Purgatory: Fiery Furnace or Heaven’s Waiting Room?

I am a news-aholic.  It is not uncommon for me to turn the radio on at the top of the hour to catch the headlines five or six times a day.  One thing I have observed in the media over the years is how often newscasters will say something very Catholic, likely without even knowing it.

Obviously when a famous person dies, it makes the news.  The younger and least expected deaths, like that of Princess Diana, are really big news stories.  Next time your hear of a famous person’s death reported on the evening news, listen to hear if the commentator says something like, “Let’s keep so-and-so and their family in our prayers.”  Did you catch that?  What I am referring to is just how often we are told to keep the famous dead person in our prayers. 

The newscaster has just affirmed the Catholic Church’s teaching on purgatory.  Why pray for the deceased when they are in heaven?  Why pray for the deceased when they are in hell?  The only way praying for the deceased makes sense is if they are in purgatory.

Yet purgatory gets a bad wrap, and very often it is one of the first things a non-Catholic will bring up when criticizing the Catholic faith.  Purgatory is not what you might think; it is not souls bobbing around in pools of fire.  As a matter of fact, the Council of Trent condemned descriptions of purgatory that make it seem like a place of physical torture, such as souls becoming French fries.

Purgatory is a good thing; it is a good place.  Author Father Benedict Groeschel gives a delightful description of purgatory in his book Arise from Darkness  when he says, “I’d trade New York for purgatory any day of the week.  It’s clearly upscale from New Jersey, where I started out from this life.  I’m actually looking forward to it with hope, because I like to travel and visit new places, and I have a lot of friends in purgatory.  Once you are there, you are certain of eternal life—which makes it a great deal more pleasant than our scary journey here.”

There are, on the other hand, big thick books about purgatory that are written to scare people.  You may have seen them.  You have my permission to throw them in the fireplace.  Details as to what purgatory will be like are scarce; perhaps the best book on the subject is by St. Catherine of Genoa, called “Purgation and Purgatory, the Spiritual Dialogue.”

The word “purgatory,” of course, means, “to purge”—that is, to purge from sin, to clean—and it is not used anywhere in the Bible.  That is the sticking point for those who do not believe in it.

Though the word itself is not used in the Bible, the concept certainly is.  The most obvious example is from the book of 2 Maccabees, when in the 12th chapter there was atonement made for dead soldiers in order to free them from sin.  That’s purgatory, all right!  Also in the book of Revelations, chapter 21, we hear how nothing unclean shall enter heaven.  In Matthew 12:32, Jesus speaks of the sin against the Holy Spirit and says that it will not be forgiven in this age or the next, the next age meaning after death.  And finally in 2 Timothy 1:16-18, Paul prays for his dead friend Onesiphorus.  These are but a few examples of purgatory that can be found in Holy Writ.

Countless writing from the early church fathers deals with purgatory, such as Tertullian (155-240 AD), who wrote about the need for purging of sin after death in his work “The Soul,” written in 208 AD.  The point is the church did not invent purgatory in the Middle Ages, as many people like to claim.  It has always been a teaching of Christ and his church.  Perusing the earliest church writings makes that clear. 

There is a whole other side of purgatory that is often overlooked.  How often have we regretted not telling a deceased loved one how much they meant to us?  I can think of ten people off the top of my head with whom I wish I had that opportunity again.  I do have that opportunity; we all have that opportunity.  We can show our deceased loved ones how much we love them by remembering them in our prayers.  To pray for the souls in purgatory is a very noble, and even necessary, thing.  It is an illustration of your love.  And as my grandmother used to say, no prayer is wasted.  If your loved one is not in purgatory, God, in his wisdom, still hears and answers the prayer.