What is the Purpose of Purgatory?
At my friend’s funeral, many people said we should rejoice because my friend was in heaven now with Jesus. Whatever happened to purgatory? Shouldn’t I pray for my friend to go to heaven instead of assuming she is already there? How can we best continue to love and care for people after they have died? — Kate
Well, you’re right. Who talks about purgatory these days? For that matter, who talks about heaven and hell … especially hell? My guess is that our thoughts about heaven and hell are as confused as those about purgatory. To understand heaven and hell and purgatory, we need to think hard about God’s justice and mercy.
The Church’s thinking today about purgatory has its roots in the Hebrew Scriptures as well as in the New Testament. Convinced of the richness of this teaching, Pope Benedict XVI wrote about it beautifully in his 2007 encyclical on hope, Saved in Hope (Spe Salvi). I confess that most of what I’ll say here is inspired by what he wrote.
Every human being longs to be perfectly united with the one she or he loves. We believe and hope that such perfect union will be experienced with God, the only one truly capable of fully satisfying the longing of our hearts. We know from history (and maybe during our own lifetime) that there are human beings who in this life seem to have experienced that full union of love with God. Jesus Christ is the prime example, of course, but we also know of great saints who have had that experience. All of them, without exception, came to it through great suffering. They suffered in different ways, but the greatest suffering of all was the process of stripping away every last remnant of self-seeking, illusion, and untruth that could act as an obstacle to the God who wanted to take full hold of them in love. Complete union with God is possible only if we open every part of our being to that kind of healing and saving love.
Most of us don’t think of ourselves in the same category as those great saints. We muddle along, generally wanting this kind of relationship with God, but at times holding back, taking detours, finding other satisfactions (which can only be temporary). Of course, there are some who seem to have decided in the depths of their being that they have no interest in a relationship with God and in fact do everything they can to deny and denigrate him. Admittedly, that’s hard to imagine, but if God made us free, then we have to think that it’s possible. History also provides examples of people who appear to have made such a choice. By the grace of God, most of us don’t see ourselves in that category either. So what happens to us ordinary mortals when we die?
Well, doesn’t it stand to reason that God wouldn’t banish us to hell just because we tended to “muddle” … even muddle seriously? Doesn’t it also stand to reason that our hearts are still not ready to experience the fullness of love that God is prepared to have us experience? The partial blindness needs to be healed before we can see clearly. The dross needs to be burned away, as it was burned away during the lifetime of those great saints. Judaism imagined that such purification would take place in an intermediate state after death, and the Christian Scriptures seem to allude to such an intermediate state in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (see Luke 16:19–31) and in the purifying fire St. Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 3:12–15, a fire that burns away all of our idols and illusions so that we can be fully saved in God.
We get into trouble in our thinking about purgatory when we try to image what that “intermediate state” looks like or how long it lasts. Who knows? It certainly doesn’t look like anything you or I have ever seen. And since we will not live in time after death as we do here on Earth, what sense does it make to wonder how long one might have to remain in this state of purification we call purgatory?
If I make it to purgatory, I’m going to be one happy person! For that reason, at every Christian funeral, there is some cause for rejoicing. Christ has conquered death, and that’s reason enough. But when we are confident that a person has sought to grow while alive in his or her relationship with God, then even if the person must subsequently undergo some purification, we can trust that he or she is in God’s hands. Is it appropriate to continue to pray for that person? Pope Benedict gets into this as well (see paragraph 48).
The Church has another beautiful teaching regarding the close relationship that exists among all believers, dead and alive. We believe in the “communion of saints.” We continue to be united in love with friends and family members who have died, we continue to long for their well-being, we continue to be grateful to them for what they have meant for us, and we continue to rejoice with them for the glory they enjoy. Whatever this intermediate state implies for our beloved deceased, we want to remain united with them in love. That’s what “praying for the deceased” means.