Today is All Soul’s Day, which might have you wondering: what DOES the Church teach about Purgatory? Let’s discuss:
The book of Revelation tells us that: “Nothing unclean shall enter [heaven]” (Rev 21:27). This poses a problem for us as Christians because although we may have been saved by God’s grace and are striving for holiness, we still sin and are still attached to sin. So theoretically, if we die with the smallest stain of sin on our soul, we cannot enter heaven because we are unclean. This is a manifestation of God’s perfect justice and a just punishment for our sin. However, God is also infinitely merciful.
Purgatory is the purification of the elect after death in which they achieve the holiness necessary to enter heaven (CCC 1030). At its core, purgatory is a manifestation of God’s mercy. It is the means by which God makes us ready to enter heaven. Heaven is all about eternal happiness, and God wants us to be the happiest we can be. Who is happier in this scenario: a Texas A&M student who bleeds maroon going to a Fightin’ Texas Aggie football game, wearing their maroon out shirt, doing all the yells, sawing ‘em off, and ultimately celebrating a hard-fought victory; or, a random young adult sitting in the middle of the Texas A&M student section in a green t-shirt who has never been to a football game before and has no idea what the heck is happening? Both people attended the same football game and needed a ticket to get in, but their experiences are very different. The Aggie student who knows what’s going on and is fully invested has a much deeper joy and satisfaction with an Aggie win. The random young adult might get caught up in the emotion of winning and might even like being in that exciting environment, but they don’t appreciate fully what they have witnessed. Heaven is where God seeks to fulfill our every desire and give us eternal joy; purgatory is where he prepares our heart for this gift. (If it helps you to extend the analogy to ridiculous lengths, maybe you could on some level equate Fish Camp with Purgatory as fish camp prepares you to appreciate A&M and purgatory prepares you to appreciate heaven, but the analogy breaks down quickly.)
Now purgatory might be a manifestation of God’s mercy, but purgatory is not fun or easy. After all, purgatory is often understood as a purifying fire (1 Cor 3:12-15; 1 Peter 1:7). The souls in purgatory know that they are going to heaven, but I invite you to consider how painful that knowledge might be. It’s like when I was engaged to my wife and we were counting down the days till our wedding day. The first six months of our engagement went by pretty fast, but the last six months were torture. The anticipation and waiting was brutal. And the reason it was so brutal is because we loved each other. We were tired of waiting and wanted to be married already. We knew it was going to happen, but we wanted to experience that joy and happiness sooner rather than later. The waiting helped us recognize and even increased our love and desire for each other and ultimately made our wedding day and subsequent marriage that much sweeter, but waiting was not easy or fun.
We all desire happiness, and ultimately, happiness means being with God forever in heaven. When we die, things will suddenly become a lot clearer for us (1 Cor 13:12). When all of the distractions of this earth are removed and we are better able to see and understand what heaven is and means for us, it’s going to be greater than we can ever imagine (1 Cor 2:9); and we’re going to want it. Badly. More than anything we’ve ever wanted. And the possibility of being told that I can’t have it yet would be tough to hear (although in the long run, it would be the best thing for me). God loves us and desires our happiness, and purgatory is his way of helping us receive as much of his love as we can.
[Author’s note: I left out a lot of details such as mortal sin vs. venial sin, eternal punishment vs. temporal punishment, free will, grace, indulgences, vicarious satisfaction, etc. My goal was to give my own sense/feeling of what purgatory is and not a complete theological understanding of it; that can be easily found. I hope that I have been somewhat effective in that endeavor.]
Kevin graduated in 2010 from Texas A&M with a degree in History and he went on to earn his theology degree from the University of St. Thomas. He serves at St. Mary’s as a Campus Minister and our Director of our RCIA. He and his wife Morgan have three children and live in College Station.