There are a number of things that distinguish Catholics from Protestant Christians. One of these things is a belief in purgatory.
Protestants think that simply accepting Jesus Christ as their savior (Solus Christus, Sola fide) guarantees that they will go to straight to heaven. Catholic Doctrine, however, says there are no guarantees.
Purgatory might best be described as an in-between state or place, so to speak, where some or even many souls go before they get to heaven. A lot of people do not understand purgatory, however, because it is rarely talked about. It’s not a real popular topic for homilies either.
Many Catholics probably assume that they will have no choice but to end up ‘doing time’ in purgatory. They live their lives as if purgatory is a foregone conclusion, and there is no way to avoid it. But there is a path that leads straight to heaven: If we can live saintly lives here on earth, which is what we are meant to do, purgatory won’t be a mandatory stopover for us on the way to heaven.
Catholic Teaching on purgatory is succinctly explained in 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:
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 then says that this teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, mentioned in Sacred Scripture, and that the “Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead.”
So purgatory is not so much a punishment or a second chance, but rather a place or state where a soul is purified so as to be able to enter heaven and stand before God. Purgatory might even be looked upon as yet another gift of God’s love.
Over the years I have grown in my relationship with God to the point where I began to pray daily for my purgatory here on earth, in this life. I think of St. Paul who said in Philippians 1:21-23: “For to me life is Christ, and death is gain. If I go on living in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. And I do not know which I shall choose. I am caught between the two. I long to depart this life and be with Christ, [for] that is far better.”
When I was in my twenties and early thirties, my spiritual life was very basic. It consisted of pretty ordinary things, like going to church on Sunday, giving to the collection, going to confession when I felt like it, and saying some prayers and reading some scripture. My spiritual life was not really based on becoming a certain kind of person or on finding a path to grow or mature spiritually. Instead it was solely based on what I did.
My walk with God was almost like a kind of employer/employee relationship. If I did certain things all the time, God would make sure that somehow I wouldn’t go to hell, but that I would end up in heaven. And for a lot of people, this may be the way they live out their faith as well. But there is so much more to walking with God then just a basic 9 to 5 routine. What I discovered is that how I was living was not good enough because I was not truly alive.
Forgiving Sins and Sinners
As a young man I went to confession quite frequently, but maybe not for all of the right reasons. There were certain habitual sins in my life that kept reoccurring and causing me to feel guilty. This resulted in my seeking out the sacrament of reconciliation for the same things over and over, so much so that I became embarrassed! I began to drive out of town to find a church that I had not been to, just so I could confess to a priest who did not know me!
One time during confession, I finally told the priest all of this and when I had finished, he said, ‘You must realize, that Christ not only forgives sins, but he also forgives sinners.’ The priest went on to explain how forgiveness of sins is like the prodigal son coming home, whereas the forgiveness of sinners is like the prodigal son staying home. In other words, forgiving the sin changes how one stands before God in regards to a certain sin, but forgiving the sinner is more of a conversion that takes place inside of a person which prevents those sins from being committed anymore. Any change that is going to occur and endure must have an element of conversion contained within it.
I began to pray that I could experience true conversion deep down inside where it really matters. In addition, I started to make a more concentrated effort to relate to God, not just as a homework assignment, but in my life here on planet earth. I made a practice to memorize certain bible verses such as: “But store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be” (Matthew 6:20-21), and “Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man” (Luke: 21:36).
Verses such as these taught me certain things about my spiritual growth and development. I realized that following Christ is more than just a set of requirements and heaven is more than just an eventual destination. Rather, following Christ is a relationship that involves my entire person, one that receives His entire person in return. Heaven is not simply my eventual destination but my personal destiny and the fulfillment of my being.
Laying up Treasures in Heaven
I began to focus on more than just doing penance for the sin of the moment. Additionally, I try to focus on giving of myself as Jesus gave of Himself. I also began to realize that laying up treasures in heaven was more than just being rewarded for doing good. It was a much deeper union with God because of a greater capacity to love.
Eventually I began to grow spiritually in ways that produced a longing to be with God. Everyday life became a new opportunity to desire union with God above all else. I began to learn the true meaning of self-sacrifice and self-denial. I took notice of the examples set by St. Therese of Lisieux and St. Theresa of Calcutta, and focused on the little things of everyday life that come our way. Nothing is too small if done out of love for God. I realized that learning to love God with all of my heart and soul and mind and strength is possible if I allow the Holy Spirit to work inside me.
Praying for Purgatory Here on Earth
I now realize, as I meditate on who I really am, that I do not obey naturally and normally all of the time without giving temptation or disobedience a passing thought. Even if I am staying free of mortal sin, I still seem very capable of venial sin without much forethought at all. That kind of person, that expression of self, cannot live in heaven. But it can be purified and prepared for heaven.
I have begun to experience that process right here and right now. I pray every day for my purgatory here on earth according to God’s will. Even if I do not completely avoid the purification process in the life to come, that does not mean I cannot work towards that goal.
I practice things like daily mass and frequent reception of the Eucharist, along with Adoration. I also have masses said for those who have passed on, especially those who may be in purgatory with nobody to pray for them. Remember what Jesus said, “The measure with which you measure will be measured out to you” (Matthew 7:2).
I believe that the love I give to God and to others out of love for God will be returned to me. Since I cannot outdo divine love or God’s grace in generosity, just maybe, by doing things like having masses said for others, especially those who might be forgotten by everyone else, God will take this into account for me.
I now spend extra time in Eucharistic Adoration, where Jesus is really and truly present, and I pray that I might not be temporarily separated from him in purgatory. And I pray to become more saintly, so that in the end, I may not need purgatory at all. I pray that before my life is over, I will have learned to love the way they do in heaven. If I can, maybe I can skip purgatory and go straight to heaven.