An Obstacle to Overcome: Purgatory
Purgatory is where those who die in a state of grace and who have the love of God in their hearts go for purification. In Purgatory, the souls make expiation for unforgiven venial sins or receive punishment due to venial and mortal sins that have already been forgiven in life. These souls are confident that they will have eternal salvation, but they need to be purified from the effects of sin.
The souls in Purgatory can receive help from the living. Because one cannot dictate to God, there is no assurance that one's prayers help an individual soul in purgatory, but the Church believes that the prayers and intentions of the faithful help God to speed the journey of souls through Purgatory. From its earliest history, the Church has commemorated the dead and offered up prayers and Masses for them. The Church also recommends that the living faithful give alms, practice indulgences, and undertake penitential acts on behalf of the dead: “Why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them,” writes the great orator St. John Chrysostom in his homily on 1 Corinthians 41:5.
Purgatory is not specifically mentioned in the Bible, but belief in its existence has grown due to the doctrines expounded in both the Old and the New Testaments of divine judgment, the forgiveness of sins, the mercy of God, and the temporal punishment due to sin. The Israelites believed that the dead were to be judged according to their works, that their sins made God's judgment a fearsome thing, that people needed God's merciful forgiveness to enter Heaven, and that living brethren needed to pray for God to show the departed his mercy.
The Church formulated its doctrine on Purgatory at the first and second council of Lyons and at the councils of Florence and Trent, where the following authoritative statements on Purgatory were issued:
It's a state where those dying with unrepented sins may be cleansed before being admitted to Heaven.
There is basis for Purgatory in Sacred Scripture.
In Purgatory, punishment due for forgiven sins is carried out.
Prayers and other good works of the faithful on earth can help souls in Purgatory.
The nature of Purgatory has been hard to define. For example, no one knows how much time souls need to spend in Purgatory, because the souls live in Aevum, not in worldly time. During that period, the soul becomes highly aware of its failings and transgressions, and is totally focused on reparation.
The nature of the punishment is not completely known either. Some theologians hold that the temporary deprivation of the beatific vision, the longing for a God so near and yet so far, has to be the primary punishment of Purgatory. Knowledge that the suffering they are enduring could have been prevented if only they had prayed and performed good works during their lifetime probably torments the souls. Some theologians also postulate that there must be a more positive punishment that frees the souls of their sins and brings them closer to God.
While the Catholic Church has always held that the pain of Purgatory is imposed by real fire, that is not an essential belief of Purgatory. And no one has been able to define the intensity of the pain of Purgatory, though many theologians have debated it. Some popular writings and sermons have dwelt on the horrors of Purgatory.
For fear of sullying the dignity of the souls in Purgatory or of scandalizing the faithful, the Church chose to err on the side of caution. The Council of Trent forbade priests from discussing difficult questions around Purgatory in their sermons and banned descriptions that would give rise to curiosity, superstition, terror, or repulsion.The Positive Purpose of Purgatory
Purgatory purifies the soul. Persistent sinful habits and uncontrolled desires can leave deep scars that penetrate into the personality of the sinner. These must be removed before the soul is ready to go to Heaven and experience the overwhelming presence of God.
This is a more positive view of Purgatory than just a place where souls undergo punishment for sins committed during their lifetime. The point is not the punishment itself (the Church does maintain that punishment is received), but the intent of punishment — to transform the soul to a state of wholeness and purity so that it is fit to behold God.
Key to the positive view of Purgatory is the concept of salvation. The souls of Purgatory are confirmed in grace. They have the assurance that they will see God one day. They do not feel anguish or horror; rather, they voluntarily accept their sufferings as a means to an end: the ability to join God. They do endure pain but do not despair. They are already in contact with the Holy Spirit, because they are part of Christ's Mystical Body. They will not be disengaged from Christ and the Spirit.