The Church encourages us to pray for the souls in purgatory, also called the Suffering Church. Is purgatory real? It sounds so foreboding, but I have always found the “suffering” Church and purgatory (meaning place or state of purging) to be some of the most hopeful, tender, beautiful teachings of the Church.
Did you just recoil in horror?
Throughout the Scriptures and sacred history, fire has been associated with the presence of God. The Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 15:1-17), the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-8), the roasted Passover lamb (Exodus 12: 8-10), the pillar of fire in the wilderness (Exodus 13:22), the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 19:18), the continuously burning tabernacle altar fire that originated from heaven and consumed every sacrifice thereafter (Leviticus 9:22-24), are all Old Testament examples of how God used fire to appear to us and say something important about himself.
Always consistent, later in the New Testament the Holy Spirit descended at Pentecost in tongues of fire (Acts 2:3), and fire is spoken of repeatedly as a symbol of judgment that destroys what is dross but purifies what is authentic in the souls of men. Both Saints Peter and Paul tell us it is suffering under the fires of trial and judgment that will ultimately save us (1 Peter 1:6-9, 1 Corinthians 3:15)! How can this be?
C.S. Lewis provides a vivid analogy that shows the need for the purifying love God shows the souls in purgatory:
“Our souls demand purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, ‘It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy’? Should we not reply, ‘With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.’ ‘It may hurt, you know?’ ‘Even so, sir.’” (Letters to Malcolm, C. S. Lewis).
Purgatory is a Person
In what has to be one of my all-time favorite passages of Scripture we discover something utterly fantastic: “For our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29). The holy, burning love of God for my soul is what purifies me of sin, and this purification of my faults, passions, and tendency to sin (concupiscence) is necessarily painful, because it is the letting go and burning away of all that is not useful, helpful, conducive, or does not match, God’s love.
Sacrificing for others is painful. Obedience and humility are painful. So the soul requires a process (of time on earth, of “purgatory” in death) to learn and be purified by them. But sacrifice, humility, and obedience are the essence of charity, of God’s love and being.
When my love for him burns as hotly and holily as his for me, the fire of his love no longer burns, but warms and radiates in and through me. I am fully conformed to his likeness. I am saved, because I am one with him. In the words of St. Catherine of Genoa:
“If when thus refined she should again approach the fire she would feel no pain, for to her it has become the fire of divine love, which is life eternal and which nothing mars” (Treatise on Purgatory, St. Catherine of Genoa).
Life’s fiery trials and the “state” of purgatory then, are the all-consuming, jealous fire of God probing and purifying us deliberately, deeply, and intimately of all that prevents full eternal union with him. The fire of trials, the fire of purgatory, the beatitude of heaven, and the fires of hell are all the same fire. But the presence of God as “fire” affects the soul differently depending on the soul’s disposition and purity.
This has always been the teaching of the Church. According to St. Catherine of Genoa this is the reason the souls in purgatory are blissful in proportion to their suffering, “So that the souls in purgatory enjoy the greatest happiness and endure the greatest pain; the one does not hinder the other” (Treatise on Purgatory). They are one step ahead of us in the process and they “see” the glory of the “fire” themselves.
Pope Benedict XVI summarized centuries of historical teaching on purgatory. When speaking on the mystics, he said rather than a “place” in the depths of the earth or an exterior fire, they saw purgatory as an inner fire. They understood purgatory to be the soul’s experience and awareness of God’s immense love, tender mercy, and perfect justice.
“It is precisely the love of God himself which purifies the soul from the ravages of sin” (General Audience, 1.12.11).
Suffering for its own sake, punishment, is NOT the purpose of either trials or purgatory; suffering’s purpose is the purification that makes me fit to be “with” God. Only the pure in heart see God (Matthew 5:8). “Be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16).
Communion of Love
Like our duty toward living friends and relatives, it is our privilege to help pray for our departed loved ones through this cleansing process, because we cannot know positively whether their souls are in heaven, in purgatory, or in hell, even if they professed a faith in Christ.
During the whole month of November, then, the Church in her wisdom greatly blesses the prayers that we offer on their behalf. In particular, during the first several days of the month full (plenary) indulgences are available every day. Which means we can potentially help a loved one finish the process completely!
Two ways to gain indulgences in the month of November:
- Visiting a church or an oratory on All Souls Day, Nov. 2
- Visiting a cemetery each day between Nov. 1 and Nov. 8
General Requirements for obtaining a Plenary Indulgence:
- Say one Our Father and one Hail Mary for the Holy Father’s intentions that he designates each month,
- Worthily receive Holy Communion, ideally, on the same day if you can get to Mass,
- Go to confession within twenty days of All Souls Day.
Changes were made to this article on May 16, 2017.
You May Also Like…
You can now offer ongoing support for this content with a recurring gift.