Our last few morceaux on the topic of death considered the ultimate alternatives which we have in the next life: heaven or hell. Last week I dealt with the unlikely possibility of a third eternal fate, for the virtuous unbaptized: limbo.
Heaven and hell are the only certain permanent alternatives. Yet even when we die in the state of grace, and so ultimately are destined for the eternal life and peace of heaven, we may not yet be ready to enter into that glorious destiny. Even though forgiven of our sins, there may remain imperfections due to the temporal consequences of them. We may not yet have “made up for our sins” enough by restitution or punishment, for example.
This is why the Church teaches that God’s merciful love for us offers us 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.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church rather eloquently sums up this truth thusly: “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. The Church gives the name purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned” (arts. 1030-1031).
Most contemporary believers prefer to describe purgatory in less torturous imagery than was popular in the Middle Ages (Pope St. John Paul II in a light-hearted comment once said he wished he could invent the better word “purificatory” for it!). I too avoid emphasizing purgatory as painful, and instead try to stress its more fundamental meaning as “opportunity.” As I’ve said before, I prefer not to describe the dead still being purified as “poor souls,” for they are really “saved souls,” just still in the process of entering heavenly glory!
One last thing deserves mention here, I think. The Catechism quite properly notes that the reality of purgatory is based on the traditional practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in the Bible, where one “made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin (2 Macc 12:46; see also Job 1:5). 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. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead.”