Purgatory is more a process than a place
Catholics are always asked where purgatory in in the Bible; here’s the answer . . .
Though most popular imagery presupposes purgatory as a “place,” it is better to think about it in terms of “process.”
Our journey to heaven begins on earth. But if heaven is a place of mutual and unhampered love between God and human beings, then it appears that most of us end our earthly journey as flawed lovers, still inept at deep and sustained love. The purification begun on earth continues until we are rendered completely fit for eternal union with God.
Someone might object, “But aren’t we forgiven in Christ? What remains to be done?” Forgiven, yes; transformed, not yet. While God loves us the way we are right now, he loves us too much to let us stay that way. He accepts us where we are in order to move us to where he is.
We often die with an unhealthy attachment to sin. At the hour of our death, our souls may not be fully fixed on evil but neither are they fully fixed on the perfections of God. We aren’t unrepentant, just unperfected.
How are we to enter heaven in which can dwell no unclean thing (Rev 21:27)? How are we to dwell with a God whose eyes are too pure to behold iniquity (Heb, 4:13, Lev 11:44, 1 Pet 1:16)? How are we to enjoy fellowship with a God infinite in perfections when we lack perfection (Mt 5:48)?
We might compare purgatory — or the final purification as I like to call it — to the antechamber of heaven. Imagine that you, a lame beggar, have received an invitation to the king’s wedding supper. The invitation specifies that you arrive healthy, clean and in your best attire. The king’s mansion is far away and can only be reached over perilous terrain. You fear you don’t have the stamina, wardrobe or courage to present yourself successfully.
Nevertheless, the king has called you. So you set off, growing in anticipation of intimate communion with the king and his guests. Along the way, your travel is full of travail. Yet it strengthens you. The rigorous exercise rids you of a respiratory condition you feared might disqualify you, and your atrophied leg begins to generate new muscle. The mud and briars, however, ruin your best clothes.
When you arrive, the king’s steward looks at the invitation and, pleased, says, “I can see you are in the king’s good graces.” He tries to usher you in for inspection before you are seated, but you demur. “Is there a place,” you ask, “where I can shower and wash my clothes?”
The steward says, “Of course. We’ve provided all you need.” He then lays out bathing oils and the robes you are to wear. Before you know it, you are indeed fit for a king.
As John Paul II taught: “Life’s earthly journey has an end which, if a person reaches it in friendship with God, coincides with the first moment of eternal bliss. Even if in that passage to heaven the soul must undergo the purification of the last impurities through purgatory, it is already filled with light, certitude, and joy because the person knows that he belongs forever to God” (General Audience, July 3, 1991).
AL KRESTA is CEO of Ave Maria Communications and host of Kresta in the Afternoon. Reprinted with permission from his book “Why Do Catholics Genuflect?” St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2001.
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 attain the beatific vision of God. The Church also commends alms-giving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead.
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.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, # 1032, 1030