Purgatory is one of those things we don’t hear about very much anymore. In fact, a recent survey conducted by US Catholic indicted only 73% of Catholics believe purgatory even exists (interestingly enough, 77% believe that their prayers can help those in purgatory get to heaven). I can understand how the idea of purgatory makes many uncomfortable. Honestly, it makes me uncomfortable. While obviously a much better place than hell, I really don’t want to go there. I don’t want my loved ones to go there. It’s much easier to think that if we live a good life, God will immediately welcome us to heaven with open arms. Unfortunately, save for the elect few who are perfect at death, this is not what scripture, the Church, or the saints teach us.
Matthew 12:31-32 tells us that “whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come,” which implies that there is a place where forgiveness can still be obtained after death. By the same token, 1 Corinthians 3:15 and 1 Peter 1:7 speak of a “cleansing fire.”
In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Church teaches that
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 (Cf. Council of Florence : DS 1304; Council of Trent : DS 1820; : 1580; see also Benedict XII, Benedictus Deus : DS 1000). (1031)
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” (2 Macc 12:46). 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 (Cf. Council of Lyons II : DS 856). The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead . . .(1032)
Perhaps the saint who offered the most evidence for the existence of purgatory in recent times is St. Padre Pio. He was known to speak with souls in purgatory and dedicated much of his suffering and prayers to help free souls from that place of purgation. He is known to have stated that “I was talking with some souls who, while on their way from Purgatory to Heaven, stopped here to thank me because I remembered them in my Mass this morning,” and that “more souls of the dead from Purgatory than of the living climb this mountain to attend my Masses and seek my prayers.” St. Catherine of Genoa remarked that “There is no peace to be compared with that of the souls in Purgatory, save that of the saints in Paradise, and this peace is ever augmented by the in-flowing of God into these souls, which increases in proportion as the impediments to it are removed” and that “The ‘fire’ of purgatory is God’s love ‘burning’ the soul so that, at last, the soul is wholly aflame. It is the pain of wanting to be made totally worthy of One who is seen as infinitely lovable, the pain of desire for union that is now absolutely assured, but not yet fully tasted.”
So, then, souls in purgatory, although suffering, are also at peace, because they know that they are assured salvation. Still, they need our prayers and sacrifices and mass offerings in order to help them move up to heaven more quickly. As Catholics we believe in the communion of saints which includes the souls in heaven, the souls on earth, and the souls in purgatory. We have a responsibility to pray for those who have passed on before us. In doing so, we can hope that others will pray for us after our time on earth is done. Despite what we may like to believe, Purgatory is real. We should be thankful that God does give us the chance to be made perfect even after we die.