As this month is dedicated to the Souls in Purgatory, it’s an opportunity for all of us to learn more about one of the most misunderstood of Church teachings. Far from being the much-maligned second-chance hell or hell-lite that critics make it out to be, purgatory actually well reflects the beauty of the Church’s teaching.
Here are 10 things about purgatory that may surprise you:
- The Fathers taught it. Purgatory is usually associated with medieval Catholicism, but it’s been believed by the Church from the earliest times. Though they may not have actually used the term purgatory, it’s clear that many Church Fathers believed in it nonetheless. In The City of God Augustine states, “But of those who suffer temporary punishments after death, all are not doomed to those everlasting pains which are to follow that judgment; for to some, as we have already said, what is not remitted in this world is remitted in the next, that is, they are not punished with the eternal punishment of the world to come.” Others include Origen, St. Ambrose, St. Jerome, St. Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory the Great, and St. Bede.
- Souls in purgatory will know their fate. One wonders, if a faithful Christian dies and finds himself suffering in the afterlife, will he be able to tell the difference between hell and purgatory? Will he know that he is heaven-bound? On this issue, the answer seems a decisive yes. As the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it, “Are the souls detained in purgatory conscious that their happiness is but deferred for a time, or may they still be in doubt concerning their ultimate salvation? The ancient Liturgies and the inscriptions of the catacombs speak of a ‘sleep of peace,’ which would be impossible if there was any doubt of ultimate salvation.”
- Souls in purgatory may be praying for us. We are often rightly told to pray for the souls in purgatory. But some think they may also be praying for us. It makes sense if you think about it: they are, after all, closer to God than we, and therefore their petitions may have greater intercessory power. Such, in fact, was the basic argument of theologians like St. Robert Bellarmine (sources here and here).
- Ancient pagans believed in it too. Just as other cultures have deeply ingrained beliefs in an afterlife with something like our heaven and hell, so also there was widespread conviction that there would be something like purgatory, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia. For example, the great Roman epic poem the Aeneid—a text familiar to the Latin-speaking Fathers—describes souls that have had the “taint of wickedness … burned away with fire” before arriving in the “joyous fields of Elysium.” Of course, the Christian doctrine of purgatory is no more a pagan idea than heaven or hell. (In fact, 2 Peter 2:4 uses the same word for hell, Tartarus, that is found in the Aeneid, as is evident in some more slavishly literal translations like this one.)
- Souls in purgatory will be with other believers. We tend to forget that souls in purgatory are not suffering alone—otherwise the term the Church Suffering would be emptied of meaning. We can only speculate, but it seems reasonable to surmise that the souls in purgatory will be able to console each other much as we do now on earth.
- United with Christ. Again, purgatory is not some kind of spiritual time-out or bypass from our lives of faith on earth and the beatific vision we yearn for in heaven. If the souls in purgatory are indeed truly part of the Church Suffering, then it follows they remain a part of the mystical body of Christ and therefore remain united to Him. How much closer will they become to the Crucified Christ in the suffering of purgatory! We tend to hear a lot about union with Christ among the most saintly in this life, but the obvious potential for a profound union in purgatory seems to be largely overlooked.
- The suffering is voluntary. St. Catherine of Genoa, author of a treatise on purgatory, says that once the soul sees what is in store in heaven, immediately casts itself into purgatory. Of course, purgatory is not voluntary in the sense that someone could choose not to go there. But it is voluntary in the sense that souls submit willingly to it, which is what Aquinas also says.
- Christ consoles those in purgatory. Remember the part in the creed about the descent into hell? Traditionally theologians considered purgatory as part of hell, understanding hell as simply everywhere that is not heaven. In the descent, all who were “in any part of hell” were “visited in some respect” by Christ, Aquinas writes in the Summa Theologica. The holy fathers in limbo were delivered, while the souls in purgatory were consoled, so he suggests.
- There will be joys as well as suffering. Traditional accounts of purgatory seem to focus on the pain and punishment. There’s more to purgatory than that though. St. Catherine of Genoa describes it as a state of great happiness: “I believe no happiness can be found worthy to be compared with that of a soul in Purgatory except that of the saints in Paradise; and day 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.”
- Purgatory makes saints. This conclusion, as radical as it may sound, is inevitable. Here’s why—the basic Catholic doctrine on who ends up in heaven and who goes to purgatory can be simply stated this way: those who have reached such a state of sanctity that they do not need the purifying fires of purgatory go straight to heaven. We call them, fittingly, saints. Put another way: only saints get into heaven. That’s what purgatory does: it makes all of us who will end up there into saints. That’s the beauty of the Church’s teaching on purgatory.