but that love is not yet perfect. More specifically the holiness of these souls may be tarnished by unforgiven venial sins, evil inclinations or temporal punishment due to sin.

What can the holy souls do to get out of Purgatory?

During our earthly lives, we can be purified by means of the sacraments, prayer and good works.

However “death puts an end to human life as the time open to either accepting or rejecting the divine grace manifested in Christ” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1021). This means the holy souls in Purgatory can no longer actively “satisfy” for their sins. They can’t do anything to purify themselves – and therefore get out of Purgatory. Purification is done to them rather than by them.

What happens in Purgatory?

The Holy Souls in Purgatory undergo purification suffering of love. The purifying suffering of love is called “satispassion”. Since the Holy Souls can’t be purified by their own efforts, they atone for their sins by undergoing purifying suffering which re-establishes holiness and justice. The Holy Souls joyfully embrace their final preparation for heaven with faith, hope and love.

What kind of suffering happens in Purgatory?

Although the Church hasn’t declared anything about the specific nature of the pains of Purgatory, the greatest suffering is the delay of the beatific vision. In other words the postponement of seeing God face-to-face, which is heaven. The human being, made for eternal life with God suffers immensely on being delayed in this union with the ultimate object of all their desiring.

The holy souls are aware of the immense good of which they are temporarily deprived and conscious of their personal responsibility for this delay. They embrace this temporary and cleansing pain lovingly and in complete conformity with the will of God.

Is Purgatory painful?

Although many Christian thinkers have pondered this over the centuries, the Church doesn’t have definitive teaching on this. Christian scholars, including St Bernard and St Bonaventure, considered the idea of physical suffering (in addition to the suffering of the temporary absence of God), suggesting fire or extreme cold as punishment for our sins.

However, in his encyclical Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict XVI suggested that the fire of Purgatory could be the gaze of Jesus:

Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation ‘as through fire’. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God. In this way the inter-relation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us for ever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love.

How long is Purgatory?

While the Church doesn’t have an official teaching on the duration of Purgatory, many of the great scholastic theologians, including St Thomas Aquinas, referred to a concept called “aeviternity”. This a measure of time different from our own which is proper to the angels, and might also be applied to the souls in Purgatory. It has a beginning but not an end, since it is characteristic of beings who have been created at a particular moment in time, but are destined for everlasting life. It is a duration marked not by a series of physical changes and events, but by the succession of the soul’s thoughts and affections.

Is Purgatory just a temporary hell?

The portrayal of Purgatory as a kind of temporary hell is very much to be avoided. The Catechism emphasises that “this final purification of the elect…is entirely different from the punishment of the damned”. As St John Paul II put it when speaking about hope for eternal life: “Even if the soul in that passage towards heaven had to undergo purification for the remains of sin in purgatory, it is full of light, of certitude, of joy, because it is sure that it belongs to God forever”.

Purgatory is best seen as the antechamber or waiting-room for heaven, where the souls are truly holy, are in love with God and embrace their final cleansing with profound gratitude as they prepare for communion with the Blessed Trinity. In the words of St Josemaria Escriva: “Purgatory shows God’s great mercy and washes away the defects of those who long to become one with him.”

St Robert Bellarmine expresses the situation of the holy souls metaphorically. The soul in Purgatory is like a person who reaches a city in the dead of night. It can rightly be said that he has finished his journey and arrived, yet the doors remain closed until sunrise.

Is Purgatory a place?

St John Paul II taught, “the term ‘purgatory’ does not indicate a place but a condition of existence”.

How can we help the holy souls move on from Purgatory?

The living, through their prayer, almsgiving, and offering of the Eucharist, can obtain comfort for the souls in Purgatory.

Do the angels and saints in heaven help the holy souls?

In the family of the Church, those who are already safely home are in the best position to help those still on their journey. The saints and angels pray not only for the living faithful but also for those undergoing the final purification before entry to heaven. The holy souls are greatly helped by the intercession of those already in heaven.

The Blessed Virgin is foremost in praying for the holy souls, continuing the maternal care she lavished on them during their earthly lives.

Can the souls in Purgatory pray for us?

The holy souls can and do pray. The loving existence and sufferings of the holy souls constitute a prayer. However, the Church hasn’t definitively taught on whether they can pray for the living, but neither has she told the faithful that they cannot pray to the souls in Purgatory.

PurgatoryThe answers to these questions are taken from our book Purgatory: A Mystery of Love. This engaging survey of Scripture, the Church Fathers, Christian history, distinguished writers, and the Catechism, provides answers to the many questions we have regarding purgatory.

Get more answers on Purgatory by ordering your copy of Purgatory: A Mystery of Love.

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