Purgatory is probably one of the most misunderstood Catholic doctrines today, and many do not believe that it really exists. In this article I'm briefly going to cover what purgatory is, the biblical foundation for purgatory, and the history of the teaching on purgatory in the Catholic Church. I will not specifically cover in detail prayer for the dead or indulgences, which you can read about here: 20 Ways to Pray for the Holy Souls in Purgatory.
WHAT IS PURGATORY?
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), purgatory is a “final purification” (CCC 1031) which is afforded to “all who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified” so that they might “achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” (CCC 1030).
This is why the souls in purgatory are called "Holy Souls" . . . they have died in God's grace and they will attain heaven and the beatific vision of God after their purification is complete.
Essentially this means that purgatory is a sort of temporary purifying punishment which is typically thought of as a cleansing fire (see 1 Cor. 3:15). This begs the question, is purgatory a sort of physical, fiery place full of souls? Not necessarily. I would think of purgatory as more of a state of being. A state of being post mortal death but before the final judgment of Christ at the Second Coming.
WHAT DOES THE CHURCH TEACH ABOUT PURGATORY?
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “the Church formulated her doctrine of faith on purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent” (CCC 1031). If you know your Church history, then you know that those councils weren’t until the 15th and 16th centuries. So what was believed and taught before those councils?
Early Church Fathers, including St. Augustine, Origen, and St. Clement were all advocates of prayer for the dead and a purging away of sin post death. There was also a practice in the early Church of praying for the dead during liturgical worship and during the Eucharistic prayer. So, praying for the souls of the departed was a part of the faith and belief of the Church from the beginning.
Over the years, these ideas were unpacked and more clearly defined by St. Thomas Aquinas, who expounded on purgatory in greater depth thereby guiding the Church into infallible magisterial doctrine on purgatory.
WHAT IS THE BIBLICAL FOUNDATION OF PURGATORY?
Many who wish to find mention of purgatory in the Bible point to the previously referenced 1 Cor. 3:15 and 2 Macc. 12:45. 2 Maccabees is an early reference to praying for the dead, and 1 Cor. is the foundational verse advocating a cleansing fire that occurs after death.
1 Cor. 3:15: "If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire."
2 Macc. 12:45: "But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, so that they might be delivered from their sin."
Side Note: Rev. 21:27 argues that nothing unclean will enter the presence of God; and many, if not most, of Christians die in an unclean state of varying degrees.
WHY IS PURGATORY NECESSARY?
Many Christians die with attachments to sin that must be gotten rid of before they can be united with God in a perfect union of love through all eternity. Purgatory is removing this attachment to sin so that people can love God alone, and of course this can be painful. Just as in your mortal life giving up things to which we have unhealthy attachments causes pain, so too will purgatory cause pain. But it is a purification for our good, not a torment for our punishment.
Therefore, a temporary period of purging is necessary in order to enjoy the presence and beauty of God that we were made for, whether we willingly undertake that purging while here on earth, through docility to the daily crosses given to us by God, or whether after death in purgatory.
WHERE CAN I LEARN MORE?
To learn more about purgatory, check out our purgatory books. One of our most popular books about purgatory is Hungry Souls - Supernatural Visits, Messages, and Warnings from Purgatory. This book recounts real stories of real encounters with souls suffering in purgatory as well as images taken from the Vatican's "Museum of Purgatory" which is a museum of authentic and verified relics of encounters with the Holy Souls.
Pray for the Holy Souls!
The Prayer for the Holy Souls in Purgatory by St. Gertrude the Great is a famous prayer for the souls of purgatory. According to tradition, Our Lord told St. Gertrude in a vision that reciting the following prayer with love and devotion will release many souls from purgatory:
"Eternal Father, I offer Thee the Most Precious Blood of Thy Divine Son, Jesus, in union with the masses said throughout the world today, for all the holy souls in Purgatory, for sinners everywhere, for sinners in the universal church, those in my own home and within my family. Amen."
This article has been updated and was originally published in October 2012. © The Catholic Company. All rights reserved.