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Purgatory: 10 Questions and Answers

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Bede is an artist with an interest in theology and philosophy.

Sonntag, Austria, 1940. Maria Simma awakens to the sound of someone entering her bedroom. Who on earth would enter her bedroom at 3 a.m.? She slowly looks up and sees a man walking back and forth. Maria angrily shouts at him, "How did you get in here? Go away!" But the stranger continues pacing, as if deaf. She asks again, "What are you doing!?" Still no answer. So she springs out of her bed to grab him but grasps only air. There was nothing there. She wonders, How can I see this man, but not grab him? Later that morning, she tells of the experience to her spiritual director, who advises, "Rather than say, 'Who are you?', ask, 'What do you want from me?'" The man indeed returns the following night, and Maria asks, "What do you want from me?" He replies, "Have three Masses celebrated for me and I will be delivered." She then understands that it is a soul from Purgatory. She accordingly spends the remainder of her life assisting these souls. But several grave questions arise; is Purgatory for real? Why do souls go there? Is it painful? This article tries to answer some of these questions.

St. Michael transports another soul to Paradise.

St. Michael transports another soul to Paradise.

1. What is Purgatory?

Purgatory is a place of final purification for persons who die in God's friendship but are not pure enough to enjoy the beatific vision. The word itself derives from the Latin verb, purgare, which means to purify (English = purge). While thought to be an exclusively Catholic doctrine, the understanding of a place of postmortal purification may also be found in Judaism, Islam, and several minor religions. Most Protestant denominations deny its existence as the word purgatory is not found in Scripture. However, several Protestants believe it "makes sense," as Jerry W. Walls wrote in his book, Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation.

While the word purgatory was unknown to early Christians, the concept was taken for granted. For example, Tertullian, writing in AD 208, comments that Jesus' parable of the "last penny", refers to a place of expiation and penitence after death: "No one will hesitate to believe, he says, that the soul undergoes in Hades some compensatory discipline." (A Treatise on the Soul, Ch. 58) Two centuries later, we find St. Augustine's dying mother, Monica, requesting that Masses be said for her soul after death. Why request Masses unless there is a concern of detainment?

2. Is Purgatory Scriptural?

Because the word purgatory is not found in Scripture, some Fundamentalists deduce that it must not exist. However, the words Trinity and Incarnation are not found in the Bible either, doctrines they hold as true. Back to the question, though: what clues does Scripture contain regarding Purgatory?

In broad terms, we know that nothing unclean can enter heaven (Rev. 21:27) and that a person's works will be tested after death: "If anyone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire." (1 Cor 3:15) Jesus says, "Make friends quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison; truly I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny." (Matthew 5:25-26) The word used here for prison is phulake in Greek, the same word that Peter uses to describe the "holding place," where Jesus went after his death to free the detained souls (1 Peter 3:19). Furthermore, Jesus speaks of the sin against the Holy Spirit that cannot be forgiven in this age or the age to come, implying that certain sins may be forgiven after death. (Mt 12:32)

Going back farther in Scripture, we find an episode where Judas Maccabeus and members of his army discover pagan amulets under the garments of their fallen comrades (2 Maccabees 12:39-46). Rather than despair over a blatant violation of God's law, Judas takes up a collection to send to Jerusalem to expiate their sin. The men also offer supplication to God. In doing this "he acted very well and honorably… Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin." (v. 43, 45) Significantly, because of this clear inference to Purgatory, Protestants removed 1-2 Maccabees from their Bibles at the Reformation.

3. What is the chief cause of pain in Purgatory?

From Maria Simma and other mystics, we learn some details of what the soul experiences after death. First of all, the soul enters into God's light where its entire life replays in an instant. Afterward, comes its sentence, good or bad. For souls sentenced to Purgatory, the memory of God's beauty and benevolence, though experienced imperfectly, ravishes the soul. The soul yearns for God's presence but understands its unworthiness. The foremost pains in Purgatory, therefore, are intense longing for God and purifying fire.

While seemingly harsh, Maria Simma brightens our understanding by way of an example. She says, "Suppose one day a door opens and a splendid being appears, extremely beautiful, of a beauty that has never been seen on earth. You are fascinated, overwhelmed by this being of light and beauty, even more so that this being shows that he is madly in love with you — you have never dreamed of being loved so much."

From this vision, a desire burns in your heart to embrace this being who in turn appears to desire your embrace as well, but there's a problem: you haven't bathed in months. With bad odors, runny nose, greasy hair, and large dirty stains on your clothes, you simply cannot present yourself. What next? It's time for a good shower, which the soul desires intensely. However, the pain of separation is so atrocious, even if it lasts a moment, that it creates a "love-wound" proportional to the revelation of God's beauty. Maria says "Purgatory is exactly this. It's a delay imposed by our impurity, a delay before God's embrace, a wound of love that causes intense suffering."

Here we encounter a mystery — souls most willingly go to Purgatory to be cleansed. St. Catherine of Genoa (1447-1510), says likewise in her Treatise on Purgatory, that souls greatly desire to go to Purgatory: "God stands before us with open arms to receive us into His glory. But well I see the divine essence to be of such purity, far greater than can be imagined, that the soul in which there is even the least note of imperfection would rather cast itself into a thousand Hells than find itself thus stained in the presence of the Divine Majesty. Therefore, the soul, understanding that Purgatory has been ordained to take away those stains, casts itself therein and seems to itself to have found great mercy in that it can rid itself there of the impediment which is the stain of sin."

Souls receive a hot bath in preparation to see God.

Souls receive a hot bath in preparation to see God.

4. Do the souls in Purgatory experience happiness?

Here is yet another mystery — despite the experience of intense suffering, the souls in Purgatory know a happiness that is beyond that of earth. How can this be? According to Maria Simma, no soul in Purgatory desires to return to earthly life. She says "They have knowledge which is infinitely beyond ours. They just could not decide to return to the darkness of the earth. Here we see the difference from the suffering that we know on earth. In Purgatory, even if the pain of the soul is terrible, there is the certitude of living forever with God. It's an unshakeable certitude. The joy is greater than the pain. There is nothing on earth that could make them want to live here again, where one is never sure of anything."

St. Catherine of Genoa similarly says: "No happiness can be found worthy to be compared with that of a soul in Purgatory except that of the saints in by day this happiness grows as God flows into these souls more and more as the hindrance to His entrance is consumed. Sin's rust is the hindrance and the fire burns the rust away so that more and more the soul opens itself up to the divine inflowing." (Ch. 2, Treatise on Purgatory)

5. Why do I need further cleansing if the Lord has freed me from sin?

Suppose that a doctor provides a complete treatment for his patient to be well again. The patient, however, makes only partial use of the remedy. Eventually, the patient's condition worsens to the extent of requiring painful surgery. This predicament could have been avoided if the patient simply accepted the doctor's full treatment. Purgatory is comparable to this scenario.

Christians believe that Jesus won mankind's salvation on the Cross. His sacrifice obtains the remedy for sin and satisfies the justice of God. Yet, not all individuals accept the treatment, so to speak; some receive full healing, some partial, and others, none at all. In a word, perfection is a life-long process, not a one-time decision.

That many fall short of the mark comes through various sayings of Jesus, such as The gate is narrow and the path hard that leads to life, and few find it (Mt 7:14). Hence, Purgatory is an operating room of sorts, where God removes the remaining disease of those who have partially applied the remedies of Calvary.

In the following video, Fr. Elias explains some ways of avoiding Purgatory.

6. How can I avoid going to Purgatory after death?

For our benefit, God allowed scores of saints to mystically visit Purgatory. St. Christine, St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi, St. Frances of Rome, and St. Faustina Kowalska are but a few. These saints agree: Purgatory is best avoided. "How terrible are the pangs of Purgatory!" says St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi (1565-1607), "Never could I have believed it had not God manifested it to me...And, nevertheless, I cannot call them cruel; rather, they are advantageous, since they lead to the ineffable bliss of Paradise."

While God much prefers that we bypass Purgatory and go straight to heaven, He doesn't interfere with the human will. Nonetheless, our choices have consequences. Yet the question arises: is it possible to mitigate or even avoid Purgatory after death? The Prophet Isaiah tells us how to do so in seven words: Cease doing evil and learn to do good (Is 1:16).

What is the evil to especially avoid? According to Maria Simma, it is a lack of charity. When asked what sins most lead to Purgatory, Maria responded "Sins against charity, against the love of one's neighbor, hardness of heart, hostility, slandering, calumny — all these things. Saying wicked things and calumny are among the worst blemishes which require a long purification? Yes." It is notable in this context that Jesus' parable of the "Last penny" warns against hardness of heart and lack of mercy (Mt 18:23-35).

Secondly, the work of penance is essential to avoid Purgatory. This explains why so many saints willingly endured pain on earth. Consequently, while God instantly forgives the repentant sinner, He requires the just satisfaction for sin which only penance provides. In practice, this means voluntarily limiting licit pleasures, such as of food or drink, and passive penance, whereby one joyfully accepts the daily contradictions, illnesses, setbacks, and annoyances of life.

Thirdly, to bypass Purgatory, we must choose to do good. This above all means devoting time for prayer, especially the Rosary. Likewise, charitable acts towards our neighbor, such as giving alms to poor people, or even a simple service to our neighbor, wipes away sin: Love covers all offenses (Proverbs 10:12). In addition, frequent meditation on the Passion of Jesus, such as in making the Stations of the Cross, a sincere devotion to the Blessed Virgin, St. Joseph, and St. Michael are the best means to avoid or mitigate Purgatory. Finally, the Sacraments of Holy Communion and Reconciliation rid our souls of sin and secure friendship with God.


7. How does Purgatory square with the kind-hearted Jesus found in the Gospels?

Jesus manifests a mother's tenderness in the Gospel: He embraces children, feeds the multitudes, heals cripples, and welcomes outcasts as the Good Shepherd. How then could He let souls endure Purgatorial fire? Wouldn't He rather free them from their suffering? The answer is that God's infinite justice and mercy emerge from the same source.

So, while Jesus reveals tender mercy, He also reveals God's strict accountability for sin: "If you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire.'" (Mt.18:22) Again, "It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire." (Mt 18:9) Hence, the gentle Jesus and the Just Judge are in perfect harmony.

Perhaps an illustration may help clarify this apparent contradiction. Suppose a gardener plants three different flowers in the full sun. One flourishes under the rays, another bends to the ground but grows strong after the midday sun passes, and a third shrivels to its roots. The problem is not with the sun but with the varying capacities of the plants. The souls in Purgatory are comparable to the plants that are too weak for the noonday sun.

Finally, it helps to recount an experience of St. Faustina Kowalska (1905-1938). Her guardian angel conducted her spirit to Purgatory in August of 1925. St. Faustina saw the souls suffering there and says, "The flames which were burning them did not touch me at all. My guardian angel did not leave me for an instant. I asked these souls what their greatest suffering was. They answered me in one voice that their greatest torment was longing for God." She then heard the voice of God tell her, My mercy does not want this but My justice demands it (Diary 20, 1226).

8. Does the Virgin Mary and St. Michael help the souls in Purgatory?

Mystics across the ages agree that the Blessed Virgin assists the souls in Purgatory as the Mother of Mercy. She refreshes, consoles, and encourages the souls there. Maria Simma says, "She often comes to console them and to tell them they have done many good things. She encourages them." St. Faustina also says that Mary's visit brings refreshment to the souls in Purgatory; they call her the Star of the Sea.

The angels likewise visit Purgatory, particularly St. Michael. They especially come to transport souls to heaven. An ancient prayer addressed to St. Michael says, "To thee, the Lord has entrusted the service of leading the souls of the redeemed into heavenly blessedness." (Rite of Exorcism, Rituale Romanum)

An occupant of Purgatory revealed to a devout nun, "We see St. Michael as we see the angels. He has no body. He comes to get the souls that have finished their purification. It is he who conducts them to Heaven...He is the highest angel in Heaven. Our guardian angels come to see us but St. Michael is far more beautiful than they are. As to the Blessed Virgin, we see her in the body. She comes to Purgatory on her feasts and she goes back to Heaven with many souls. While she is with us we do not suffer." (An Unpublished Manuscript on Purgatory).

9. Are souls freed from Purgatory on particular days?

Detainment in Purgatory may last from five minutes to several decades depending on the stain of sin. While liberation may come on any day, souls usually find freedom on particular feast days. According to Maria Simma, Christmas Day, All Saints Day, Good Friday, the Feast of the Assumption, and the Ascension of Jesus, are among the primary ones. As mentioned above, the Virgin Mary often frees souls on her feast days.

10. Can I assist the souls in Purgatory?

God ordains that the prisoners of Purgatory rely on our prayers for deliverance. This is because their sufferings are purely expiatory, whereas our sufferings are meritorious when endured in a state of grace. This explains why a penny on earth is worth a thousand ducats in Purgatory, as St. Catherine says.

An example from Maria Simma's life illustrates this reality. A soul once asked her consent to suffer three hours on her behalf. Maria agreed, thinking that three hours was nothing. She says "I had the impression that they lasted three days, it was so painful. But at the end, I looked at my watch and I saw that it had only lasted three hours. The soul told me that by accepting that suffering with love for three hours, I had saved her twenty years of Purgatory!"

Above all, the best means of assisting the souls in Purgatory is the Mass, because it is Christ's perfect sacrifice of Calvary reenacted. After that, the Liturgy of the Hours, the Stations of the Cross, the Rosary, the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, etc., are most efficacious. And as mentioned, self-imposed penances are additional means.

A Work Of Mercy

There is hardly a more compassionate work on this earth than to assist the suffering souls in Purgatory. As St. Francis de Sales says, "To assist the souls in Purgatory is to practice in a sublime manner all the works of mercy together." Interestingly, a religious congregation was founded in the 19th century for this express purpose — to pray, suffer, and labor for the benefit of the souls of the faithful departed.1 Numerous confraternities also exist, collectively known as the Purgatorial Society. They pray and fast for the souls in Purgatory who can't help themselves but depend on our prayers and sacrifices.

While some people are not able to perform corporal works of mercy, such as feeding the hungry, no one is prevented from performing a spiritual work of mercy, such as praying for the Poor Souls. By doing so, we can thus hope to hear on the Day of Judgment, "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry (for God) and you gave me food, I was thirsty (for consolation) and you gave me something to drink...I was in prison (in Purgatory) and you visited me." (c.f. Mt 25:34)

1. They are known as the Society of the Helpers of the Holy Souls and have about 500 members today.


An interview with Maria Simma

A Treatise on Purgatory by St. Catherine of Genoa

An Unpublished Manuscript on Purgatory

© 2022 Bede