Preparing to meet Him: Purgatory cleanses human imperfections to ready the faithful for heaven

North Texas Catholic
(Oct 31, 2023) Feature

A young woman visits a gravestone at a cemetery. (NTC Photo illustration/Juan Guajardo)

Pose a question about purgatory and you’re likely to get a range of responses from the general public. Some are serious, others snarky.

“I used to have questions, but now I’m certain there is a purgatory,” admitted longtime St. Rita parishioner Joan Grabowski. “God in His mercy gives us the last chance to be purified before spending life in eternity with Him.”

Legions of children who filled Catholic schools in the 1950s and 1960s were encouraged to “pray for the souls in purgatory” by the religious sisters who taught them.

One of those cradle Catholics recalled learning about the Blessed Mother’s promise to deliver from purgatory “those that have been devoted to the Rosary” and considered the opportunity to “wipe the slate clean” in purgatory a gift.

But there are also those who claim purgatory isn’t in the Bible or say the word simply reminds them of a popular ski resort in Durango, Colorado. The latter was named Purgatory by Spanish explorers for its location near a tributary of the Rio de las Anima Perdidas (the River of Lost Souls).  

November is traditionally dedicated in the Catholic Church to honoring the dead and relieving the sufferings of the souls in purgatory. It comes at the end of the liturgical year, before the start of Advent, to remind the people of our earthly death and hope for a new life with God in heaven.

On All Souls’ Day, Nov. 2, the Church pays particular attention to praying for the faithful departed who are being purified before entering heaven.

Dr. Christopher Malloy, theology department chairman at the University of Dallas, fields questions about purgatory while teaching eschatology — a course studying the “last things”— death, judgment, heaven, and hell.

Fr. John Martin celebrates a special All Souls’ Mass at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Cemetery in Pilot Point on Nov. 2, 2022. (NTC/Ben Torres

Students frequently ask the professor: Is there time in purgatory? Is it a place of pain? Where is the scriptural evidence for purgatory?

“It’s in the Bible if you look with care,” Dr. Malloy pointed out. “There are so many passages in Scripture that speak of the purity or the holiness without which no one will see God. Spotlessness is expected of us at the judgment in order to get into heaven.”

Both experience and the Bible give us examples of people who are just and faithful to God but not perfectly holy.

“If you die in that state — many people do — what is the alternative? Do you go to hell because you’re not ready for heaven or [do you go to] heaven with your impurity?” he asked. “Neither of those is a reasonable position.”

Catholics believe in a time of purgation after life.

“It’s an unfolding process,” the professor said, explaining it occurs “in time but not in the same kind of time we have now,” and “not in a place where you and I are in a place.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines purgatory as a necessary purification needed to enter heaven.

“All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but are still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death, they undergo purification so as to attain the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. The Church gives the name ‘purgatory’ to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned.” (CCC 1030–1031)

The first biblical mention of purgatory is found in 2 Maccabees 12:46, “Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from their sin.”

“An Old Testament book, Second Maccabees, talks about a group of Jewish men who died heroically, but had pagan amulets on their person,” Malloy explained. “They sinned before the heroism.”

To atone for this act of superstition, Judas Maccabee took up a collection for the fallen warriors and paid for sacrifices in their name at the temple.

“[The author of Second Maccabees] said this was a good thing because it shows belief in resurrection. The men didn’t just die and that was it. They needed atonement,” the professor added, noting Protestants don’t accept Maccabees as part of the Bible.

Catholic theologians say 2 Maccabees is scriptural proof for purgatory and evidence that Jews in 2nd century B.C. thought they could help the deceased by praying for them.

In his book The Afterlife: Purgatory and Heaven Explained, author Father Dolindo Ruotolo states, as members of the Communion of Saints, the living have duties of justice and charity toward the souls in purgatory.

“Among the works of suffrage for the souls in purgatory are these three, all of which have a marvelous effect: prayer, the Holy Mass and indulgences,” he writes. “A simple desire, a short prayer, an act of love to God — they all have an extraordinary power of suffrage.”

The souls in purgatory are holy and very noble because they are already assured to be citizens of heaven, according to Fr. Ruotolo.

“We see that they are more closely possessed by God, for whom they thirst and hunger, and we shorten the time of their unutterable pains, making it easier for them to gain their eternal happiness.”

Praying for the dead is a corporal work of mercy, agreed Father Jack McKone, pastor of St. John the Apostle Parish in North Richland Hills, who urges his congregation to pray for the souls in purgatory.

Occasionally, parishioners ask him about this often misunderstood teaching of the Church.

“Where is purgatory? That’s troubling because we’re talking about something that is not temporal and not spatial,” he insisted. “We come closer to understanding if we think of it more as a process and not a place.”

The imperfect cannot exist in the perfect.

“So we can’t be with Christ in heaven if we are imperfect,” the priest explained. “Purgatory is a process in which we are made ready for existing with Christ — with God — for eternity.”

What happens in purgatory? Is there pain? Fire? No one knows, Fr. McKone conceded.

“The final purification is entirely different from the punishment of the damned,” he continued. “Certain texts of Scripture speak of a cleansing fire.”

A passage from the first letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians suggests, “The work of each will come to light, for the Day will disclose it. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire (itself) will test the quality of each one’s work.” (1 Corinthians 3:13)

The pastor considers purgatory a hopeful place for souls because they know where their final destination is.

“I think our belief and teaching about purgatory is closely tied to hope,” Fr. McKone said thoughtfully. “I know I’m not perfect. It’s an article of hope that there is a process — a purging fire — which, in God’s mercy, He will make sure we’re prepared for perfection in Him and heaven.

“We can’t do it on our own.”

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