A few weeks ago, the topic here was the Communion of Saints, the fact that those who have gone before us in faith are now in the presence of the Lord and they can observe us as we struggle here on earth. These saints actually pray for us and encourage us in our difficult journey of faith.
An aspect of the Communion of Saints is the Church’s teaching on Purgatory. Whoa, wait. You’re not really going THERE, are you, Bill? I mean, c’mon. No one still believes in the silly medieval story that was meant to scare people into signing up for a sleazy fund-raising scheme. Most Catholics today are smart enough to know there is no weird place between Heaven and Hell where believers are sent to receive a fiery punishment for their sins before they are allowed into Heaven. When’s the last time you heard a homily on Purgatory, huh? Even the priests know it’s baloney and refuse to preach about it.
Well, the fact is, regardless of how many people, including priests, don’t believe that Purgatory exists, Church teachings are very clear. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “Those who die in God’s grace and friendship imperfectly purified, although they are assured of their eternal salvation, undergo a purification after death, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of God” (section 1030).
The doctrine of Purgatory is based on some key biblical verses, such as “Nothing impure will ever enter [Heaven]” (Revelation 21:27), and, “Without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14).
Scripture also implies there is some kind of third possible destination after death, which is neither Heaven nor Hell. In his first epistle, St. Peter wrote, “[Jesus] was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago” (1 Peter 3:18-20).
The souls Jesus visited and to whom He preached, during that time between His death and Resurrection, were not condemned (Hell), but they also were not yet in glory (Heaven). At that point in time, those souls were in a mysterious third destination.
Finally, in his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul describes the good works of believers, using the analogy of constructing a building. He says, “If any man builds…using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay, or straw, his work will be shown for what it is….It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work” (1 Corinthians 3:12-13).
Paul continues in the next two verses: “If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames” (emphasis added).
The specific word Purgatory is not used here by Paul, but it sure sounds like Paul is describing it. He says if someone’s earthly Christian works do not meet the test, he or she will suffer loss, but ultimately will be saved.
A logical way to describe Purgatory is to use a parable. Imagine spending the day outside doing yard work. When you come into the house, your clothes are covered with dirt and sweat. Your spouse, dressed impeccably, grabs your arm and says, “We’re going to a fancy banquet. Come on, get in the car right now and let’s go.”
Knowing that you would be quite embarrassed to walk into a fancy banquet dressed in dirty work clothes, you instead say to your spouse, “Give me 45 minutes. I’ll take a shower, put on my best clothes, and then I’ll be ready for the banquet. I might be a little late, but at least I’ll be prepared.”
Purgatory is kind of like that. But instead of cleaning physical dirt and sweat, it is our bad attitudes and unrepentant sins that are cleansed. If people are honest with themselves, most will admit that despite their faith in God and regular church attendance, deep down inside there still lurks occasional bouts of selfishness, anger, envy, dishonesty, and pride.
So, the Catholic Church still believes in and teaches the doctrine of Purgatory. It is not a place of cruel, arbitrary punishment. It is instead an opportunity for spiritual purification and cleansing. All sincere Christians should be thankful that it exists. And yes, priests should give homilies about Purgatory once in a while.