Question: I have asked this question to a retired priest I know, and he could not give me an answer. Maybe there is none. My question is: What can people do in purgatory that will help them get to heaven? I know Catholic tradition states we should be praying for all the souls there, but once you get there what can you do to get out? Can you reference scripture?
Discussion: Although the Bible does not speak directly of purgatory, you'll find related scriptures and three primary statements about the subject in "III. The Final Purification, or Purgatory," 1030-1032 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
To explain for readers who haven't heard the Church's voice on this doctrine of faith, Article 12, 1030 of the Catechism says, "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." The next statement in 1031 assures that purgatory "…is entirely different from the punishment of the damned," then cites references to Matthew 12:31, I Corinthians 3:15, and I Peter 1:7. Similarly Article 12, 1032 cites II Maccabees 12, which refers to the time before Christ when Judas Maccabeus made atonement for the dead. In addition, 1032 states, "The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead." Finally, a quote in 1032 from St. John Chrysostom refers to Job 1:5 then concludes, "Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them."
To summarize Church teaching, we've been given an active role to pray and to do good works on behalf of those who have gone before us in death. As to your question about what you can do to get yourself out of purgatory, the strongest, clearest opportunity for actively influencing your eternal state occurs in the choices you make and actions you take during this lifetime. For example, keep company with Christ through the Eucharist and prayer, get to know the Bible and the Catechism well, go to Confession as needed, and make friends with a lot of praying people! Once in purgatory, the most likely action will simply be to wait.
Question: That kind of leads me to my next question. When someone dies, most priests talk about that person as if he or she is already in Heaven. In scripture it tells of the "ones who have fallen asleep" or those who will be judged on the last day. If you look at scripture, I think it means that if you die you will be in purgatory and waiting for Jesus to return to judge the living and the dead. Is this your understanding also? If you look at scripture it seems that only a few are already up there, like the Apostles and the Prophets and the Holy Family.
For me it is not an issue of will I be in Heaven when I die; it is when will I be able to see Jesus vouch for me at the Right Hand of God and hear my name in the Book of Life? For me, I pray more in an anticipation of Jesus' return and the last judgment so that all may see his face than of me going straight to Heaven when I die. Although I strive to be holy everyday and to spread the Gospel in my words and actions, I am pretty sure I will have to wait to get there…….until the Day of Judgment.
Discussion: When scripture refers to "falling asleep," that's usually a euphemism for death or dying, not judgment. Lord willing, we'll investigate that Day of Judgment and also the Second Coming of Christ in upcoming Bible Talks.
Meanwhile, none of us knows exactly when we'll see Jesus. However, many Christians who remain close to God believe this happens at the very instant of death, assuming, of course, that Christ has not returned to earth prior to that particular moment. Again it's a matter of waiting to find out — not passively though, but actively as loving, forgiving, and forgiven members of the Body of Christ.
The Virgin Mary and the Apostles surely understood this, but to clarify, a previously quoted portion of the Catechism (1030) bears repeating: "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." With italics added for emphasis, the phrase "imperfectly purified" implies that, at the moment of death, some people, such as Mary, the Apostles, and other Saints, may already be perfectly purified with no unconfessed sins to confess and no anchors (such as grudges or other areas of unforgiveness) to weigh them down spiritually or separate them from the joy of heaven. Faith floats. A pure heart stays buoyant. So, yes, after death you might have to wait for a cleansing spiritual lift to see Christ face to face, but then again, maybe you won't.