Getting Purged In Purgatory: How Long, How Long?

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.

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  • Guest


    Excellent information, thank you!  I have a CE column being posted in early November that also talks about our views on Purgatory and the Jewish customs of praying for the souls of their dead.  I recently found myself in the first-ever situation where I had to "defend" this teaching and although it was a bit intimidating, it was also quite exhilerating:-) to know that I could stand firmly in what we believe as Catholics.  Praise God for your great work that continues to edify us, your readers.

    Cheryl Dickow

  • Guest


    I agree with Cheryl, Mary – excellent info – and well put too – thanx – AndyP/Doria2




  • Guest

    I have a question which kids have asked me and I don't know how to clearly answer.

    When we "pray for the souls of the faithful departed and the souls in purgatory" what exactly are we praying for?

    There is no time in eternity, therefore, we can't be praying for a "quick release".  These souls are guaranteed heaven, so we're not praying for that either.  It seems inconsistant to say we're praying that the Beatific Vision comes quickly when time doesn't exist.

    I accept the Church's teaching on Purgatory as rational.  I understand purgation, etc… I know the Book of Maccabees shows the Jews to be developing a theology of praying for the dead and atoning for the dead which the early Christians adopted as well.

    I truly believe that praying for the dead has tangible positive effects on the souls of the living (that's another article) but I want to know what effect our prayers, fasting, and almsgiving have on the souls in the process of purgation that continues in eternity.


  • Guest

    I do dig the truth that God wants to love us forever.  I do dig that He would bring us into a purer state than when we die through purgatory.  For even the best of us have hang-ups and half-truths that need to be reconciled before we can behold all truth. 

    Trusting in His mercy does not disqualify the need to be further purified after we physically die and before we meet Him face to face.

    Do we completely understand all that Purgatory is or may be?  No.  But that God's mercy could encompass Purgatory?  Yes.

    GK – God is good!

  • Guest


    While I look forward to Mary's response to your question I felt I could offer a bit of what will be in my November column as it addresses this…

    One of the ways we are called to respond to God in our earthly lives is to take care of one another, to do good deeds, so to speak.  NOT THAT THESE CAN EARN HEAVEN FOR US (I always feel that I have to defend any sentence that can be misconstrued).  Jews call these good deeds "mitzvahs."  They also understand that mitzvahs in which there can be no earthly recompense (clearly what Christ taught as well) are then able to receive "heavenly" rewards.  Remember Christ asked us to realize that if we love those who love us what reward will we have?  He was saying we have, at that point, already received the reward.  He needed us to know that there were expecations on our conduct, plain and simple.  He wanted us to know that when we love those who don't love us, well, then we've aligned ourselves with God's call to holiness. 

    When Jews pray, on Yom Kippur and at other times, for the souls of the dead, they are performing that "ultimate" mitzvah because those dead cannot repay (obviously).  If we look at it NOT from what we are doing for the souls of the dead BUT what we are doing because God has asked us to, we can see the value of praying for the dead.  And if we perform these good deeds with the sole intention of pleasing and serving God, we will find heavenly rewards.  But if our goal is for our own heavenly rewards, I'm afraid that we'll be our own downfall.

    Cheryl D.

  • Guest

    When reading Mary's excellent article on Purgatory, I am reminded of the following text taken from one of the finest Christian writings outside of sacred scripture, The Imitation of Christ (by Thomas Kempis), where Jesus states the following;

    "If you say that you cannot suffer much, how will you endure the fire of purgatory? Of two evils, the lesser is always to be chosen. Therefore, in order that you may escape the everlasting punishments to come, try to bear present evils patiently for the sake of God."

    As Mary's article points out, we don't really know what to expect in Purgatory (time, pain, suffering?), but we do know from scripture and Tradition that if we follow the examples of Christ, the Apostles and the Saints ….. where suffering is as much a part of life as joy and happiness ….. then we will be with our Lord in heaven for eternity.  Sounds to me like we ought to work on our salvation here on earth while we have the time.   As C.S. Lewis said, "aim at heaven and you get earth thrown in, aim at earth and you get neither…."

  • Guest

    Elkabrikir, thank you for reading Bible Talk. Yes, praying for other people, whether they're dead or alive, does indeed have a positive effect, for instance, by drawing us closer to God or increasing the faith of the one who prays. As you said, that would be another article, though a good one 🙂 Regarding the effect our prayers, fasting, and almsgiving have on souls in purgatory, we have no clear answer, but it may be that our prayers edify that soul. This could be similar to those hard times in this life when the prayers of other people uplift us spiritually, but also mentally as we receive their empathy or forgiveness and remember that we're not alone. Or perhaps our prayers set to rest an unresolved regret or misunderstanding intensely felt by someone now deceased, thereby alleviating the sharpness or severity of that suffering.

  • Guest


    what an interesting response!  I had never thought  that our prayers edify that soul who is in purgatory.  (I understand the mystery of purgatory…is that an oxymoron?) Everything you wrote in your response post makes sense and opens a new window in which to contemplate purgatory.  For example, since sin always negatively effects the Body of Christ, your comment:  our prayers set to rest an unresolved regret or misunderstanding intensely felt by someone now deceased, thereby alleviating the sharpness or severity of that suffering  seems on target.

    Thank God we have the  Communion of Saints and the Holy Spirit to bond us together in love.

    Thanks, Mary.


  • Guest

    Thanks for the article and the posts. I am intrigued by purgatory for several reasons.
    1) It’s one of those beliefs that strikes me as being distinctly Catholic, although it also serves to unite us with our Jewish brothers and sisters in regards to prayers for the dead.

    2) There are conflicting views of what purgatory is like. I’m thinking specifically of the Diary of St. Faustina, wherein the visions of purgatory show that it is no cake walk. (fodder for future posts, this)

    3) The whole issue of the passage of time complicates our understanding of the afterlife, especially purgatory.

    4) The Church teaching that we should pray for the dead to “spring” from purgatory might cause non-Catholics to accuse us of relying too much on works and not on faith.

    If Cheryl is right in saying that we pray for the souls in purgatory to be obedient and to glorify God (I’m paraphrasing), then we have a larger sense of purpose in those prayers. That’s much easier to defend.

    When I pray for the souls in purgatory, I pray that their purification will inspire greater holiness in me (now, not after I die), that my actions will honor their memory, and that my prayers will draw me closer to God.

    Thanks to all for deepening my understanding of purgatory.

    In Him,

  • Guest

    Hi. I just wanted to make this suggestion to anyone wanting to know more about Purgatory. We have the Bible, the catechism and traditions, but we also have the saints! There are many saints who are known for their wealth of knowledge and experience with Purgatory and the Holy Souls. And their writings really spur one to live life so as to avoid Purgatory! Here are a few names: Padre Pio, St. Catherine of Genoa, and then St. Faustina Kowalska, St. John Vianney, St. Nicola of Tolentino, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque and St. Lutgarda. Best wishes and happy reading!

  • Guest

    This can make my head hurt. 

    There is no "time" in purgatory and "time" is the measure of change. So apparently the Church Suffering, the Holy Souls in purgatory, are not changing, but must remain in a suffering state until the end of time, the Last Day.

    As for we who are still in this world, we still have time, and our prayers for the Church Suffering in some mysterious way can affect them.  Are we not, after all, the Mystical Body of Christ?

    It seems that to disregard purgatory and assume all of our beloved dead are already in heaven is presumption, which is a sin against the spiritual virtue of hope, just as much as despair is a sin against hope. 

    Does that make sense?

    Thank you, Catherine, for the list of saints to research in this regard.

  • Guest

    Prayer is a mysterious phenomenon to begin with, so we don’t really understand exactly how it affects what we pray for. We just know that somehow it does. We know that God’s will, will be done, yet that’s what we pray for. Jesus said to Peter: “but I pray for you”. He could just make it happen without the prayer, but He doesn’t. So we who are living pray, the saints in heaven pray, therefore, it must be true that the souls in purgatory pray also. The Communion of Saints connects us, so it might be possible that when the prayers on these three levels converge for the same purpose then magic happens. We should for that reason cultivate prayerful relationships with sinners here and saints in heaven. As for the time element I agree with PTR, too complicated. Because Purgatory is a bridge it might have some attributes of both worlds, including time.

  • Guest

    I like goral's idea of a "bridge", and I think that ought to be expanded upon.

    I have 2 (what I hope are) relevant comments:

       1. The children of Fatima were praying for a playmate who had died, and the Blessed Mother told them that this girl would have to stay in Purgatory "until the end of time".  (Was she making a pun?  I've never heard of an instance where she "teases".)

       2. I was taught (pre-Vatican II) that the souls in Purgatory can do nothing for themselves–they are totally reliant on our prayers and good works to "move them along".  However, they CAN pray for us (i.e., help us in our spiritual growth).  Perhaps, in doing so, they release some of the "self"-ishness that put them in Purgatory in the first place?

    Lastly, I've been praying for all my own and my husband's ancestors as far back as I can locate them.  I was raised in an "unchurched" home, and, as far back as I can see, my ancestors were a pretty rowdy bunch.  So, I'm thinking that if I can "aid" those in Purgatory by my prayers, perhaps they'll return the favor…….?

  • Guest

    Maybe one of the reasons we know so darn little about Purgatory, less than about Heaven, is so that we could try to figure out our own plan of "communion" with our loved ones. Within the teaching of the Church, of course. Everyone's history and life is so unique, Cookey, that Maybe God allows us to approach this with the unique Graces that He gives to each one of us. In which case how could I question your approach.

  • Guest

    Thanks, goral, for the encouragement.  I'm thinking that, if any of them ARE suffering in Purgatory, who's going to "help" them if I don't?  Maybe that's one (of many) reason God keeps yanking me back into the Church: because that's what I'm here for?  Won't know till after it's too late to change my behavior.  Smile

  • Guest

    "God desires worshipers who worship in Spirit and in Truth." The bible tells us this and that the Heavenly Hosts will sing His praise for eternity. Taking a que from this and the devotions of the religious faithfull in our Catholic Church, we can decifer how we should be practicing now, in pergatory and for eternity. Worship, through the sacramental life of the Church; practicing songs of praise; praying unceasingly amidst our daily actions; practicing works of mercy; interceding in prayer for others; practicing chastity, practical poverty, and obedience to God's Living Spirit… all in the Catholic Christian walk… seems like a sure bet ot being on the best path to God's Kingdom!