“Ask a Priest: Why Is There Purgatory?”

Q:  My friend who is not Catholic does not understand why we pray for the poor souls. I explained about atonement and why we go to purgatory. What else can I say to him? – D.W.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: We pray and sacrifice for the poor souls because our efforts can help get them into heaven faster. Our efforts can merit a reduction in the temporal punishment still due to the venial sins they committed while on earth.

A way to explain temporal punishment might be this: Image that, by your negligence, you put a soccer ball through your neighbor’s front window. You then go to your neighbor and beg her forgiveness, which she extends. She forgives your destructive act of negligence.

But then there is the matter of the broken window. Out of justice you need to replace it somehow. This is like temporal punishment. It isn’t out of vengeance that your neighbor asks you to pay for the glass; it is a simple demand of justice. There is a balance to be restored.

When a soul dies with unforgiven venial sins or with temporal punishment still to be paid off, it has to make up for these debts. That is partly what purgatory is about. For every soul that enters heaven must be purified first.

Now, the souls in purgatory “pay off” what they owe through a pain of purification. The souls in purgatory can also get help from us on earth. Hence, we pray for the dead.

We pray for the dead out of a sense of hope and humility — hope because we desire that they are saved, humility because we usually can’t be sure that they are in heaven yet.

A few numbers are worth quoting from the Catechism:

“III. THE FINAL PURIFICATION, OR PURGATORY

“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:

“As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come.

“1032 This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture: ‘Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.’ 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 almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead: ‘Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.'” [end quoted material]

Not everyone has to go purgatory, by the way. People who die in a perfect state of grace will go to heaven immediately after death.

You and your friend might watch our Retreat Guide on the Four Last Things, “Fire of Mercy.”

I hope some of this helps.

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