“Thus you may understand that love alone is the true seed of every merit in you, and of all acts for which you must atone.” – Dante, Purgatorio
Among the teachings of the Church that are misunderstood or cause controversy in the midst of discussion, there are few that bring the same intensity as the Catholic doctrine on the existence of purgatory. For non-Catholic Christians, or even for Catholic converts from Protestantism, the existence of purgatory is often a source of many questions.
The Catholic Church teaches that the elect experience a temporal state of purification after death before they enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. This temporal state exists to purify the soul of the remnants of sin which still cling to the departed. It is this process of purification or “purgation” whence purgatory receives its name.
However, the existence of a need to be cleansed of sin causes a great deal of controversy. Non-Catholics argue, for example, that this seems to conflict with the teaching that Jesus’ death on the Cross is the universal and total source of salvation. For some, it seems to imply that Jesus’ sacrifice was not perfect and that humanity is performing work in purgatory to be cleansed of sin. For others there is a difficulty because the word purgatory isn’t directly mentioned in Scripture. Also, Jesus doesn’t seem to refer to it explicitly in his preaching and teaching.
Tonight, we will discuss the topic of purgatory. We will look at its existence, what the Church understands it to be, and how its existence influences our life here on earth and our eternal life to come.
Questions for Discussion
- What were you taught about purgatory? What do you understand it to be?
- What might be objections to the Catholic doctrine of purgatory? Can you think of any arguments against its existence? How should they be answered?
- What are the sources for Church teaching on purgatory?
- How does the existence of purgatory (or the lack thereof) affect ones approach to eternal life? In what ways might the belief change one’s approach to life on earth?
- Part of the doctrine of purgatory includes prayers to help the deceased. How does a concept of purgatory affect one’s burial or funeral practices? If we should pray for the dead, what is the difference between a funeral service in a funeral home and a funeral Mass? How should purgatory affect our speech about the deceased?
- What role does the virtue of Hope play in our theology of death?
- Do you think purgatory is often viewed as a “second chance?” Meaning: “If I didn’t do good in life, I will make up for it after death.” How do we connect purgatory and the finality of judgment at the end of one’s life?
- Have you ever considered purgatory to be a gift from God?
- Pope Benedict XVI referred to St. Catherine of Genoa: “The soul”, Catherine says, “presents itself to God still bound to the desires and suffering that derive from sin and this makes it impossible for it to enjoy the beatific vision of God”. Catherine asserts that God is so pure and holy that a soul stained by sin cannot be in the presence of the divine majesty (cf. Vita Mirabile, 177r).
We too feel how distant we are, how full we are of so many things that we cannot see God. The soul is aware of the immense love and perfect justice of God and consequently suffers for having failed to respond in a correct and perfect way to this love; and love for God itself becomes a flame, love itself cleanses it from the residue of sin.
- What image(s) does purgatory conjure up in your mind? What about art? What are good analogies we can use to describe it? Do you consider purgatory to be a gift from God?