An Angel Frees the Souls of Purgatory by Lodovico Carracci (1555–1619)
An Angel Frees the Souls of Purgatory by Lodovico Carracci (1555–1619)

This article is the first in a series on the subject of Purgatory.

Part 1: Introduction to the Catholic Understanding of Purgatory
Part 2: What is Purgatory Like? The Catholic Understanding of the Pains of Purification
Part 3: How to Avoid Purgatory: 8 Specific Ways to Reduce or Eliminate Your Time in Purgatory
Part 4: How to Help the Poor Souls in Purgatory
Part 5: Indulgences - Definition and Meaning: The God's Mercy Dispensed Through the Catholic Church

When our life comes to a close there will be 4 last things. These are death, judgment, Heaven and Hell. These are the things that all of us must face when we die. We will all pass through the darkness of death, and at last stand before the Almighty God to render an account of our deeds, both good and evil. As Catholics, we believe that if we have died unrepentant for mortal sins on our soul, we will be exiled to the prison of fire, known as Hell. However, if we have confessed these sins and have been forgiven, we shall enter into the eternal ecstasy known as Heaven.

If we are forgiven our sins, but we have not made atonements for those sins, or we are in some way still attached to sinfulness, we must be purified before we can enter the gates of Heaven. When we are forgiven for our sins, we can be at peace that our relationship with God has been restored, but we must still suffer punishment for those sins. The easiest way to understand this concept is to think about forgiveness and atonement in human terms. If Bob spreads rumors about Sally and then asks Sally for forgiveness, and she gives him forgiveness, then the relationship is restored. However, there is still a problem in that Sally's reputation has been harmed and people who heard the rumors may have an unfavorable opinion of Sally. Bob must do everything he can to repair Sally's reputation. Until her reputation is restored, justice has not been satisfied. Purgatory is the place where unfulfilled justice is dispensed by the All-Just God.

It would be a violation of God's perfect justice to claim that everyone who dies without mortal sins on their soul goes straight to Heaven. While they may have been forgiven of their mortal sins, it is unlikely that they have perfectly restored justice to those that have been harmed by their sins, particularly if the Object of their sins is God Himself - which is always the case, as sins are offensive to God's love for us. The Catholic Church gives us an opportunity to remove the punishment due for our sins by making indulgences available to us, and we will talk about that in a future article, but rare is the person who dies with justice perfectly fulfilled on their account.

Receiving forgiveness does not mean that we escape justice for our sins. Purgatory is a way to make up for our sins. All atonement that has not been made for our sins while on earth will be made in purgatory when we die. Though it may seem terrible, it is a blessing to us as imperfect humans because if there was no purgatory, we would be subjected to the perfect justice of God. This means that we would either be destined for Heaven (in which case we would have to already be free of atonement due to our sins) or Hell (if we had any sin or attachment to it on our soul). Since no person aside from our Mother Mary, and her Son, Jesus were born without original sin, none of us would be likely to go straight to Heaven upon death.

Purgatory is truly a place where God’s infinite mercy allows us to be purified before we enter into Heaven. The late Archbishop Fulton Sheen described it in this way...

“Purgatory is the place where the love of God tempers the justice of God and where the love of man tempers the injustice of man.”

Here is how the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines Purgatory...

1030 All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.

1031 The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned.606 The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire:607

As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come.608

1032 This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture: "Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin."609 From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God.610 The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead:

Let us help and commemorate them. If Job's sons were purified by their father's sacrifice, 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.611

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What Does it Mean to Mention Sins in "Number and Kind" in Confession

How Often Should Catholics Go to Confession?

What is the "Culture of Death"