Every family has its secrets, things they are embarrassed to talk about. For Catholics, especially those in the West, purgatory can seem like one of those secrets. The idea of an in-between state of being, in which suffering souls wait in purifying fire for Masses and prayers from the land of the living to help them pay off their debts due to past sins, appears uncomfortably medieval. Besides, isn’t Christ’s love enough to bring about our redemption?
Purgatory is also often associated with the abuse of indulgences in the Middle Ages. Clerics profited by selling indulgences, or remission from temporal punishment, for both the living and the dead. Time in purgatory could be shortened if the price was right. While indulgences played a minor role in the Reformation, purgatory is often cited as the main culprit in the tragic schism in the Western church. Indeed, misconceptions about purgatory abound. It has become ecumenically problematic and theologically archaic.
But I am convinced it is time for purgatory to make a come back. In discussing death after the Resurrection, especially during this Easter season, there is no teaching that has the potential to charge the imagination with more hope for communion here and beyond.
From Death to Life
After Christ rose from the dead, death remained, but no longer as a dead end to be feared. In conquering death, Christ imbued it with the potential to become a pathway that extends into new life. “New life” does not mean a clean break from the earthly life before death. Rather, our sins and traumas along with our virtues and joys continue to show their marks on us, but in a transformative way that drives us more deeply into the fullness of life as communion. In God, nothing is lost.
For Catholics, purgatory best expresses this transformative continuation of the life before and after death. It is God’s act of mercy that bridges past, present and future and brings every potential for fuller life into actuality. Purgatory is filled with pastoral potential, and it would be a travesty not to tap into such richness.
Ancient Tradition and Much More
The Catholic Church has long taught that purgatory is a doctrine to be held by all Catholics. It has deep roots in both Scripture and the teachings of the saints, and received its concrete form in the 11th century, and was reaffirmed strongly at the Council of Trent.
At its core, the doctrine of purgatory recognizes the integrity of the bonds of relationships formed before death. We all have unfinished business in our lives. We could have taken better care of our elderly parents. We could have embraced our hurting son or daughter a little more, a little longer. We could have said, “I love you,” one last time—or at least for the first time—before the tragic accident. We could have paid more attention, reached out one more time, instead of giving up and withdrawing. We should have risked more, gone the extra mile and tried just that much harder.
The lingering “coulds” and “shoulds,” questions, doubts and regrets, continue to haunt us, and we wish we could turn back time to work out all our unfinished business.
Purgatory assures us that there is no need to do so. What we do now continues to affect our relationships with the deceased, and how we choose to remember and honor these relationships affects our sense of gratitude, purpose and hope in this life. The church prescribes prayers, rituals and acts of charity to bring healing to both the living and the dead. Purgatory is not about achieving “closure” but about finding strength in continuity.
Faith in Relationships
Catholics believe that in Christ the bond of our communion holds even between the living and the dead. All who died in Christ are alive in Christ. The “unfinished business” that we have with them, and they with us, cannot remain forever unfinished. Our ongoing communion means that the questions, doubts and regrets that mark our relationships continue to be worked out.
The church’s encouragement of memory and prayer for those who have died, including “almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance” on their behalf (Catechism, No. 1032), speaks to this continuity. The comfort that our prayers offer our loved ones in the afterlife also comforts us, just as we share their suffering, as St. Paul wrote: “If one member [of Christ’s Body] suffers, all suffer together” (1 Cor 12:26). And if we are called to pray for them, may we not also continue to hope in their prayers for us and take consolation from their ongoing, intimate involvement in our lives? And who but Christ himself continues to hold all in communion, one that death itself cannot destroy. In Christ, relationships continue to heal and deepen.
Recognizing that our bond in Christ is at the center of the doctrine of purgatory can also help make the teaching more ecumenically approachable. In Can Catholics and Evangelicals Agree about Purgatory and the Last Judgment?, Brett Salkeld suggests that one of the best definitions of purgatory comes from Dr. Joe Mizzi, a Catholic turned Evangelical. In a statement meant to argue against the doctrine, Dr. Mizzi affirmed that “Jesus Christ, and nothing else, is our purification, our purgatory.”
Perhaps starting from this point allows room for dialogue. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, writing in “Spes Salvi,” elaborated on this insight:
Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Savior. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgment. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves (No. 47).
“Jesus Christ is our Purgatory.” This is the best description of purgatory. It is not a place outside of heaven. It is rather the deepening of relationships—of communion in the Body of Christ—with others in Christ’s impassioned fire of love. It is part of our full encounter with the Risen Lord, and in this encounter we see clearly how sin has wounded all of creation, and we see with complete clarity the meaning of our acceptance or rejection of God’s grace and love.
And what is prayer but the nurturing of the bonds we form with others? To pray for the dead and ask for their prayers is to profess our faith in a church that continues after death. It confesses that we are incomplete until we are all joined together again in the fullness of resurrected life in Christ. The deceased need our comfort, our sacrifices, our prayers and whatever else makes a relationship real. Purgatory asserts that in Christ, these encounters and relationships grow only more real, rather than fading away. Communion is never passive.
In his Génie du christianisme (1828), François-René de Chateaubriand wrote: “Purgatory surpasses heaven and hell in poetry, because it represents a future and the others do not.” On a pastoral level, it can be hard for us to imagine what heaven might be like. How are those who suffers from grief or trauma, depression or loneliness, to comprehend the “beatific vision”? How are they supposed to imagine the greatest joy one could ever experience? For many people, purgatory can give more hope than heaven because it is easier to conceive.
Purgatory can also rescue us from a sterile and static vision of heaven. Acknowledging the need, even after death, for renewal and healing of relationships can help to make heaven more desirable. If hope relies on the redeeming of the imagination, then contemplating heaven in light of purgatory helps us focus on the resurrected Christ as the healer and restorer of relationships that continue to grow for all eternity.
Pastoral care reimagined in light of purgatory can bring our world much needed healing and communion. Even those who do not believe in an afterlife recognize that the reality of our relationships—and the need for finishing our “unfinished business”—is not dissolved in death. By investing pastoral resources and attention in this area, we can become more aware that we are not alone, that our every action counts and that nothing in the past can cut us off from a future filled with hope. Purgatory then becomes a challenge to hope in faith, a faith that invites us to remain in relationship as seen through the lens of Christ’s resurrected love.