VATICAN CITY-Pope John Paul II described purgatory Aug. 4 not as a place but a “process of purification” that removes man's earthly imperfections so he may enter God's kingdom.

The Pope spoke about the doctrine of purgatory in his address to some 7,000 pilgrims attending his weekly general audience in the Paul VI Hall.

Elio Guerriero, editor of the prestigious international review Communio, founded by Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, praised the Pope for reviving a doctrine that he said had been all but forgotten by the Church in recent years.

At his previous two audiences, the Pope had talked about heaven and hell. He said that purgatory, like heaven and hell, is not a place but a spiritual state of being.

“Following our catechesis on the reality of heaven and hell, today we consider ‘purgatory,’the process of purification for those who die in the love of God but who are not completely imbued with that love,” John Paul said.

The Pope said the death and resurrection of Jesus opened the way to humanity's redemption, but it still is necessary for a person to be freed of “all trace of attachment to evil … all deformity of the spirit” in order to achieve the perfect union with God that is heaven.

“Sacred Scripture teaches us that we must be purified if we are to enter into perfect and complete union with God,” he said. “Jesus Christ, who became the perfect expiation for our sins and took upon himself the punishment that was our due, brings us God's mercy and love.

“But before we enter into God's kingdom every trace of sin within us must be eliminated; every imperfection in our soul must be corrected. This is exactly what takes place in purgatory,” he said.

Clarifying the source of the Church's teaching, John Paul II made a review of the Old and New Testaments, quoting passages that state that “one cannot see God without passing through purification” (cf. Leviticus 22:22, Leviticus 21:17 – 23, 1 Kings 8:61, Deuteronomy 6:5, 1 Corinthians 3:14 – 15).

John Paul said purgatory is very different from hell, which he described the previous week as the state of suffering of “those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy.”

“Those who live in this state of purification after death are not separated from God but are immersed in the love of Christ,” he said.

“Neither are they separated from the saints in heaven, who already enjoy the fullness of eternal life, nor from us on earth, who continue on our pilgrim journey to the father's house.”

The Pope indicated that prayers of the living can help those in purgatory.

“We all remain united in the mystical body of Christ, and we can therefore offer up prayers and good works on behalf of our brothers and sisters in purgatory,” he said.

But once in purgatory, the Pope said, there is no “further possibility of changing one's own destiny.” He said this teaching is “unequivocal” and was reiterated 35 years ago by the Second Vatican Council.

“The Pope has done well to recall the attention of the faithful to purgatory because it is a theme almost forgotten if not ignored,” Guerriero told the Italian news agency.

Guerriero said purgatory was very important for believers “because the state of purification, which becomes evident after death, begins here on earth.” He said the Pope has given priests the duty to remind believers “that it is important to prepare oneself in this life through purification in view of the final encounter with God.”

(From combined wire services)