Kitchen Catechism: Featured Articles

PURGATORY… meaning what?

by Lois Donahue

Way, way, way back when I was grade-school age and learning about things Catholic I never felt the need or had the desire to wonder as to any "if's" or "why's" concerning, for instance, my belief in the existence of Purgatory, any more than I would have wondered "if" or "why" two plus two equaled four. In fact, my firm belief that Purgatory is a reality remains intact. However, over the years as I wanted to learn more about my Faith and as I was confronted with questions from others concerning Purgatory, I began to read and listen and to know the joy of 'learning'. So, after the very recent death of two friends, I felt now might be a good time to share with you what I learned about Purgatory.

First let me respond to this comment sometimes made to question the validity of Purgatory - 'you can't even find the word Purgatory in the Bible' - by noting that other words, Trinity for instance does not appear in any Concordance listing of Biblical words which I've seen; yet where else, other than from the Bible, do we get the doctrine of Trinity? So it is that, if not the word, indeed the concept of what the Church calls Purgatory is rooted in Scripture. Let me give you some references to show you what I mean. In the closing verses of 2 Maccabees 12 we are first introduced to the idea that the dead benefit from prayer and sacrifice. Beginning with verse 42 we read that prayer and sacrifice were offered for the dead and the final verse of the chapter tells us that this was done to make "atonement for the dead that they might be delivered from their sin". (Ignatius Holy Bible) Even though our Protestant friends do not accept the books of Maccabees as inspired, my understanding is that they do accept them as evidence of what the Jews believed and from what we read about Judas'(military leader 160B.C.) words and actions in the above Bible reference, there was belief that, even after death, "atonement" could be made. This caring practice of praying for the dead was brought into the early Church. Even in the Catacombs, request for prayers were found on the tombs.

In Matt 12:32 Jesus speaks about sins being forgiven "in this age or in the age to come". Paul says in 3:15 of his first letter to the Corinthians that our work will be tested to determine whether we "suffer loss" or are "saved" and then says, "the person will be saved, but only through fire". One interpretation of that passage calls our attention to the fact that Paul, in that instance, could not have been considering heaven where there is no suffering whatsoever nor hell from which no one can be saved, even "through fire". Consequently, with loving compassion, God must have provided a third alternative…and He did.

So much for what is unquestionably less than even a keyhole glance at what might possibly have been taken into consideration during the process of formulating the Church's teaching on Purgatory.

Now, in our attempt to learn more about Purgatory, let me, at least in part, quote a few ways in which it has been defined. "Purgatory is a state" (or place of cleansing) "in which those suffer for a time who die guilty of venial sins or without having satisfied for the punishment due to their sins." (Baltimore Catechism #3)

"The state in which souls exist for a time after death to work out the temporal punishment due to venial sins or forgiven mortal sins." (The Maryknoll Catholic Dictionary)

"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 church gives the name, Purgatory, to this final purification." (Jesus, the Catechism, and me)

Since both 'cleansing' and 'purification' are mentioned above I think note should be made that the word purgatory comes from the Latin 'purgatio' meaning cleansing, purifying.

In mentioning 'words which appear in the definitions', I can think of three which are not easy for us to understand and which are perhaps only fully understood by God Himself. They are "temporal punishment due". Now "temporal" is no problem because that indicates 'temporary'; but punishing even after forgiveness would seem to be something we'd bet money our merciful, loving God would not do. That money would appear to be soon lost if someone convinced us to read 2 Sam 12:7-14 because there we find God doing exactly that. David confesses that he has "sinned against the Lord". Nathan, the prophet, first assures the King that the Lord has forgiven him but, without hesitation, also tells David how he is yet to be punished for his sin. Hopefully, any of us reading this for the first time and, quite naturally, wondering - WHY?, will be blessed with a 'Holy Spirit Moment' and remember that our loving God is both abundantly merciful and equally JUST.

Which reminds me of a story a priest once told my friend Rosemarie when she was wondering about punishment being 'still due'.

Jimmy's father gave him an autographed baseball and told him it would someday be worth a great deal of money. He specifically instructed Jimmy not to play with it and to keep it in a safe place. Jimmy made a promise to do just that. One day Jimmy broke his promise. He disobeyed his father and, while playing with the autographed ball, hit it through a neighbor's window. He immediately apologized to the neighbor, told him he was truly sorry and asked if he would please give him back his ball. The kind man forgave him but said he would not return the ball until his window was replaced. Jimmy then went to his father, confessed his disobedience and told him he was sorry. Jimmy's understanding father forgave his son and agreed to settle the debt with the neighbor.

The priest ended by saying - Jimmy committed one small sin of intentional disobedience. He was sorry, confessed, was forgiven and the debt he incurred for that 'sin' was paid by someone else. Up to that point, in a way, the same is true with us -- when we sin, are truly sorry and confess, we are forgiven and Jesus has paid the price for our sins. Similarly, just as Jimmy's wrong-doing in itself could deprive him of his ball our wrong-doings in themselves could deprive us of Heaven. So next comes that essential part of justice that is judgment.

Jimmy's father was the one to judge Jimmy. He was obviously the one, not only to decide what Jimmy would have to do to make satisfaction for all the damage incurred by his disobedience but it was up to him to decide when Jimmy had complied with all stipulations of that decision and would be entitled to get back his ball.

God will be our judge. He is the one to decide what is required of us to make full and appropriate amends for our sins. Fortunately for us, since God is aware of our needs long, long before we even know they will exist, He both offers ways for us to pay down our spiritual indebtedness while we are still on earth - ("through the penance given in confession, through good works or through indulgences") and, if some personal retribution is still required at the time of our death and immediate judgment, again out of love and understanding, He provides "Purgatory" so that we can regain our entitlement to Heaven.

Although the wrong Jimmy did would fade - almost to the point of disappearance - in comparison to what any of us would need to do to warrant time in Purgatory, I'm sure Rosemarie's priest hoped that by telling Jimmy's story in a parable-like way, he might help her to somewhat better understand "temporal punishment due to sin". She assures me it did. I might add, it also helped me and hopefully it did the same for you.

However, I must insert here that, although Jimmy's story did help me to somewhat understand, I have to admit there are still times when I'm tempted to wish I could somehow rationalize 'temporal punishment still due' out of existence. What's more pathetic is that even at times like that, deep within me where the logic of my mind merges with the conviction of my Faith, I KNOW that God, being God, must and does judge fairly and, since, only He, sees the whole detailed picture of our lives…knows how often, in what ways, with what willingness, to what degree and with what consequences we have sinned…there has to be times when fair judgment dictates 'no way Hell' but 'not yet Heaven'. At times like that (and now I speak in human terms) how heartbreaking it must be for our loving, 'parent' God to impose the 'fair punishment' which circumstances unfortunately demand.

But back to Purgatory -

As to just what Purgatory IS, Heaven only knows. To the best of my knowledge, the Church has never limited Purgatory to a place or space and never declared any specific time-stay - letting us know only that Purgatory will not exist after the Final Judgment. I don't believe we have ever been given an officially detailed description of how we will be purified or cleansed; still the Biblical words 'punishment', 'suffering' and 'fire' should give us cause not to take lightly the consequences of our free-will decisions and give us some incentive to live so as to by-pass Purgatory altogether. For sure that's what God wants us to do. Over and over and over, in the Bible and through the voice of His Church, He sends us that message BUT equally as often He lets us know how we can make that happen by reminding us of how we must live - of what we should or should not do. We are promised that Heaven awaits all of us but God doesn't give us either a free pass or a guarantee because He did give us a free-will and, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us "..our freedom has the power to make choices forever, with no turning back."

However, should Purgatory be our temporary stop-over, we can take great consolation in knowing with absolute certainty that the story of our judgment will be one with a happy ending.

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"Nothing should
frighten or grieve you.
Let not your heart be troubled. Am I, your Mother,
not here with you?"

"Nothing should
frighten or grieve you.
Let not your heart be troubled. Am I, your Mother,
not here with you?"

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