What Every Catholic Should Know About Purgatory

Return of the Prodigal Son – by Murillo

Keeping it 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 applies 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!

Into the deep…


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Into the Deep by Deacon Mike Bickerstaff is a regular feature of the The Integrated Catholic Life™ and usually appears on Sundays and occasionally on Tuesdays or Wednesdays.

Deacon Mike 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 Chaplains to the St. Peter Chanel Business Association and co-founder of the Marriages Are Covenants Ministry, both of which serve as models for similar parish-based ministries.

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28 Comments

  1. This was good…but you might want to include three things. One..to help the holy souls in Purgatory, say a rosary daily…with the intention to the holy souls in purgatory. Two..there are three levels of purgatory..the third level is sort of like hell..but one is still in purgatory . Three. That Our Lady goes to Purgatory ( not third level) to assist the holy souls..all pain stops, on her days.

    1. I have never heard of “three levels of purgatory” there certainly isn’t any mention in scripture. However, final cleansing by fire IS mentioned clearly: 1 Cor. 3: 11-15. This passage clearly states that there is a cleansing with “fire” at our individual judgement (“the Day”) verse 15 states that we can “suffer loss” and be saved but ONLY through fire! That is a clear teaching of purgation after death. This is likely instantaneous but we really don’t know.

      As to “all pain stops on her days” I seriously doubt that!

  2. C.S. Lewis says, “Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they?” He continues:

    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.”
    (C.S.Lewis, Letters To Malcom, chapter 20)

  3. Here’s a short, fictional story I wrote about why Purgatory makes complete sense:
    Believe it or not, all Christians do in fact believe in purgatory. Let me show you why.
    We are told in the Letter to the Hebrews that no one can see the Lord without possessing holiness (Hebrews 12:14). This brings us to Larry and Jane Smith, husband and wife, who unfortunately died together in an automobile accident when Larry fell asleep at the wheel of his brand new Ford Explorer. Little did Larry and Jane know that they would meet the Lord on that fateful day.
    By way of background, Jane had been a very holy and devout Baptist who walked the straight and narrow path of the Lord. Moved by her love for Christ, she had led a holy and righteous life and had been very kind to the poor. The grace of God had certainly worked wonders in her life.
    On the other hand, Larry had been a habitual sinner. The three sins which had taken root in his soul were his love for pornography, his dishonest business practices and his hate for certain races. Fortunately for Larry, the one time he went with his wife to church he picked up a tract on the table and followed the directions which told him “How to be saved.” That day in church he repented of his sins and accepted Jesus Christ as his personal savior. He was saved.
    For two days after being saved Larry actually managed to avoid committing a serious sin. But then the struggle became too much and he reverted back into the pattern of sin which had been routine in his life for many years. Then, as you know, he fell asleep at the wheel and died.
    When the moment came for the book of Jane’s life to be laid out in front of the judgment seat of Christ, there was nothing but joy and contentment. Jane was pure and holy and Jesus was very pleased with the state of her soul. He gave to her a white linen garment to put on, representing the righteous deeds she had done during her life. (See Revelation 19:81)
    The moment for Larry’s judgment was not so joyful. Larry was so full of sin that he could not even look upon the Lord. When asked by Jesus what he had to say in his defense, Larry was smart enough to remind the Lord that he had been saved the day he repented of his sins and accepted Jesus Christ as his personal savior (since, for the purpose of this fictional story, Jesus is an Evangelical Protestant, Jesus responded to Larry by letting him know that Larry’s faith, as little as there was of it, had saved him). Jesus told Larry that he was free to walk through the gates of heaven.
    But then something happened to Larry. As he started to walk through the gates of heaven, all of the saints and angels in heaven came forward and blocked Larry’s path. They shouted at Larry: “Even though you have been saved, you still stink of sin and our Lord has made it clear that you cannot enter into heaven until you are holy. You must be purified. You must be cleansed of your sin. We cannot have you enter heaven looking at the angels with lustful eyes or still hating races of people who were made in the image and likeness of God. You must be purged from your sin.” Larry said: “How is this to be done?” The angels and saints responded: “You must spend some time outside the gates of heaven doing penance for your sins and transforming your soul, with the aid of God’s grace, from a state of sin to a state of grace. Then, and only then, can you enter into the kingdom of heaven. Jesus has saved you from hell, but you are not worthy yet to enter the kingdom of God. Our God is a consuming fire (Deuteronomy 4:24;Hebrews 12:29), and until the fire of his love destroys all the sin within you, you must wait outside and become purified. Then, and only then, may you look upon the face of our holy God.”
    Although to a Catholic Larry’s fate may well have been worse than purgatory, the circumstances of his life and death underscore the absolute necessity for a state of purification prior to the glory of entering heaven. Even if you believe a person is saved by his faith alone in Jesus – irrespective of the conduct of his life – he cannot enter heaven in a defiled state. He must be purified of his sin. Therefore, unless you believe a person can somehow enter into heaven in an impure state, you do in fact believe in purgatory.
    Historically, it is quite clear that the early Christians believed in a state of purification after death. We know, for example, that the Christians living in the catacombs in Rome inscribed prayers for the dead on the walls. In addition, prayers for the dead are contained in some of the earliest Christian writings.* The key proof text in scripture is 2 Maccabees 12:46, which states: “It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins.” Obviously, we would not pray for the dead if they were already in heaven. Every Catholic mass offered throughout the world includes prayers for the living and the dead, and there is an extraordinary list of Catholic saints who have experienced private revelations of purgatory, the most recent of which include Saint Padre Pio and Saint Faustina Kowalska (the saint of the Divine Mercy revelations). Finally, is there not in our hearts a God-given instinct to pray for the souls of the dead? In Letters to Malcolm C.S. Lewis makes mention of this instinct to pray for the dead:

    “Of course I pray for the dead. The action is so spontaneous, so all but inevitable, that only the most compulsive theological case against it would deter me. And I hardly know how the rest of my prayers would survive if those for the dead were forbidden. At our age, the majority of those we love best are dead. What sort of intercourse with God could I have if what I love best were unmentionable to him?

    I believe in Purgatory.”

    In conclusion, scripture, common sense, Sacred Tradition and our natural desire to pray for the dead convince us that some of us may have to undergo a period of purgation before entering heaven, for we are told in the clearest terms that —

    “NOTHING UNCLEAN SHALL ENTER [HEAVEN]….”
    (Revelation 21:27)

  4. For a truly wonderful and insightful look into the nature of Purgatorial suffering, please check out Blessed J.H. Newman’s lovely poem ‘The Dream of Gerontius,’ published in 1865. Newman does not deny the very real, intense pain of the Holy Souls in Purgatory but, unlike so many others who have written on the subject, he also speaks of the happiness of those same souls. While on earth, we struggle, with the aid of God’s grace, to work out our salvation in fear and trembling– and, lest we be presumptuous, we always know that if we do not persevere, we could lose that salvation. Those in Purgatory, Newman tells us, have the joy of being “safe,” though suffering. Hope is nowhere more alive than in Purgatory.

  5. Re-Purgatory:
    Am a catholic..this dogma is one of the hard facts to believe by faith. The bible in clear terms with different allegory talk of TWO places where an individual could end up after this life..Heaven and Hell.
    But ,I know that the bible talk of ..the wages of sin is death..the soul that sinneth must die..the bible also said John, chapter 5,verses 16-21, explains that sin is sin, but there is a sin that doesn’t lead to death(Hell)..here the author talk of the Mortal and Venial sins . It’s my understanding, therefore that mortal sin leads to Hell, but the persons who died of venial sins ,go to Purgatory, since the sin doesn’t carry the “death” sentence like that of venial sin..
    My understanding tf phenomenon of Purgatory

  6. The pains of purgatory are not forced upon anyone. They are freely chosen. One will experience the repurcussion of all his sins, and feel the consequences others have felt from them. But as one saint pointed out, only the souls already in heaven are happier because of one’s destination. This is why some get tatooed, accept the pain willingly, for what tomorrow holds.

  7. I enjoyed Tom’s analogy. I would like to share with you an analogy I use in the RCIA class about Purgatory.
    At our death were are met by an angel who leads us to a long hall way with doors and over each door there are two lights; one green and one red. The red light is on above each door. The angel invites me to enter the 1st door. As I enter, I observe that there is a comfortable room with two beds a table and two comfortable chairs. As I recline in one of the comfortable chairs, that angel opens the door and another person enters the room. This is the person who hurt me the most during my life on earth. My immediate response, is “how did you get in here?”. After my temper subsides, the angel asks me if I have forgiven this person. I respond indignantly, “are you kidding me?”. The angel says that Jesus has forgiven this person and he asked me again, “do you want to forgive him, too?” I hang my head and say, “no way!”. The angel responds, “I’ll be back.”. Time passes and the angel enters the room again where my former enemy and I have been staying. The angel asks me, “have you forgiven him?”. I respond with a faint, “yes, I have forgiven him.”. The angel asks, “do you love him?” Exasperated, I respond, “no that’s taking things too far!”. The angel responds, “Jesus loves him. I’ll be back.” Time passes and the angel enters our room again. He asks me, “do you love him?”. I humbly say, “yes, I love him.” The angel looks at me once more and asks, “would you die for him.”. Totally frustrated, I can only hang my head and say, “no.”. The angel leaves. I know he’ll be back. Time passes and the angel enters the room again. My friend and I are engage in a friendly discussion about the goodness of the Lord. The angel interrupts and asked me, “would you die for your friend?”. Without hesitation, i reply, “yes, in a heartbeat,”. The angel leads me to the door and opens it. The once red light has turned to green. The angel leads me to the next room over which there is another red light burning. I understand the process. This is purgatory.

  8. A plenary indulgence remits the pains of Purgatory owed because of sins already forgiven. It can be applied to oneself or, as a request to God, to a soul in Purgatory. (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 1471-1479)
    A plenary indulgence can be earned once a day, provided one makes a Confession within a couple of weeks before or after; has no attachment to any sin however minor; each time receives Communion, prays (e.g. an Our Father and a Hail Mary)for the Pope’s prayer intentions and performs any one of many specified pious works.
    Some of the easiest are: read the Bible for at least a half-hour; or pray the Rosary with others; or adore for at least a half hour the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the tabernacle or exposed; or make the Way of the Cross.

  9. I’m sorry, but i still don’t understand. Whilst i can understand that we would go to purgatory for unforgiven venial sins or attatchments to sin, i don’t see why, if Jesus took upon himself the punishment due to us for our sins, we would still have to repay God for our sins when we have repented and confessed and received absolution. Jesus paid the price for our sins once and for all, so why do we have to continue to? I am genuinely confused and any clarification would be appriciated, as i am always trying to learn more about my faith.

    1. Yes, Jesus died for our sins and took on the punishment of our sins. Without this sacrifice we would all be eternally damned. But one cannot ignore the numerous other scriptures clearly stating that each of us will be “judged according to our deeds.” Rev 20:12-13; Rom 2:5-8; 2 Cor. 5:10; 2 Cor. 11-15; 1 Pet. 1:17; Col. 3:24-25. In Luke Chapter 12, Verses 35-48, Jesus tells the parable of the faithful and unfaithful servants. He concludes by saying “[t]hat servant who knew his master’s will but did not make preparations nor act in accord with his will shall be beaten severely; and the servant who was ignorant of his master’s will but acted in a way deserving of a severe beating shall be beaten only lightly.” Is heaven a “light beating” or is hell a “light beating.” The correct answer is neither. In heaven we are not beaten and in hell we are beaten for all eternity, which is hardly light. So a light (i.e., temporary) beating can only be purgatory.

    2. Read 1 Cor 3:11-15 our works through the Spirit are tested and our works in the flesh as well. The wood hay and stubble refer to works in the flesh, sinful attachment, unconfessed sins etc.. Our God is a consuming fire. Heb 12:29

  10. It comes as a surprise that no one has mentioned St. Catherine of Genoa’s Treatise on Purgatory. It makes for very interesting reading, indeed. And it is free on the Internet.

  11. Art Vandaveer: how could you be in a colloquy with an angel after you die and still be so obtuse as to not know enough to forgive and love? Red and green lights? Sounds like Art Bell cum Touched By An Angel. No wonder Protestants scoff.

  12. Lynne: the author didn’t forget anything. It wasn’t his intention to cover that topic. Please learn the difference between “forgetting” and omitting something because it is outside the scope of an article.

  13. See Catechism of the Catholic Church, Sections 1030-1032.

    And, if someone needs a scriptural reference to defend the existence of Purgatory (whether a “place”, or a “state of temporary existence”) see 2nd Maccabees, Ch, 12: 38-46.
    TeaPot562

  14. Lots of CCC quotes; not much from the word of God, the best source for information about life and death. That says, “The wages of sin is death”—not torture. (See also Rom 6:7) BTW purgatory is unconstitutional in most “enlightened” countries for that reason: double jeopardy. Or, is God made in our image? (Gen 1:26
    As to perfection, that is what Adam enjoyed before his sin; Jesus ranson sacrifice restores us to that state at death. (Original and our own sins—all paid up!) No ‘stink of sin’ attached when we enter into our reward, at least according to Paul at 1 Cor 15. “But perhaps someone will ask, How can the dead rise up? What kind of body will they be wearing when they appear? Poor fool, when thou sowest seed in the ground, it must die before it can be brought to life…” etc. So those in Heaven will have a new, spiritual body created for them then. Those resurrected to the restored earthly paradise will have a re-made physical body. (Job 33:24,25; Ps 37:29)

  15. Did not Jesus say to the criminal next to Him on the other cross “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.” I don’t remember the part about a quick trip to Purgatory. Christ died for our sins and we are saved by faith. To intimate that there is something else we need to do to get into Heaven cheapens what He did and says that we can do something to earn salvation. We cannot. The Bible is clear. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved.” (Acts 16:31)

    1. Jesus did say them words to the criminal next to Him on the Cross, and Jesus knew this man’s heart like He knows everyone’s heart, and that this man had done his Purgatory before he was put on the Cross, “Jesus has said judge not and you will not be judged”. God bless everyone.

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