1. Purgatory isn’t merely a punishment.
It’s a merciful gift and a testimony to God’s love.
“Sometimes, people hear about the sufferings of the souls in purgatory and they think suffering is the desire of a vindictive God, a God who wants his pound of flesh,” said Robert Corzine, vice president for Programs and Development at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology.
“But that’s not the case at all,” he continued. “God forgives us instantly when we request. The role of suffering is to remove the damage we’ve done. It’s God the Healer applying the solutions to make us perfect images of Christ.”
And perfect images of Christ is actually what God calls each of us to become.
According to the Catholic doctrine of salvation, God doesn’t simply wish to save us from hell — from a state of eternal separation from him. Most importantly, he wishes to save us from sin, from being anything less than the men and women he created us to be.
“God is like a great heart surgeon, trying to give us the new hearts we need,” Corzine said. “But we keep flopping around on the table, moving away from the knife. Death then is like the anesthetic. In purgatory, we’re no longer able to avoid the healing we need, and he can finish the work he started during our lifetime.”
2. The suffering endured by souls in purgatory isn’t physical pain.
Through the centuries, artists striving to convey the sufferings of purgatory have depicted men and women tormented by a burning fire. But those explanations aren’t a literal representation of the goings-on in the purgative state. They can’t be. In purgatory, the soul remains separated from its body, so it can only suffer spiritually, not physically.
That’s not to say, moreover, that the flames of purgatory aren’t real. They are.
“The fire by which we’re sanctified is an interior burning for the love of God,” expressed Susan Tassone, author of seven books on purgatory, including “Prayers, Promises, and Devotions for Holy Souls in Purgatory”. “Immediately after their death, the souls in purgatory saw God in all his glory. They saw his love, his goodness, and the plans he had for us. And they desire that. They burn for it, with a yearning that exceeds the heat of any earthly fire.”
In other words, the main pain endured by those in purgatory is the loss of the sight of God. They suffer from what Tassone called, “a spiritual fever.”
As that fever rages, it separates the soul from sin, a process almost equally painful.
3. Our prayers for the dead matter eternally.
The souls in purgatory may be bound for glory, but the process of purgation still can be long and painful. Save for humbly submitting to the sanctifying fire of Christ’s love, there’s nothing those souls can do to speed up the process or mitigate the pain.
“We need to be greedy for graces for the souls in purgatory,” said Tassone. “When the soul leaves the body, the time for merit is up. The soul is helpless. That’s why they need our prayers — the Rosary, adoration, the Way of the Cross and, most of all, the Mass. The Masses we have offered for the souls in purgatory are the best thing we can do for our beloved dead. That’s because the Mass is the highest form of worship, the highest form of prayer.”
“It really is one of the most consoling doctrines of the Church,” added Martin. “None of us stands alone. We stand on the shoulders of giants, the foremost giant being Christ. Our sufferings and sacrifices can be parlayed into sincere help for the holy souls because of his suffering and sacrifice.”
In many ways, he continued, our relationship to those in purgatory is simply an extension of “the logic of love,” where “You extend yourself so that another might have an easier time of it. And that principle isn’t bound by death.”
It’s equally not bound by time. The Church admonishes that purgatory operates outside of space and time as we on earth experience it. Which means we should never stop praying for those we’ve lost.
“No prayer is ever wasted,” Tassone said. “The prayers we pray for our loved ones throughout the entirety of our lives play a part in assisting them to go into heaven.
4. The Holy Souls Intercede For Us.
The souls in purgatory can’t do anything for themselves, but the Church has long believed that they can do something for us: They can intercede for us, assisting in obtaining for us the graces we need to follow Christ more perfectly.
“We have such great intercessors in the holy souls,” said Tassone. “They’re interested in our salvation. They want to help ensure that we comprehend the malice of sin and the relevance of conforming our lives to God’s will so that we can go straight to heaven when we die.”
The same is doubly true, she continued, of the souls now in heaven, whom our prayers assisted.
“Those souls become like our second guardian angels, taking us under their wing,” she explained. “That’s because the gift we helped give them was the Beatific Vision, which is the greatest gift of all.”
5. The Church’s teachings on purgatory are rooted in Scripture.
If you’re seeking for scriptural evidence for purgatory, start in the Second Book of Maccabees (12:45), where Judas Maccabee orders prayers and sacrifices for fallen soldiers who committed idolatry shortly before their death.
“Their beseeching shows there is hope even beyond the grave for those who defiled themselves,” Martin said.
In the New Testament, St. Paul likewise hints at the cleansing fires of purgatory when he expresses, “If any man’s work is burned up he will suffer loss though he himself will be saved” (1 Cor 3:12-15). He also seemingly prays for the soul of Onesiphorus in 2 Timothy 1:18.
Moreover, according to Corzine, the existence of purgatory is the only way to make sense of scriptural assertions such as, “No unclean thing will enter [heaven]” (Rv 21:27), as well as commands like “Be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48).
“Logic demands purgatory,” Corzine said. “Without some process of cleansing after death, the census of heaven would be infinitesimally small, comprised of only the few who allow God to perfect them in this life.”