In my last morceau I mentioned punishment, one of the consequences of sin. There is an inherent obligation for the wrongdoer to be punished for the evil he or she has done. We can wish it weren’t so, I guess, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is so!
The Catechism of the Catholic Church points out that a “Christian must strive to accept this punishment … as a grace” (art. 1473). By voluntary prayer, personal works of penance, sacrifice, and charity, and constant interior conversion we can decrease whatever obligation we have to experience involuntary punishment.
This is the origin of the Church’s doctrine on purgatory. When we die, God’s merciful love for us requires that we yet be given yet one final opportunity to be purified, to at last be rid of all the obligations which our sinful lives have brought upon us. That opportunity is traditionally called purgatory, although Blessed Pope John Paul II and most contemporary believers prefer to describe it in less torturous imagery than was popular in the Middle Ages. As you can probably tell from the way I’ve introduced the subject, I also avoid emphasizing purgatory as “horror” and instead stress its more fundamental meaning as “opportunity.” (You won’t catch me describing the dead still being purified as “poor souls,” for they are really “saved souls” in the process of entering heavenly glory!)
One wonderful aspect of all this is the mystical bonds of unity which connect all believers, living and dead – the famous “communion of saints” – allows us all to assist each other in this process of purification. At the Catechism points out, by “this wonderful exchange, the holiness of one profits others, well beyond the harm that the sin of one could cause others” (art. 1475). So my prayers not only do me some good (I hope!) they also benefit you and the departed for whom I pray. This is the origin of the good ol’ Catholic phrase of “offering it up” for someone else: spiritual benefits really do assist others to become holier and purified of their sin!