A Note on Purgatory

Doug McManaman
Copyright © 2006
Reproduced with Permission

A priest friend of a nearby diocese was once accosted by a woman who had purchased a Mass for her deceased father. What upset her was that during the Mass, my friend implied that her father was in purgatory. "What right do you have to say that my father is in purgatory?" she asked. My friend simply replied, "You are the one that told me he was in purgatory". She looked puzzled. "When did I say that?" she asked. He said, "You were the one who requested a Mass for him. If your father is in heaven, he doesn't need a Mass; and if he's in hell, all the Masses in the world won't do him any good. So if you requested a Mass for him, it can only mean that you believe his soul is in purgatory."

Purgatory is an official doctrine of the Church. The Catechism describes it as the final purification of the elect, which is undergone "so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven" (sec. 1030). C.S. Lewis, who was not a Catholic, argued that our souls demand purgatory: "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.'" (The Business of Heaven, p. 121).

Recently I was told of a great victory for the Church. It's the story of a man who about forty years ago decided to abandon the Church and all it represented for the sake of his freedom. He'd decided that no one was going to tell him what to do, how to choose, what is right and wrong, etc., and he chose to raise his children on the same attitude.

About thirty five years later, though, he found himself pointing a loaded gun to his head. His life had become so empty and intolerable that he was simply going to end it. He does not know why, but he didn't end his life that day. Instead, he sought professional help.

It was his psychiatrist, however, who finally made the suggestion that he choose the reverse, the exact opposite of what he'd chosen in the past, which brought him to the point of suicide. He thought about it for a while and realized that this would mean returning to God, to the sacraments, and allowing the Church to tell him what and what not to do. And so he went to a Church one night and listened.

This man now speaks of the profound joy in his life, a joy that increases with every passing day. But he also tells of the profound sorrow that he feels, a sorrow that also increases with each passing day as he is forced to take note of the ruined lives of his children, raised as they were within the secular and permissive household of a practical atheist.

It is this combination of joy and sorrow that can help explain the simultaneous suffering and joy that is experienced by the souls in purgatory. St. Catherine of Genoa says that the pain of purgatory is greater than any pain that can be experienced on earth. But she also says that the pain of purgatory is more joyful than the greatest joys on earth. The joy of purgatory comes from knowing that eternal life is ours, that we will enjoy a happiness that exceeds our capacity to imagine and which will never end. The sorrow of purgatory comes from -- among other things -- knowing fully the harm that our sins have caused others as well as the complete awareness of the stains left on our soul, which render us unfit and unable to tolerate being in the presence of pure Innocence Itself.

Allow me to imagine that I am a window. During the night I see nothing wrong with myself. Anyone can look through me and see the outside world. But as the sun begins to rise and its rays begin to penetrate me, I see all sorts of stains, finger prints, dried spittle, dirt, etc., that I didn't notice before. All I can do is hope that someone will come along and wipe me clean, because if someone were to look out the window at this point, their vision would be obscured, distorted, and they would find me rather cumbersome; for my stains prevent the beauty of the world outside of me, which I am bound to channel, from being fully appreciated.

My stains would torment me, but I would be helpless to do anything about them. Try to magnify that pain a thousandfold, and we might achieve a glimpse of the pain that is in store for us in purgatory, if we're one of the lucky ones to make it there.

And perhaps the only way the window can be cleaned is through the heat of the sun itself. It must shine so brightly and get so hot that the stains and dirt are completely burned away. It is because the dirty window is so unlike the sun that it experiences its heat and brilliance as painful.

Consider, too, the pain of wanting to right certain wrongs that we recognize we were responsible for, but are unable to right immediately. A person with a just will refuses to accept rest until those wrongs and the damage they have caused are made right, which is why the souls in purgatory accept their suffering -- caused by the knowledge of those wrongs -- until all of them are made right, which in most cases would take decades, some even centuries. The essence of purgatory's sorrow is summed up by poet John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-92): "For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: 'It might have been!'"

One pain that is likely in store for most of us is the frustration that will come from the awareness that the living have the ability to grant us tremendous relief by offering fasts, alms, prayers, i.e., The Rosary, The Act of Reparation, The Acts of Faith, Hope, and Charity, The Stations of the Cross, and The Sacrifice of the Mass, etc., in suffrage for us, but are not doing so because they don't realize they have this power to help us, nor that there is a spiritual treasury of the Church available for them to relieve us, nor that we even need their help, because we did not pass on to them these enduring truths of the faith.

Praying for the dead is a devout and holy thought (2 M 12: 45), and offering the sacrifice of the Mass for a departed soul is "an action all together fine and noble" (2 M 12: 43). Moreover, it is one of the spiritual works of mercy. Unless our deceased parents, relatives, and friends were people of extraordinary virtue and holiness, it is probably a good idea to remember to offer them works of suffrage for about the next forty years or so. Their gratitude will be unending.