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Straight Answers: What Is Purgatory Like?

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For a couple of weeks now, you have discussed Purgatory. Do we know what happens in Purgatory? I was at the Franciscan Monastery and in the catacomb area they have a chapel for the poor souls in Purgatory which shows them in fire. Is this true of Purgatory? A reader in Washington

The Catechism clearly affirms the Church's belief in Purgatory and the purification of the soul after death: "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. The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned." (Cf. No. 1030-32).

From this basic teaching, we must always remember that (1) a person's stay in Purgatory is temporary, (2) purgatory is different from Hell, and (3) a person in Purgatory undergoes purification for venial sin and the hurts caused by sins. What does this purification entail? Like Hell, there is the pain of loss and the pain of sense: however, the severity of these pains between Hell and Purgatory is vastly different. The pain of loss for those in Purgatory is the temporary deprivation of the Beatific Vision. Each of us longs to be with God, see Him, and be enwrapped in His love.

The Apostolic Constitution Benedictus Deus (1336) promulgated by Pope Benedict XII, defined that the souls of the just "...see the divine essence with an intuitive vision and even face to face, without the mediation of any creature by way of object of vision; rather, the divine essence immediately manifests itself to them, plainly, clearly, and openly, and in this vision they enjoy the divine essence." Therefore, the souls in Purgatory long for this vision. That longing and deprivation is what torments their soul. The pain of sense involves some sensible suffering.

While not defined, traditionally this pain of sense has involved some purifying fire, which causes torment. In the Book of the Prophet Zechariah, the Lord spoke, "I will bring the one third through fire, and I will refine them as silver is refined, and I will test them as gold is tested" (13:9); the School of Rabbi Shammai interpreted this passage as a purification of the soul through God's mercy and goodness, preparing it for eternal life. A similar passage is found in the Book of Wisdom (3:1-9): "The souls of the just are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them. ...Chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed, because God tried them and found them worthy of Himself. As gold in the furnace, He proved them, and as sacrificial offerings He took them to Himself." Think of this image of "fire tried" gold or silver. When these precious metals are mined from the earth, other minerals or rocks accompany them. By fire, these impurities are separated, and the pure gold or silver remains. In the same sense, a soul containing the impurities of venial sin or hurts caused by sin will first be purified, i.e. "fire tried."

Perhaps a more modern version would be the idea of radiation therapy "burning" out the cancer cells; while such therapy is very painful, one has the hope of returning to good health. In a more positive light, St. Francis de Sales wrote of the sufferings of Purgatory, but as they are mitigated by the consolations which accompany them: "We may draw from the thought of Purgatory more consolation than apprehension. The greater part of those who dread Purgatory so much think more of their own interests than of the interests of God's glory; this proceeds from the fact that they think only of the sufferings without considering the peace and happiness which are there enjoyed by the holy souls. It is true that the torments are so great that the most acute sufferings of this life bear no comparison to them; but the interior satisfaction which is there enjoyed is such that no prosperity nor contentment upon earth can equal it. The souls are in a continual union with God." (Espirit de St. Francois de Sales, IX, p. 16, quoted in Purgatory by Rev. F. X. Shouppe, S.J.)

Similarly, in Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Pope John Paul II related God's "living flame of Love" spoken of by St. John of the Cross with the doctrine of Purgatory: "The 'living flame of love,' of which St. John speaks, is above all a purifying fire. The mystical nights described by this great Doctor of the Church on the basis of his own experience corresponds, in a certain sense, to Purgatory. God makes man pass through such an interior purgatory of his sensual and spiritual nature in order to bring him into union with Himself. Here we do not find ourselves before a mere tribunal. We present ourselves before the power of love itself. Before all else, it is Love that judges. God, who is Love, judges through love. It is love that demands purification, before man can be made ready for that union with God which is his ultimate vocation and destiny." Therefore, once again, we are left with a very positive image of Purgatory.

Nevertheless, the old pictures of the suffering souls in the fires of Purgatory should motivate us now to regularly examine our conscience, go to confession, and do penance. We need the graces that come forth through prayer and especially the Holy Eucharist. We must strive for holiness now and keep a strong and close union to the Lord. Such an attitude and such practices will be the best preparation for when we leave this world and have to account for our lives before our Lord.

Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls and a professor of catechetics and theology at Christendom's Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria. Please note: 100 articles of this column have been compiled in a book, Straight Answers, and another 100 articles in Straight Answers II. These books are available at local religious book stores or by calling 703-256-5994 (FAX 703-256-8593) or e-mailing straightanswerswps.@hotmail.com. All proceeds benefit the building fund of Our Lady of Hope Church.

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© Arlington Catholic Herald 2005