Yesterday saw the start of the Jubilee of Mercy. Pope Francis’ fervent desire is that this extraordinary year will be a fresh opportunity for everyone to experience the great mercy of God. This is a time for renewal and forgiveness. There is a particular emphasis in years like this, of extraordinary grace, on indulgences which can bring up that sometimes confusing and often misunderstood Catholic teaching on Purgatory. So, to give you a helping hand and to dispel some of those common confusions, we’ve created a list of eight misunderstandings about Purgatory.
1. It’s not a place, it’s a condition (CCC 1030-1031)
Purgatory is the process where God purifies someone who has lived a good life but has died with some lesser sinful habits (venial sins) remaining; God does this so we may enter heaven. Imagine looking into the face of God and God seeing all your sins, selfish and unloving behaviour. A good example of this is Luke 22:62 where Peter sees Jesus face to face after just betraying and denying him. We are filled with remorse for what we’ve done and through experiencing this burning shame for our actions and seeing them for what they truly are; we learn to love purely and eventually can meet that completely loving gaze eye to eye.
2. The suffering is all for love, mercy, forgiveness and justice not because God likes us to suffer!
God loves us and desires to mend the relationship we broke with him (Romans 5:8, John 6:40, 1 John 1:9, Acts 3:19, Romans 6:23). His overwhelming victory on this front was when he sacrificed himself for us on the cross (Colossians 2:15). Through the sacraments, he gives us countless opportunities to mend, re-mend and develop our relationship with him (John 20:21-23). However, God wants us to grow in understanding of complete love and therefore, even though he has forgiven our sins, we must still go through some form of penance so we learn not to do the same again. It’s a bit like your parent getting you to do the ironing so you appreciate the effort and don’t just dump your ironed clothes on the floor. If we die not having made up for our sins, purgatory is that opportunity to make amends.
3. Why do we not just go to heaven or hell?
Heaven is the condition of endless love where nothing more separates us from God (CCC 1023-1026); but, as Revelations: 21:27 says, nothing unclean/sinful can enter the presence of God. Hell, on the other hand, is the condition of everlasting separation from God and the complete absence of love (CCC 1033-1037) and is chosen by a person knowingly refusing the love and mercy God wants to give us. When most of us die, it’s fair to say that while we probably won’t have led sinless lives, we probably have not completely rejected God and love and still desire these things. We would not enjoy heaven in our present state as we could not love or receive love perfectly. To help with this God, out of his desire to have us with him, cleanses those who wish to be with him of their lesser sins so they can be with him.
4. Purgatory isn’t named in the bible… but it is biblical
A common accusation about purgatory is that you will never find it named in the bible. This is true; however, neither will you find named other key Christian beliefs like ‘The Trinity’ or ‘The Incarnation’. What’s important to know though is that, just like these important beliefs, there is an abundance of scripture that supports purgatory; the clearest example of purgatory being explained in the bible is 1 Corinthians 3:13-15, where St. Paul explains the purification process we go through after death.
5. It wasn’t created in the middle ages; it was believed by the early Church
Early Christian writers, such as Tertullian, show in writings like De Anima, written in AD 208, that they believed in an after-death repentance. They quote the parable in Matthew 5:24-25 as evidence for this, as here Jesus is speaking of the world to come and references how lesser sins represented by the “kodrantes”, or “pennies”, must be paid off in the prison before freedom is granted.
6. Even before the time of Jesus people believed in it
2 Maccabees 12:39-46 shows the belief in people needing after-death purification was held around the time of Jesus. Wisdom 3:1-6, which was written by King Solomon almost 1,000 years before Jesus, again talks of people being purified after death. While in Catholic and Orthodox bibles, these books are not in Protestant bibles, so depending on your denomination you may reject these as being divinely inspired. Whether you do or not, historically they prove this belief was strongly held by the Jews and would have been a teaching Jesus was brought up with. He even endorses it himself in the before mentioned Matthew 5:24-25.
7. We can’t just sin all we like here and pay it back later
A common accusation of purgatory is that its existence is just a Catholic invention allowing them to do what they want in this life and just pay it back later. This is not true; when we commit a sin it damages our link to God. Even when our sins are forgiven, there is still some temporal stain which remains. This is purged either through the trials of this life or in purgatory. The term ‘indulgence’ as used by the Church, means a particular way we receive a remission of this temporal punishment from our sins. The source of this remission is the superabundant merits of Christ’s death on the cross and the goodness of the saints (the Treasury of Merit). All indulgences re-establish that link with God and so can reduce our time in purgatory, or even the time in purgatory of others. We gain an indulgence through special spiritual works or by pilgrimage in the Holy Years. We are usually asked to: 1. Do the work (i.e. go on some sort of pilgrimage, say the rosary etc.); 2. Celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation; 3. Receive Holy Communion; and 4. Pray for the Pope’s Intention.
8. You can help those in purgatory get to heaven!
A fantastic example of this is 2 Maccabees 12:39-46 where through prayer for the dead, they are purified and can enter heaven. When someone dies, unless they are in hell, they are not truly dead (John 11:25-26). Death is, in many ways then, like the birth of twins; to the baby born second it appears that their sibling has just vanished from existence, as they have only ever known the womb. But leaving the womb, the first baby has instead entered a greater reality. Death is like this, we simply enter a greater reality where like birth we see our creator face to face. As God is all powerful (omnipotent) he is both able to receive and answer the prayers of those in his higher reality and those from our lesser one. While people in heaven are constantly praying for us, we don’t need to pray for their well-being as they are in a state of bliss, fully with God.