Purgatory is the term used for the place of purification where the souls of those who have died in a state of grace undergo such punishment as is still due for forgiven sins and, perhaps, to expiate unforgiven venial sins before being admitted to the beatific vision of God in heaven which, according to Christian theology, is the final destiny of the redeemed.
To some theologians, the vision is bestowed in exceptional circumstances for brief periods in this life. For example, St. Thomas Aquinas held that it was granted to Moses (Ex 34:28-35), St. Paul (2 Cor 12:2-4), and many other mystics.
In its explicit form the doctrine is not found before the 12th century but elements of it are much more ancient.
Purgatory’s nature and conditions were a subject of much dispute in the later Middle Ages until Benedict XII (1336) formally defined that the essence of God would be seen by direct intuition and face to face, a concept the Protestants denied.
To understand the doctrine of purgatory, it is necessary to be aware of the effects of sins. Mortal, or deadly sin, utterly destroys a person’s relationship with God, who is the source of life. This relationship is called grace, and a person who is in this relationship is said to be in the state of grace. Grace is won for us by Christ alone, and without it there can be no possibility of eternal life.
Sin has two effects on the individual in addition to dishonouring God. The first effect is the alienation from God. The second is what we call temporal punishment. Here we must be careful to understand that temporal punishment is distinct from the eternal punishment of hell.
Purgatory is an extraordinary gift of God that demonstrates his merciful love for us. It is indeed unfortunate that many Catholics today have very little understanding of the depth of beauty inherent in the doctrine of purgatory. Often they even seem to want to reject it saying (as do most Protestants) that “since Christ’s death on the cross has paid our debt to God for sin” there is no need for any such doctrine as that of purgatory. This is an enormous underestimation of God’s love for us.
Although the doctrine of purgatory is not explicitly stated in the Bible, belief in its existence is intimately related to the doctrine of the Last Judgment. The clearest passage in support of purgatory’s existence is when Judas Maccabee and his men made arrangements for the fitting burial of the soldiers of his army who died in the battle. Prayers were offered for the dead and a collection of 2,000 drachmas was sent to Jerusalem as expiatory sacrifices (2 Mc 12:38-45).
In the New Testament, St. Paul wrote: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the same of his body, that is, the Church” (Col1:24).
St. Paul was very aware that God wants the ultimate salvation of all to be the work of all. As Pope Benedict XVI wrote: “For the great majority of people there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God. In the concrete choices of life, however, it is covered over by ever new compromises with evil. Much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains and still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul. What happens to such individuals when they appear before the Judge? Will all the impurity they have amassed through life suddenly cease to matter?” (Benedict XVI, Letter Spe Salvi)
Theologians are divided when explaining the nature of purgatory. Many Fathers of the Church are clear in their affirmation that it is a place of purgation to purify the sins committed even if the souls ended their earthly life in the state of grace. Other Fathers proclaim that the effects of purgatory are not a purifying punishment but a state of perfection and sanctification to enter the eternal beatitude of heaven.
Regarding the duration, it is unfair to inquire how long a soul will endure purgatory. First, the separated soul no longer lives in time but in eternity where duration is not measured in days and years. Second, the soul becomes very conscious of its tremendous shortcomings, of the actions it failed to perform or performed poorly. Thus, the intensity of the suffering could well take place in an instant.
The souls in purgatory can be helped by works of piety such as prayer, indulgences, alms, fasting, and sacrifices, and the mercy and love of God for these souls who are already so close to him surely prompt him to speed their release from the period of purification when the faithful on earth direct their prayers to this purpose.
May the souls in purgatory rest in peace.