Thursday, March 13, 2008

Ask Father: How long are you in Purgatory?

How long are you in Purgatory and how many sins does it take to get into it?

This is certainly an interesting question. The answer involves the nature of the "afterlife" and also reveals I think a certain way of looking at our relationship with God that is more juridical than relational. So, first, what is Purgatory?

Well, this is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says about the afterlife:

1023. Those who die in God's grace and friendship and are perfectly purified live for ever with Christ. They are like God for ever, for they "see him as he is," face to face.

1024. This perfect life with the Most Holy Trinity - this communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary, the angels and all the blessed - is called "heaven." Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness.

So, we are all destined for Heaven, for perfect unity with God. But, many times, when our earthly life has ended, we are not in a state of "perfect purification" as the Catechism puts it, yet we are also not people who have rejected God in our lives, certainly have not earned Hell.

So, what happens then? This is where Purgatory comes in. Again, the Catechism:

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 Councils of Florence and Trent. The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire.

Purgatory has sometimes been portrayed in art and literature throughout the ages as a place of some torment, as though the purification we undergo there is painful. Here's what I think. If there is any pain there it is the pain of separation from God. We, in our heart of hearts, want nothing more than to be with God forever - this is what we were created for. So, in Purgatory we remain separated from the perfect unity with God that we will experience in Heaven, and in that is some pain. But, Purgatory is one-way. It is heading to Heaven, and that is great news.

How many sins do you have to commit to end up there? Not really a great question, and not one that can really be answered. It's like saying, "How many stains do I have to have on my tuxedo or dress before they won't let me into the ball?" The simple answer is whatever amount it takes to make us unready to be in perfect union with God. Our desire should be to be ready to be in His presence in Heaven. If that takes some Purgatory, so be it.

How long are you in Purgatory? That has two answers. The first is very philosophical - you're there for "no time" at all, meaning time is part of creation. We cannot help but think of things in terms of time - a now, a before, an after. Time is not part of eternity. So, we're not in there (don't get me going on where "there" is) for any time. But, we remain in Purgatory until we are purified and ready for Heaven.

Dont' forget something very important though. We've lost a tradition in our Catholic culture of praying for those in Purgatory. This is so important. Don't forget the souls in Purgatory and pray for them every day. Perhaps through our prayers, they will soon be ready for Heaven. And perhaps when our time comes, if we reach Purgatory ourselves before our final journey to Heaven, someone will pray for us.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Fr. Thank you for the great article. I linked it to my web site on Purgatory at Holy Souls Online.