Purgatory Made Simple

Return of the Prodigal Son - by Murillo

Short and Simple   

One of the most misunderstood teachings of the Church, and maybe one that is least reflected on, is the teaching on purgatory. To understand and embrace this teaching does not require deep, exhausting theological study. A short and simple explanation of its meaning should wash away the distortions that cause so many people to doubt or neglect it.  

Simply stated, if one dies in a state of Sanctifying Grace – that is, if they are “saved” when they pass to the next life – there remains the possibility of “spending time in” purgatory before entering Heaven. It is important to recognize that purgatory is not a “second chance” at salvation. If one should die separated from God, there is no second chance. “Just as it is appointed that human beings die once, and after this the judgment…” (Hebrews 9:27).  

God’s Mercy does not overlook imperfections and sin, it removes them and repairs the damage… and we are called to participate in His Mercy. The Merciful Father welcomed home the Prodigal Son, his sins forgiven.  This is usually seen in relation to our conversion, repentance and forgiveness received on earth in this life. But, we can also see elements that can point to purgatory.  Consider the son’s anguished journey home, arising and traveling a great distance from that “far country”.  Seen in the context of the next life, there is not necessarily an immediate admittance to the Beatific Vision.  A painful journey, or cleansing, may still be in our future. The Father waits with open arms, but we must still travel to him.  The son was forgiven from the moment He sought forgiveness, but the journey home was not yet complete. 

Doesn’t Sacramental Confession Remove Sin? Aren’t we forgiven?  

Yes, we are forgiven, our sins are absolved when we make a good confession, but there are two punishments due to sin.  Which punishment does Confession remit? The Catechism of the Catholic Church has this to say about the double consequence of sin. “…sin has a double consequence. Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the “eternal punishment” of sin. On the other hand every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called the “temporal punishment” of sin. These two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin. A conversion which proceeds from a fervent charity can attain the complete purification of the sinner in such a way that no punishment would remain.” (CCC 1472)  

So, there are two types of punishment due to sin, eternal and temporal. It is the eternal punishments that are forgiven in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The doctrine of purgatory is a dogma of the Church and must be given the assent of faith…. Those who die in a state of grace but who still suffer from unforgiven venial sins, attachments to sin or any temporal punishment due to sin, are cleansed of these imperfections in Purgatory by God’s love.  

“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.” (CCC 1030)  

An Example Might Help  

When I was a young teenager, I damaged the property of a cherished neighbor. He was the father of a close friend. What I destroyed was expensive and the father could hardly afford to replace it. I was terrified and sorrowful. Within minutes, we were face-to-face. I began to cry and “Red” stooped down and hugged me and reassured me all would be okay – he forgave me in words and actions. After I calmed down and while we sat together on his front steps, Red said to me, “So let’s figure out how you are going to repay me?” We decided that I would cut his grass for the remainder of the summer. Now that hardly was sufficient to restore his financial loss, but it was sufficient to restore me by Red’s good graces. This is an over-simplified example, but his assuming the repayment of the true offense is “like” the forgivness of eternal punishment received in Confession and the yard work is “like” my payment of the temporal punishment of my sin.  

Perfected in Love  

Understood in this light, purgatory can be seen more easily in the context of a hospital for sinners, or an outdoor shower attached to a beach house, rather than simply as a prison. There is an illness that must be healed, dirt that must be washed away, and a temporal price left to pay, before we are admitted into the Beatific Vision in Heaven. None of these aspects are the ticket that gains us admittance – that is the saving act of Christ on the Cross, the grace He merited and applies to us when we respond to His invitation and cooperate with that grace. But they are among the means by which we cooperate with Him to become perfected in His love.  

Our Lord teaches us to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect. “So be perfect,  just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Scripture attests that no one who is imperfect will enter heaven. In the Book of Revelation, we are given a vision of the New Jerusalem – here is a short excerpt:  

“I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God almighty and the Lamb. The city had no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gave it light, and its lamp was the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and to it the kings of the earth will bring their treasure. During the day its gates will never be shut, and there will be no night there. The treasure and wealth of the nations will be brought there, but nothing unclean will enter it, nor any (one) who does abominable things or tells lies. Only those will enter whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (Revelation 21:22-27).  

God has opened Heaven to us.  The Son has commanded us to be perfect as the Father is perfect. Nothing unclean will enter Heaven.  Thus, His Word yields what it commands. We will either attain perfection in this life by God’s grace or after we die, if we have attained salvation we will come to perfection in God’s mercy and justice in Purgatory before we enter heaven. For nothing unclean will be possible in Heaven. The closer to Him He draws us, the more perfected we will become. This simple truth was not grasped by Martin Luther who therefore constructed an entirely new (novel) theology of redemption and sanctification that concluded that man would for all time be nothing more than a pile of dung covered by white snow. But his new theology won’t hold up. A pile of dung remains a pile of dung even when covered by white snow. It would remain unclean and not able to enter Heaven. Our cooperation with God’s grace, merited for us on the Cross, perfects us in love – it cleanses us of all attachment to sin and all its imperfections. God wants to remove our blemishes, not cosmetically cover them up.  

Prayers for the Dead  

We can help those who are undergoing purgation with our prayers.  I can’t explain how, but I can say that we are instructed in Scripture to pray for one another. We are taught that the prayers of a righteous man availeth much! In some way, God can apply the prayers we offer for the faithfully departed to their cleansing. This has been the practice and belief of the Church from the very beginning. There is so much more to be learned about the effects of our prayers for the dead. Suffice it to say that what we do can be secondary causes of of things that happen.  This is in part what it means to conformed to the will of God. Good things can happen for others as a result of our prayer, otherwise He would not have said so. So, in closing, develop the habit to pray for the faithfully departed as part of your daily prayers. The greatest gift one can give to their deceased loved ones is to have a Mass offered for them. If they are not in need, God will see to it that the graces are applied to those who are.  

To Him be all praise, honor and glory!  

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About the Author

Deacon Michael Bickerstaff is the Editor in chief and co-founder of the The Integrated Catholic Life™. A Catholic Deacon of the Roman Rite for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, Deacon Bickerstaff is assigned to St. Peter Chanel Catholic Church where he is the Director of Adult Education and Evangelization.

He is a co-founder of the successful annual Atlanta Catholic Business Conference; the Chaplain of the Atlanta Chapter of the Woodstock Theological Center’s Business Conference; and Chaplain of the St. Peter Chanel Faith at Work Business Association and co-founder and Chaplain of the Marriages Are Covenants Ministry, both of which serve as models for similar parish-based ministries.

He and his wife have two adult children, one daughter-in-law and three grandchildren.

NB: The views I express on this site are my own. I am not an official spokesman for either my parish or diocese.

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6 Comments

  1. I think there may be one more dimension to Purgatory that we might consider. Purgatory – from the root where we get modern words purge, purgation: a cleansing. We need to be cleansed not only of the sins we’ve committed, but also from our attachments to this world and its pleasures and values. We need to complete the conversion from this world and its various economies and standards into that perfect Eternal Economy. Whatever worldly attachments we still hold dear, when we die, I believe will be dealt with in Purgatory.

  2. Hi Laura,

    Good to see you here! Please continue to add your comments.

    I completely agree. That is why I wrote above:

    “Those who die in a state of grace but who still suffer from unforgiven venial sins, attachments to sin or any temporal punishment due to sin, are cleansed of these imperfections in Purgatory by God’s love” and “Our cooperation with God’s grace, merited for us on the Cross, perfects us in love – it cleanses us of all attachment to sin and all its imperfections.”

    When I speak of attachment to sin, I am meaning all disordered attachments and that includes the inordinate attachment to created things which becomes for us occasions for sin and impedes our progress, both in this life and in the life to come. It is what the catechism speaks of more directly in the way you have phrased it (see above) when it states, “unhealthy attachment to creatures”.

    Thanks for the added clarity.

    1. Hi Deacon Mike, I’m going to receive a Plenary Indulgence tomorrow ( Sunday, Sept 8th ) on my trip to the National Shrine in D.C. w/ the Knights of Columbus, and this is my first indulgence since becoming Catholic 5 years ago; so I wanted to know, when is the indulgence applied; now or upon my passing into judgement? And, how long is it ‘good for’ so to speak? …I obviously can’t know how long my stay in Purgatory might be because I don’t know how strong my attachments are and how long it will take me to be purified. Thanks for your help!

  3. I’m still not convinced of Purgatory because It’s not mentioned in the bible and it’s saying that Christ’s dieing on the cross was not sufficient. Even though my wife and I are cradle Catholics I still have great difficulty with some of the issues Protestants have with us.
    Another huge one I have is you shall have no images above,on earth,or below (written in the bible)and go into any church and the images are everywhere.
    GOD Bless
    Dave

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