Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
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. (Catechism of the Catholic Church - #1030)
Few doctrines of the Catholic faith are more misunderstood than Purgatory, and yet few make more sense—or are more biblical—when rightly understood.
Misunderstandings of Purgatory abound. Some people think the Church teaches it is a second chance, where deceased souls headed for hell get a shot at working their way to heaven. Still others have the notion that Catholics think Purgatory necessary in order for souls to supplement Christ's grace with our own niceness and good deeds. Nearly all who misunderstand the doctrine imagine it was unknown in the time of Christ, is unmentioned in Scripture and crept into the Church in later centuries due to the influence of superstition.
In fact, however, all these notions are untrue. The Church's teaching is, at once, much more surprising, commonsensical, human, and biblical than the various non-Catholic theories about what the Church believes. Surprising, because the whole of the gospel is a surprise. Commonsensical, because it dovetails perfectly with what God calls us to be and do. Human, because it offers us the opportunity and the grace to become fully human as Christ is. And biblical, because the Purgatory does, in fact, have solid biblical roots.
So what is Purgatory anyway?
"Purgatory" is derived from the Latin purgatio which means "cleansing" or "purifying". To undergo "purgation" is to be purified or cleansed. Just as gold is purged of dross in the refining process so Scripture teaches that we are to be purified of all that is sinful or unclean. So, for instance, Psalm 51:6-10 reads:
Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Fill me with joy and gladness;
let the bones which thou hast broken rejoice.
Hide thy face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Likewise, John the Apostle writes, "Beloved, we are God's children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. And every one who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure" (1 John 3:2-3).
In this life, the process of purification from sin is called "sanctification." Purgatory is the culmination of that process by which a human being who has died in the grace of God is made utterly and completely full of the life of the Blessed Trinity and perfectly "conformed to the image of Christ" (Romans 8:29).
When does sanctification start and end?
Sanctification starts the moment a human being surrenders to Jesus. Jesus welcomes anyone who comes to him by faith (John 3:16). But he welcomes us in order to transform us (Romans 12:2). Therefore, our relationship with Jesus is a cooperative struggle in which his Holy Spirit helps us fulfill the promise of holiness planted in our hearts in baptism. This process is well described by Peter, who writes "By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and to an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 1:3-7). Sanctification will continue, according to Paul, until "he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ." (Philippians 1:6). In short, God will not rest until we are completely blessed and happy. If the process is not finished when we die, then God completes it in Purgatory. That is why Purgatory is not a "second chance". All who are in Purgatory have, in fact, died "in God's grace and friendship" as the Catechism of the Catholic Church says. All the souls in Purgatory are absolutely assured of seeing God's face. They simply do not yet see it fully.
Peter's mention of suffering and "testing by fire" sounds ominous. Isn't the Christian life supposed to be about victory instead of suffering?
That's a bit like saying the athletic life is supposed to be about trophies instead of running. Trophies, as Paul notes, are awarded at the end of the race (2 Timothy 4:8). Purgatory does indeed involve pain, just as training for a race or running 10 miles does. But pain is not the point of Purgatory. The healing, joy and ecstasy of heaven are.
Our Lord and his apostles all suffered. So have many Christians since then. So does everybody else. As Job says, "Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward" (Job 5:7). Our Lord never promised a painless existence. Rather, he promised a joyful one in which nothing-not even pain and death-is wasted and everything is redeemed and turned into glory. What is remarkable about the Christian life is not its notable lack of suffering, but that Christ gives us the grace to suffer pain unto life and even unto joy.
What's "pain unto life"?
The opposite of damnation unto death. In baptism (and confession), the guilt of sin is forgiven and friendship with God is restored by the grace of Christ. But the fact that sin is forgiven does not mean that sin ceases to have effects on us and on those around us. God's forgiveness does not mean all bad habits are magically repealed, all back taxes cancelled and the people we hurt are suddenly restored to perfect physical, emotional and spiritual health just because we are believers. Instead the Church says, in effect, "If you break someone's window in a hissy fit and repent, you shall certainly be forgiven. But you must still pay for the window and do something about that nasty temper. You must, in the words of Paul, 'work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.'" (Philippians 2:12-13). This is why Jesus commended Zacchaeus for paying back the money he stole, even though his sin of theft was forgiven (Luke 19:1-10). This is why repentant murderers stay in jail, repentant fornicators must still deal with the effects of a sexually transmitted disease and repentant addicts must go on struggling against their cravings. Forgiven sin continues to have effects both on the sinner and on those against whom he sinned. The difference is that, with grace, these struggles do not have the effect of hardening sinners in their sin, but of liberating them from it. This is precisely why Paul writes that "suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us" (Romans 5:3-5). The suffering of sanctification produces not remorse, but repentance, not wallowing in guilt, but joy at liberation. As Paul says, "Godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death" (2 Corinthians 7:10).
What's the point of sanctification and Purgatory if you are basically a good person? Wouldn't a God of love accept us as we are?
Good question! And we shall address it in this space next time!