What Is Purgatory All About?
God respects the free will of people on earth. We can consciously choose what to do and how to do it. But, since the beginning of time people have used their free will to choose sin. It is the misuse of human free will that leads to moral evil, like murder, greed, envy, lust, lying, gossip, anger, pride, etc., in our world.
Since God respects the free will of people on earth, it seems quite likely that God also respects the free will of people in heaven. But, how can God respect human free will in heaven, yet heaven still be without sin and moral evil? It seems the answer is that the only people in heaven are those who, by the grace of God, are capable of fully aligning their own will with God’s will and doing only the good (not sin). In other words, without the gift and grace of perfect holiness, which is possible only when we actively cooperate with the power and presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we cannot be with God in heaven. For as Jesus said, “You must be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). And, Scripture states that “nothing unclean shall enter it [heaven]” (Revelation 21:27).
This helps explain why growth in holiness (sanctification) should be a primary purpose of our life here on earth. Given this, does it really make sense for us to spend our time on earth primarily seeking fun, fame, and fortune? For as Jesus said, “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, but loses his soul” (Matthew 16:26).
Therefore, we need to make a serious effort to deepen our union with God and grow in holiness while here on earth. As such, we should prayerfully allow the power and presence of the Holy Spirit to enable us to become less likely to choose sin and more likely to align our own will with God’s will. We should daily make every effort to correctly discern and follow God’s will by fervent prayer, by studying the Bible, and by learning and following the teachings of the Church, especially as found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
But, what if we do not succeed in fully growing in holiness while here on earth? The Catholic Church has long taught that purgatory is an additional opportunity for purification from sin and growth in holiness. The word purgatory comes from the verb “purge” meaning “to purify or cleanse.”
If we are not perfect saints by the time we die, purgatory is how we become fully ready for heaven. Purgatory is a temporary state of purification for imperfect saints. Once the imperfect saints are purified they enter heaven. Everyone in purgatory will go to heaven. It is not a matter of if, but when. For as the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1030-1031) states, “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.”
This is also made clear in 1 Corinthians 3:11-15, where St. Paul writes:
“For no one can lay a foundation other than the one that is there, namely, Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, the work of each will come to light, for the Day will disclose it. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire [itself] will test the quality of each one’s work. If the work stands that someone built upon the foundation, that person will receive a reward. But if someone’s work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire.”
In this text, Scripture speaks of the judgment of God where the works of the faithful will be tested after death. It says our works will go through “fire,” figuratively speaking. In Scripture, “fire” is used figuratively in two ways: as that which consumes (see Matthew 3:12 and 2 Thessalonians 1:7-8), and as a purifying agent (see Matthew 3:11 and Mark 9:49). As such, fire is an appropriate symbol for God’s judgment where some of our “works” are being burned up and some are being purified. What St. Paul is referring to cannot be heaven because there are imperfections that need to be “burned up.” And, it cannot be hell because the souls are being saved. So what is it? Purgatory is that part of God’s judgment of the saved where imperfections are purged and our character is cleansed from all sin.
St. Catherine of Genoa, a 15th century mystic, wrote that the “fire” of purgatory is God’s love “burning” the soul so that, at last, the soul is wholly aflame with love of God. It is the pain of wanting to be made totally worthy of being with God, who is pure holiness. The pain of purgatory is the desire for that union, which is assured but not yet realized.
When we come to fully realize the love and mercy of God towards us, then we will only want to choose the good in love. Purgatory is where all remaining self-love is purged and we are further purified until only the love of God remains. It is where we become, by the grace of God, finally and fully able and willing to use our free will to choose only love—Who is God Himself. One cannot be in heaven unless one is consumed with love for God. In that, there is no room for sin. In heaven, no one will sin because no one will want to. There is no longer any motive to sin in heaven because we will be totally in love with being in the direct presence of the most holy beauty, joy, peace, and love of God—the Supreme and Ultimate Good.
When our souls have been purified so that we use them only for the purpose that they were created—to perfectly love God and others—then we will enter heaven. Purgatory is where this final purification takes place and where we are made ready to enter into God’s most holy, joyful, and loving presence forever.