The Church’s teaching on Purgatory also creates much confusion among Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Many view Purgatory as a type of temporary hell, or argue that there is no support in scripture for its existence. However, this mentality is not correct, and there is much proof in sacred scripture for the existence of Purgatory.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines Purgatory as such:
“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. The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned.” (Catechism 1030-1031)
There are two degrees of sin that affect the soul. Sin that kills the life of grace within a soul is labeled mortal sin. Sin that only injures or disfigures the soul is called venial sin. The Church professes that those who die without the least stain of sin or reparation due to sin, go directly to Heaven. Those who die with un-repented mortal sin on their soul, go directly to Hell. However, there are those who although in a state of grace, do have venial sin, or penance yet to be paid for forgiven sin on their soul. It is for those in the state of venial sin, or the “middle ground”, that Purgatory is intended.
Protestants often look at the doctrine of Purgatory as something cruel and unmerciful, that a loving God could not possibly impose. However, the very existence of Purgatory attests to God’s abounding mercy. God wants us to be with Him in Heaven in such a way that He would allow a time of purification and cleansing for the unperfected, so that we have the opportunity to be with Him.
There are many scriptural references that point to the existence of Purgatory. We see in scripture that God is perfect holiness. Isaiah 6:3 states “And one [seraphim] called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts”. In like manner, we are called to the same holiness. Matt. 5:48 - Jesus says, “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Without perfect holiness, we cannot be in the presence of God. Revelation 21:27 says, “nothing unclean shall enter it [heaven]”. If we as God’s faithful are not in a state of perfect holiness we must undergo purification. In Luke 12:58-59 – Jesus teaches us, “If you are to go with your opponent before a magistrate, make an effort to settle the matter on the way; otherwise your opponent will turn you over to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the constable, and the constable throw you into prison. I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny.”
The tradition of praying for souls in Purgatory is a tradition that the Church has adopted, and is one that is revealed in scripture. 2 Maccabees 12: 42-45 says,
“And the noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened because of the sin of those who had fallen. He also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection.”
We can see in this passage that praying for the deceased is beneficial because our prayers aid them in being delivered from their sins. Those in Heaven have no need for our prayers, and those in hell have no hope. Therefore, there must be a middle ground for those still seeking atonement for their earthly sins. We must all pray for the deceased, because our prayers expedite their time in Purgatory. When a soul is in Purgatory, he or she cannot pray for him or herself. Rather, the soul depends on the prayers of his or her fellow brothers and sisters in Christ still on earth, in order to quickly complete the purification process and fulfill their yearning for God.
Indulgences are also beneficial in eliminating one’s time in Purgatory. An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment of sin, whose guilt has already been forgiven. One gains indulgences under particular conditions, by prescription of the Church. There are two types of indulgences: plenary and partial. A plenary (complete) indulgence means the temporal punishment is totally cleansed. A partial indulgence means that some of the temporal punishment is cleansed. For example, both a plenary and partial indulgence is available for praying the rosary provided one completes the following:
- Be in a state of grace (free from mortal sin)
- Be free from attachment to venial sin.
- Go to confession several days before or after praying the Rosary.
- Receive Holy Communion on the day you pray the Rosary.
- Say a prayer for the Pope.
- Pray the rosary in a church or family group, or religious Community.
- Pray the five decades during one session
- Pray vocally, announcing the Mysteries of the Rosary and then meditating on them.
To gain a partial indulgence individuals may pray the rosary in whole or in part.
To understand Purgatory as a “temporary hell” is a serious error. Souls in hell have no hope of salvation. They suffer without an end in sight, or in other words, they suffer hopelessly. Purgatory on the other hand is full of hope. Those in Purgatory are assured of the reward of heaven. They suffer greatly, but they suffer with peace and joy because they know their purification is only bringing them closer to God, so they will soon be united with Him in heaven.