The Catholic Herald
In the Know with Fr Joe
>> In the know with Fr. Joe

Dear Fr. Joe: What is purgatory?

Q. What is purgatory? If I go there, will I ever end up in heaven?

A. When I was young, I thought “purgatory” was Mom’s cute nickname for me …
    What is purgatory? Well, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says some amazing things about purgatory; let’s check them out:
    All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. (1030)
    The church gives the name purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. The church formulated her doctrine of faith on purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. The tradition of the church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire. (1031)
    I use an image with my students that they claim is helpful, though they may just be acting polite: When we die, we enter into God’s presence and God’s presence is a fire. I know we’re used to the idea of hell being hot, but that is not really the image that has been handed down to us. Anyway, this fire of God’s presence has an immediate impact on us: purification. See, during our lives, we accumulate all kinds of damage to our souls, all sorts of layers of deception and pain that cover and wound our souls. Think of them as battle scars. Anyway, these impurities, when exposed to God’s Holy Fire, begin to burn up, just like coal that goes into a furnace. Does it hurt? Yes, but, as I tell my students “It’s a weight room hurt.” It’s a hurt we want badly and are ready for because of God’s grace and love.
    I saw a documentary on how silver is purified. In the show, the silversmith took a lump of misshapen, blackish rock and put it in an intense fire. When he pulled it out some time later, it was a small lump of pure silver. He explained that if you leave it in too long, or take it out too early, the results aren’t good. The narrator asked the logical question: “So, how do you know when it’s time to take it out?” The silversmith said an incredible thing. He said that he looks at the burning rock and when he can see his reflection, the rock is ready. Purgatory is the same idea: When God looks at us and sees himself, we’re ready to move into the fullness of heaven.
   Can people in purgatory go to hell? Nope. They are in the process of heaven already. Is purgatory a separate place from heaven?  I don’t think so. I would describe it as a part of heaven.
    The catechism also says this:
    This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in sacred Scripture: “Therefore Judas Maccabeus made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.” From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead: Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them. (1032)
    This powerful section makes it clear that you and I can help our beloved dead by praying for them after their death. It is human understanding that says it’s all said and done at death, but God’s love is so great in and through us that we can have an impact on our beloved dead even after their death!
    Well, I’m out of space now. I guess purgatory is a bit bigger than I thought.
    Enjoy another day in God’s presence.

Send your questions to: “In the Know with Fr. Joe” FAITH Magazine, 209 Seymour Ave., Lansing, MI 48933 Or: JoeInBlack@priest.com