Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Purgatory: Service Shop for Heaven

by Fr. Anthony Zimmerman, STD


In this article Fr. Anthony Zimmerman spells out the Catholic doctrine about Purgatory.

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Homiletic & Pastoral Review



Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, June 1999

By no means will any of us enter heaven, or even want to enter there, unless our characters are in perfect shape, and our deficits are paid up in full. Purgatory is the service shop where repair work is done, and where books are balanced. The Poor Souls must wait for entrance into heaven, but they sense God’s assistance while they make their final preparation. They already know what he will say finally: “Well done, good and faithful servant! Enter into the joys of the Lord.” They understand and accept God’s kindness as well as his concern that justice be done. Their tension is pictured, albeit imperfectly, in the drama of God’s meeting with Adam and Eve after their sin.

Adam and Eve, after their transgression, saw their raw nakedness and were ashamed. They fled into the woods to escape a face-to-face encounter with the Lord God. But the Lord God went in search of them, like the Good Shepherd, intending to bring them to a better state of mind:

Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons. And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of thee in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” Then the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent beguiled me, and I ate” Gen. 3:7-13).

Note how the Lord God took the initiative to draw near to Adam and Eve, like the Good Samaritan who paused in his journey to rescue a victim of robbers. The victim lay there helpless, have alive, half dead. If God had not come to the rescue of Adam and Eve, they would have remained alienated from him forever. It is a picture of life after death, when we will indeed be alive in mind, but dead in body, unable to move about on our own. We will be totally at the mercy of God. When God finishes with the Particular Judgment, he will direct us to join him in heaven, or to depart from him in hell, or to repair our condition in purgatory.

God asked our first parents, first of all, what they had done. They should get insight and confess voluntarily, with conviction. He will not force them to act, nor impose alien views. They must bare themselves to recognize the evil they had done. Seeing the truth, they must convert. Adam stuttered through his confession, making excuses, but finally stating his sin with the happy three words: “I ate it.” Eve had an excuse too, but she also brought herself to make the confession. The Lord God then gave them their penances. They must convert, and thereafter stabilize and seal this conversion by enduring pain and hardships. Eve must accept the realities of created womanhood instead of trying to remake herself into a goddess. Adam must cope with thorns and thistles and perspire from hard labor, to obey God rather than caving in to a seductive partner. Both are then banned from the sight of God’s face for a number of years. God showed his concern by providing sturdy leather clothes when exposing them to the climate outside of Eden. Their penance was of long duration: “Thus all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years, and he died” (Gen. 5:5). They persevered, nevertheless, as we can gather from the Bible. When the time was right, after Christ’s Re demp tion, they would be readmitted into God’s presence. The Book of Wisdom states, for example:

Wisdom protected the first formed father of the world when he alone had been created and she delivered him from his transgression, and gave him strength to rule all things (Wis. 1:1-2).

Saint Irenaeus (125-203) upholds Adam and Eve as models for us because they not only stood up after their Fall, but they made their experience with sin into a stepping stone toward subsequent growth. Thus, with the help of God, they turned evil into their own good. Irenaeus blames Gnostics for not giving our Adam due honor: “But those who deny salvation to Adam gain nothing by this except that they make themselves to be heretics and apostates from the truth, and show that they are advocates of the serpent and death” (Against Heretics III, 23, 8).

We know not how long some souls are detained in purgatory, but we do know that when they emerge from the darkness into the light of God’s presence, they are perfect. Every angle is perfect. Every facet is clear, like cut and mounted diamonds. The dazzling beam of God’s light renders them incandescent without causing pain, resistance, or distortion. His light now lights up the thousand angles of their rich characters developed via life’s experiences. The wealth of their talents reflects his light into brilliant rainbow colors. The saints are all lovely in their beauty. Swept up by the Spirit, they flow with elation in the stream of God’s love for himself. Like Moses, they jubilate in the endless wealth of the I AM, of God’s boundless love, truth, and beauty, of essential Splendor pulsing with Life:

The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abound ing in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation (Gen. 34:6-7).

The blessed participate not only in God’s affirmation of himself, they also affirm themselves and their company with his approval. They luxuriate in their friendship with Christ first of all:

The blessed see in God, in the Word, also the holy humanity which the Son assumed for our salvation. They contemplate the hypostatic union, the plenitude of grace, of glory, and of charity in the holy soul of Jesus. They see the infinite value of His theandric acts, of the mystery of the Redemp tion. They see the radiations of that Redeemer: the infinite value of each Mass, the supernatural vitality of the mystical body, of the Church, triumphant, suffering, and militant. They see with admiration what belongs to Christ, as priest for all eternity, as judge of the living and the dead, as universal king of all creatures, as father of the poor (Garrigou-Lagrange, in Life Everlasting, Tan Books, 1991, pp. 228-9).

They salute also the Mother of God who meets them as Queen and as Mother, managing to be both at once. With the other beatified they join the celebration of joy, a fortissimo of what Beethoven strove to express it in his Ninth Symphony. Lagrange observes that they also reach out to help those who are still on the way:

Parents know the spiritual needs of their children who are still in this world. A friend, reaching the end of his course, knows now to facilitate the voyage of friends who address themselves to him. St. Cyprian speaks thus: “All our friends who have arrived wait for us. They desire vividly that we participate in their beatitude, and are full of solicitude in our regard” (Lagrange, 229).

The main doctrines about purgatory, the station before heaven for those not using the express lane, are presented in the Catechism of the Catholic Church as follows:

1030 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.

1031 The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Coun cils of Florence and Trent. The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scrip ture, speaks of a cleansing fire:

As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgement, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offences can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come.

1032 This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture: “Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.” From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may at tain the beatific vision of God. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead:

Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.

I like to think that we might be able to regulate the pace of our cleansing process in purgatory in accordance with our own choice, at least to some extent. The Lord does not, I think, burn out our rust there with precision-automated furnaces. He is a Good Shepherd who comforts lost sheep on his shoulders. He is not a tyrant who knows no love. With that thought in mind, we are not wrong, I believe, in hoping that God will allow us to regulate somewhat the intensity of the cleansing pro cess in purgatory, whether we wish hurry via concentrated effort, or amble along in more leisurely fashion. Wisdom describes God as one who is considerate and kind:

Thou sparest all things, for they are thine, O Lord who lovest the living. For thy immortal spirit is in all things. Therefore thou dost correct little by little those who trespass, and dost remind and warn them of the things wherein they sin, that they be freed from wickedness and put their trust in thee, O Lord (Wis. 11:26; 12:1-2).

After all, if we have made our spirits bitter by harboring for decades an unforgiving spite against one who has wronged us, we will need to correct that cicatrized misgrowth in purgatory. We may want some time before we abandon our folly and agree to accept God’s bargain-sale offer: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespassed against us.” We will have to convert ourselves, turn ourselves around, make a U-turn, from hating that neighbor to loving him, from despising him to honoring him, from turning away from him to turning toward him. Some may want to hang onto their spite longer than others, be fore yielding to the gentle call of grace; before embracing the wisdom articulated by Sirach: “Does a man harbor anger against another, and yet seek for healing from the Lord?” (28:3).

If we were stubborn on earth and held out against the truth, we will likely carry this baggage of stubbornness right into purgatory. We may even harbor it foolishly for who knows how long. Until we relax and relent and re pent, we are not fit for heaven. We may cling to our spite for a while, even at the cost of suffering for it. As Sirach says about the passion of anger: “In proportion to the fuel for the fire, so will be the flames, and in proportion to the obstinacy of strife, will be the burning” (Sir ach 28:10). Fortunately, we can convert in purgatory without being embarrassed before the neighbors, which might make it easier to convert there than here. Our neighbors in purgatory are all like ourselves. All try to purge out the old leaven, and put on Christ’s newness:

For Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth (1 Cor. 5:7).

Martyrs escape the need of any cleansing in purgatory because they have already given witness that God is supreme in their lives. Nothing stands between them and God be cause they paid the price of their witness with their lives. For others there are various means of doing penance for sins in this life, and we may believe that the souls in purgatory have some choice in selecting penance in accord ance with conditions of the soul now separated from the body.

Adam bit the bullet by confessing to the Lord: “The woman whom thou gavest to me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate it” (Gen. 3:32). Married partners tend to sin with each other when they contracept. Contraception, abortion, sterilization—these are grave matters, often aggravated by the malice of collusion or seduction. If done with sufficient knowledge and freedom, these acts bar the soul from admission to the Holy City:

But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their lot shall be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death (Rev 21:8).

Contraception and sterilization, do they bar us from heaven?

The issue of contraception is not peripheral, but central and serious in a Catholic’s walk with God. If knowingly and freely engaged in, contraception is a grave sin (Archbishop of Denver, Charles Chaput, pastoral letter July 22, 1998).

The Archbishop of Denver said nothing new in that sentence. This is the constant and unchang ing teaching of the Church. We may think the doctrine is out of fashion on earth now, but we will not think so after death. Changeless truths of eternity are not altered by the roller-coaster fashion changes of hu man society. If people arrive in eternity while in the state of grave sin, their sad lot is set forever. Even if they protest innocence, or shout that the commandment was impossible to keep, their anger avails them nothing. The Wise Man said: “If you will you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice” (Sirach 15:15). The door to heaven does not open to the foolish who were not watchful:

Afterward the other maidens came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But he replied, “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.” Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour (Matt. 25:11-13).

Conversion from mortal sin is possible before death, but it is not possible after death. An act of perfect contrition before death can cleanse the soul of mortal sin. It means complete conversion to God’s way of life, it means a rejection of the deed of mortal sin, and it includes a resolve to confess when possible and not to sin again. All of this is to be done in perfect love for God with grace infused by him into our souls. The easier and more secure way is to confess the sin to a priest in the confessional, much as Adam and Eve confessed to God in Eden. Christ is marvelously kind and generous to those who confess their sins. As the CCC teaches:

1496 The spiritual effects of the sacrament of Penance are:

— reconciliation with God by which the penitent recovers grace;

— reconciliation with the Church;

— remission of the eternal punishment in curred by mortal sins;

— remission, at least in part, of temporal punishments resulting from sin;

— peace and serenity of conscience, and spiritual consolation;

— an increase of spiritual strength for the Chris tian battle.

1497 Individual and integral confession of grave sins followed by absolution remains the only ordinary means of reconciliation with God and with the Church.

Satisfaction done during this life for sins has the added value of merit toward a higher reward in heaven. In purgatory, however, souls do not gain new merit when they offer satisfaction for their sins, so most theologians tend to believe. The wiser move is to get on with our full conversion here, in this life. Here the yoke is easy and the burden is light (cf. Matt. 11:30, but there the yoke will be more galling, and the burden heavier, so many spiritual writers warn. Moreover, de spite the harder burden, no new merit is ac quired. The CCC lists good penitential means as follows:

1434 The interior penance of the Christian can be expressed in many and various ways. Scripture and the Fathers insist above all on three forms, fasting, prayer and almsgiving, which express conversion in relation to oneself, to God and to others. Alongside the radical purification brought about by Baptism or martyrdom they cite as means of obtaining forgiveness of sins: efforts at reconciliation with one’s neighbor, tears of repentance, concern for the salvation of one’s neighbor, the intercession of the saints and the practice of charity “which covers a multitude of sins.”

A powerful detergent to purify oneself from remnants of contraception and sterilization is periodic abstinence. Long-term offenders who, in penance, abstain periodically for some months can heal their marriages and renovate their personal spiritual lives. The master of the vineyard gave the same full day’s wage to those who started working at the eleventh hour as to those who started in the morning. Repenting couples thereby prove to themselves that natural family planning is indeed possible and that contraception was never necessary. They bear witness to God, though belatedly, that his laws against these practices are proper.

Do souls in purgatory have to struggle to rectify their lives? Very likely, yes. Deeply imbedded dispositions of sin may re quire some extra mending time in purgatory:

When sin is remitted by grace, the soul is no longer turned away from God, but it can retain a defective disposition. . . . Do these dispositions remain in the separated souls? Yes. They are like rust, penetrating at times to the depths of the intelligence and the will. Does this rust disappear suddenly upon entrance into Purgatory? Some theologians think so, because an intense act of charity can immediately take away these evil dispositions.

Now we do not find this answer in St. Thomas, but rather its contrary. He says . . . “The rigor of suffering corresponds properly speaking to the gravity of the fault, and the duration of the suffering corresponds to the rootedness which the sin has in the subject” (IV Sent., dist. 21,q. a. 3). Now uprooting is generally a long process, demanding a long affliction or a long penance (Lagrange, 182).

Nevertheless, the Poor Souls do want to get themselves purged, so they accept the pains willingly even as they hurt. “The more this suffering penetrates the depth of their will, the more lovingly they accept it. Egoism, selfishness, the rust of sin, is burned away, and charity reigns without rival in the depths, rooted there forever” (Lagrange, 183). Peace grows as charity clears away the obstacles: “No peace is comparable to that of the souls of purgatory except that of the saints in heaven. This peace grows as hindrances disappear. As the rust disappears, the soul reflects more and more perfectly the true sun, which is God. And its happiness grows in the same measure” (Lagrange, 182, quoting St. Catherine of Genoa).

We can help the Poor Souls in purgatory to obtain a quick rectification of character and to telescope their penance into reduced time. God works this favor for them gladly in answer to our earnest efforts. We have confidence that God even helps the souls to convert instantly and that he forgives unpaid debts with a jubilee generosity in response to our prayers, especially through the offering of Holy Mass. We know from our own experience in life that a break with sin can be dramatic. God helps us to do with ease what we had thought was undoable. “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will” (Prov. 21:1). God can turn the heart as he wills. We can forgive when he floods our wills with grace. We can stand up on spindly legs like the Prodigal Son and say “I will return to the house of my father.” We are electrified, we walk on air, we are ourselves again. If God helps us to do this on earth so dramati cally, we trust that he likewise helps the Poor Souls to do so in response to our intercessions.

An experienced priest friend used to say: “Show me a person who prays for the Poor Souls, and you show me one who has great faith.” How very pleasing it must be for our dear ones in purgatory to know that we generously offer alms, prayers, penances, and especially the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for their quick release. Lest we forget, we do them immense favors by gaining indulgences. This opens for them the largess of the treasury of the Church through a very special response to the intercessory prayer of indulgences. The CCC teaches:

1498 Through indulgences the faithful can obtain the remission of temporal punishment resulting from sin for themselves and also for the souls in Purgatory.

A ninety-three-year-old religious sister delighted visitors with this enthusiastic as sess ment of purgatory: “The Poor Souls are so happy they are saved,” she rhapsodized, “that they don’t mind the pains. They jump up and down and celebrate with incredible joy, shouting over and over: ‘We made it! We made it!’” Within a year she herself entered the next life. St. Catherine of Genoa harbored a similar insight: “Souls in Purgatory unite great joy with great suffering. One does not diminish the other” (see Lagrange, 167).

The Lord approves with joy, and heaven goes ablaze with fireworks, each time a re leased Poor Soul soars swiftly upward, buoyed on the wings of our prayers. We pray: May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

Reverend Anthony Zimmerman is Professor Emeri tus of moral theology, Nanzan University, Nagoya, Japan. He promotes Natural Family Planning and publishes books and articles. His two latest books are: Original Sin: Where Doc trine Meets Science, and The Religion of Adam and Eve. They are available from Vantage Press, 516 West 34th St., New York, N.Y. 10001. His last article in HPR appeared in June 1996.

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