Purgatory. There I’ve said it. Perhaps the most often misunderstood concept in all of Catholicism. It gets a lot of bad press. From outside the Catholic church, as well as from within. Many Catholics grew up with an image of Purgatory as a dark scary place, filled with constant screams for help and naked tortured souls bobbing up and down in pools of molten lava and fire like French fries in a fast food cooker. Scary.
Upon death there is the accepted general belief among Christian faiths that our soul goes for judgment. It is then, based upon our deeds and behaviors in life, that we are destined for either heaven or hell. Those of us who are not saints, myself included but certainly not a cold blooded killer, wonder most where our eternal destiny lies. Fortunately, my Catholic faith teaches me of a transitional place called Purgatory. If I had remained a Methodist, as I was baptized and brought up by my mother, I would be holding my breath in those final moments.
Purgatory is a place of purification. Not a scary realm where we are lost in the deep fryer. Though this concept may be attributed to Saint Ambrose of Milan (c. 340 AD) who wrote, “there is a great baptism of fire at the gates of heaven through which all souls must pass.” And perhaps no doubt reinforced by yard stick wielding nuns.
Saint Catherine of Genoa (1447-1510) was a Catholic mystic who wrote extensively on the role of confession and Purgatory. Following a mystical experience where she reports being led above the skies of Purgatory, she describes it as a place where “the soul willingly accepts the mercy of God, cooperating with Him in allowing His grace to remove sin and all obstacles between ourselves and His eternal love.” Saint Catherine believes “the soul has an awareness that there remains something which displeases God and does not deny Him.”
So we can perhaps understand that Purgatory is first our first transitional state on our eternal journey home to God. Saint Therese Couderc (1805-1885), founder of the Catholic Order of the Sisters of the Cenacle, give an account before her death of a mystical experience she too had of Purgatory. She said she was “shown a place of great mercy and comfort, where souls chanted in unending prayers and hymns. Supplicating to His Divine Majesty, a harmony of faith and hope and love ineffable.”
Still there are those, most Protestant theologies and many doubting Thomas’, who deny or dispel the existence of Purgatory. I try and tell my Protestant friends that even unconsciously their own faiths acknowledge the existence, in the practice of saying prayers for the dead. If the soul had only two options, ascending upon death to heaven- no prayers would be needed for they would be embraced in the eternal mercy and love of God. Sadly the other, hell and damnation would be an eternal separation from God and no amount of prayers could spare or save that soul from that.
So, I look forward to Purgatory. I confess there is within my soul secrets and sins that only the Holy Spirit can cleanse. Purge me of my faults, renew and refresh me within the mercy of God. Let us not be fearful of the mystical place of spiritual purification. Oh and yes, hold the fries please.
Father Wolf is a retired police officer in New Jersey, the pastor of St. Aelred’s Parish, and an Assisting Priest at Saint Miriam Parish and Friary in the Old Catholic Churches International.