The Church dedicates November, the end of its liturgical year, to the Holy Souls in Purgatory. The Feast of All Saints and All Souls turn our thoughts to “the life of the world to come”, reminding us that no one knows when he will be called to give an account of his life.
Pondering our eternal fate may lead us into two different pits: either we despair, or we presume our salvation. The first stems from a craven fear of God’s justice; the second from the presumptuous belief that His mercy will override our faults.
Neither is theologically sound. Justice and mercy, says Pope Francis, “are not two contradictory realities, but two dimensions of a single reality that unfolds progressively until it culminates in the fullness of love” (Misericordiae Vultus, 20). God, who is justice, demands reparation for sin – but He mercifully gives us the graces to help restore our relationship with Him.
We know that those who die perfectly purified, in God’s grace and friendship, will see him face to face (Rev 22:4) – a state of supreme happiness that we call “Heaven”. Those who utterly reject God’s merciful love, exclude themselves eternally from communion with Him and the saints – a state we call “Hell”. But what lies between these two extremes?
The mercy of Purgatory
Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his encyclical Spe Salvi (“On Christian Hope”) that most people retain “an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God” even though their life choices are marked by “new compromises with evil”. Such people, says the Catechism, “undergo purification” after death, “so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.” (CCC 1030). This state of purification is called Purgatory.
The promise of Heavenly Beatitude
“[T]he way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us forever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love. Indeed, it has already been burned away through Christ’s Passion. At the moment of judgement, we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy.“ (Spe Salvi, 47)
Those of us who desire God are granted this final grace: not because we deserve it, but because God is so loving and merciful that He is willing to give us one last chance for purification even after death. He “is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2 Pet 3:9)
Is Purgatory painful?
Many people view Purgatory with fear rather than gratitude. This may be because St. Paul wrote of a “testing fire” which destroys whatever is false in us (1 Cor 3:11-15). And many saints famously had mystical visions of Purgatory filled with fire, smoke, and the screams of suffering souls.
But it is not clear that the “screams” come from being punished by a sadistic God. It is far more likely that the purgatorial process is painful because the more deeply we are attached to a particular vice or sinful inclination, the more it hurts to give it up. It is also painful because the soul on one hand is keenly aware of his desire to be with God and yet on the other hand, cannot let go of the sins and attachments of his earthly life.
Pope Benedict notes that “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… 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.” (Spe Salvi, 47)
It is clear, then, that Purgatory is not a torture chamber, but a “dressing room” where the faithful are prepared for Heaven. A soul in Purgatory can rest assured that his salvation is secure, unlike those who are irrevocably in Hell.
Some Ways to Lessen Our Stay in Purgatory
- Frequent the Sacraments: Reconciliation and Eucharist to obtain graces for true conversion of heart.
- Live a virtuous life: Cultivate virtues, e.g., fortitude and prudence, which lessen your attachment to sin and vice.
- Embrace your sufferings: Accept and offer your daily crosses and inconveniences in union with Jesus, for the salvation of souls and conversion of sinners.
- Do penance and mortifications for your sins and the conversion of sinners.
- Nurture a love for devotions: Contemplate on God’s mercy and love such as devotions to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Divine Mercy, the Rosary, etc.