January 15, 2021


Time for a look at yet another mysterious Roman Catholic doctrine: Purgatory.

Nobody understands Purgatory (except theologians and possibly those saints who have had private revelations), so (a) don’t worry if you don’t find it makes any sense and (b) as ever, the opinions expressed below – except where expressly stated otherwise – are those of the contributor only and are not to be taken except with a grain of salt and as directed on the bottle.  Please read all instructions and consult your spiritual director before taking.  May cause drowsiness and impair ability to operate heavy machinery.  Not to be relied upon for the salvation of souls, either your own or anyone else’s, and should not be used as a substitute for Sanctifying Grace and the Evangelical Counsels.

Okay, here is where you get to blame the Irish!  In the early Church, penance (as we touched upon in the matter of the Seal of the Confessional) was generally performed in public and generally consisted of being excluded from the common life of the Church and the sacraments for a period ranging from months to years (depending on the severity of the sin).  When the Irish saints, considering that our own little island was about as perfect as it could be, moved on to evangelise Europe during the 6th-12th centuries (approximately), they brought with them the practice of private confession and austere penitential practices (fasting, pilgrimage, alms-giving, mortifications of various kinds, prayers and so forth) for fixed periods – they developed penitential canons, with a focus on reparation and the temporal punishment of the guilt of the sin.

This last is going to be important, for that was what laid the groundwork for the length of time indulgences could remit.  Yes, we’re going to talk about indulgences in a minute, and we’re going to get very, very confused.  First, some basic definitions, so we all know what we’re talking about.

(1) What’s Purgatory?

Importantly, what Purgatory is NOT: a second chance, another bite at the apple, or a place of everlasting torment.  Purgatory is not a way to wiggle out of Hell – you are already saved, you are already one of the Blessed – this is why we speak of the Holy Souls and why they are numbered among the Communion of Saints so that they can intercede for us.  Purgatory is a place of hope, which is where the contrast between it and Limbo comes in: Limbo was considered to be a place of “perfect natural felicity” (note the ‘natural’ as distinct from ‘supernatural’, i.e. it is what the Utopias of Earth strive to be, without war, disease, hunger, death or strife, but those within were forever deprived of the Beatific Vision, the presence of God).  There are no pains in Limbo, but neither is there any hope.  Purgatory does involve pains (whether we’re going with the folk-religion view of pains as severe as the fires of Hell or some other measure) but it does have hope, because there is a fixed term and a limit, and this is a purification before entering into the many mansions.

To quote Dante once again, from Inferno, Canto IV, where Virgil brings Dante to Limbo before descending into Hell proper:

My master began: “You do not ask about

the souls you see? I want you to know,

before you venture farther,

“they did not sin.  Though they have merit,

that is not enough, for they were unbaptized,

denied the gateway to the faith that you profess.

“And if they lived before the Christians lived,

they did not worship God aright.

And among these I am one.

“For such defects, and for no other fault,

we are lost, and afflicted but in this,

that without hope we live in longing.”


So, then, what is Purgatory?  A definition from 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.  (St. Gregory the Great)

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.  (St. John Chrysostom)

(2) Where is that in the Bible?

To which the answer generally is, “In one of the books you guys dumped at the Reformation”.  In other words, the Deuterocanonical books, in this instance, 2 Maccabees 12: 39-46

12:39 And the day following Judas came with his company, to take away the bodies of them that were slain, and to bury them with their kinsmen, in the sepulchres of their fathers.

12:40 And they found under the coats of the slain, some of the donaries of the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbiddeth to the Jews: so that all plainly saw, that for this cause they were slain.

12:41 Then they all blessed the just judgment of the Lord, who had discovered the things that were hidden.

12:42 And so betaking themselves to prayers, they besought him, that the sin which had been committed might be forgotten.  But the most valiant Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves from sin, forasmuch as they saw before their eyes what had happened, because of the sins of those that were slain.

12:43 And making a gathering, he sent twelve thousand drachms of silver to Jerusalem for sacrifice to be offered for the sins of the dead, thinking well and religiously concerning the resurrection.

12:44 (For if he had not hoped that they that were slain should rise again, it would have seemed superfluous and vain to pray for the dead,)

12:45 And because he considered that they who had fallen asleep with godliness, had great grace laid up for them.

12:46 It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins.

That last verse, by the way, is one which a late parish priest of mine always quoted without fail at the start of every November, which by custom is considered the month of the Holy Souls (November starting with the feast of All Saints on the 1st and then the day of All Souls on the 2nd).  Other verses considered to relate to Purgatory are 1 Corinthians 3:10-15, with regard to the mention of “saved as through fire”, where the “work” is our works in our lives as Christians; if we have lived as we should, these will endure, but if we (as most of us have done) have backslid and fallen along the way, these works will be consumed and we will be as gold purified in the refiner’s crucible by having the dross burned away:

According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it.  For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward.  If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

(3) I still don’t get it: if you’re saved, why are you in Purgatory, not Heaven?

Here we get into the technical stuff – Purgatory deals with the temporal effects of sin, the satisfaction of Divine Justice.  Once again, the Catechism:

The punishments of sin:

1472 To understand this doctrine and practice of the Church, it is necessary to understand that sin has a double consequence.  Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the “eternal punishment” of sin.  On the other hand every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory.  This purification frees one from what is called the “temporal punishment” of sin.  These two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin.  A conversion which proceeds from a fervent charity can attain the complete purification of the sinner in such a way that no punishment would remain.

1473 The forgiveness of sin and restoration of communion with God entail the remission of the eternal punishment of sin, but temporal punishment of sin remains.  While patiently bearing sufferings and trials of all kinds and, when the day comes, serenely facing death, the Christian must strive to accept this temporal punishment of sin as a grace.  He should strive by works of mercy and charity, as well as by prayer and the various practices of penance, to put off completely the “old man” and to put on the “new man.”

To take the very concrete example which we discussed in the post on the Seal of the Confessional, many commenters were of the opinion that, regardless of the absolution of the sin, the necessity for the punishment of the crime remained.  Temporal justice must be satisfied.  The priest should break the seal and inform the civil authorities of the matter so that the law of the land could be followed.  This was not just for vengeance, but to protect the victims, prevent further crime, and as evidence of true repentance and for reparation and restitution.

Congratulations, you all realized the purpose of Purgatory!

There are crimes which are not a sin, and there are sins which are not a crime (though we might think that they should be).  How can reparation be made?  How can I make it up to the one whom I have offended, injured, damaged?  If I steal money, I can pay it back, but how can I pay back angry words, blows, neglect, injustice?

Sin is a real thing, and it has an effect upon the soul.  Being “spiritual” does not mean a gauzy, ethereal, airy-fairy, insubstantial thing – “pie in the sky when we die.”  It means that it leaves marks on the soul the same way that if I punch someone, he has a black eye and I have barked knuckles.  (Just to clarify, this is a hypothetical example, I don’t go around punching people).  I’ve hurt him and I’ve hurt myself (and of course, I’ve hurt my relationship with God).

Habits of sin leave a mark and a tendency, the same way that a constantly blowing wind will leave the branches of a tree bent in one direction.

It’s something akin to the way we form habits, both bad and good.  The neurological pathways in the brain get “etched” by repetition, reinforced by chemical rewards (e.g. dopamine is released by rewarding experiences) and so the habit becomes automatic.  To break the habit, we have to re-train and re-wire the brain.

To break the habit of sin, to untangle the ball of  yarn, to straighten the bent branch, to untwist the coil of wire – that is the purpose of Purgatory.  Like burning off the dross and slag when turning iron to steel in a furnace, Purgatory removes the attachment to sin and creatures (which doesn’t only mean living things, it means all things in Creation which are good in themselves, but which are not God) until we are totally united to the will of God.

Traditionally, the fires of Purgatory have been represented as being of the same intensity as the fires of Hell.  Now, whether you wish to conceive of these as actual real fires, or supernatural fires, or some other medium, think of the fire as being the fire of love.  The intense desire and longing of the soul to be in the presence of God and to be united with the One who is Love is what is the torment, as in all the love poetry where the poet laments what parts him from his beloved (or what parts her, this is equal-opportunity yearning!):

I opened to my beloved; but my beloved had withdrawn himself, and was gone: my soul failed when he spake:  I sought him, but I could not find him; I called him, but he gave me no answer.

The watchmen that went about the city found me, they smote me, they wounded me; the keepers of the walls took away my veil from me.

I charge you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if ye find my beloved, that ye tell him, that I am sick of love.

Or as St. Augustine says, when he reflects on how all things speak of the Creator, and it is only that reflection of His beauty and goodness which draws us to them by mistake:

Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you!  You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you.  In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created.  You were with me, but I was not with you.  Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all.  You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness.  You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness.  You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you.  I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more.  You touched me, and I burned for your peace.

(4) Who are these “Holy Souls” you mention?

The souls in Purgatory, the souls undergoing purification, the saved and blessed who ask our prayers and who pray for us.  We call them holy because they are; their faults and flaws are imperfections on their beauty, not the self-willed sterility and rejection of God that the damned souls in Hell have inflicted upon themselves.  Their prayers of intercession for us are as effectual as those of the saints in Heaven standing before God.

I can’t leave this here without a quote from Dante because I would urge you all, quite seriously, get your hands on some copy of the second volume of the “Divine Comedy”, the Purgatorio.  Forget about the Inferno, the Purgatorio will speak to you more of what the Church Militant here on Earth and the Church Suffering or Church Expectant in Purgatory have to do with one another in the mutual bonds of love as the Mystical Body of Christ.  You will also see that in his ascent of Mount Purgatory, time is of the essence.  Hell is repetitive and fixed in a rut of the same, fruitless, vain actions over and over again; Heaven is in eternity and outside of time and space.  In Purgatory, though, as on Earth, time moves and is of importance.  This goes back to the penitential canons I mentioned earlier, and ties in with the temporal (or, if it helps to think of it this way, juridical) punishment of sin.  Just as particular penances for particular sins lasted a certain period of time (days, months, or longer) so the corresponding view of how ‘long’ a stay in Purgatory is fixed depends on the amount and nature of sins.

This doesn’t mean that, for instance, Sinner A has to spend six thousand, five hundred and ninety-one years in Purgatory (because Purgatory is outside of space-time) but that IF you totted up all the penalties associated with the unrepented or unpurged sins according to the older use of separation from the life of the public Church on earth for fixed terms, they would add up to a certain amount of time.  The same way that, by our prayers and suffrages for them, it can be considered as working along the lines of parole.

Think of it as those sentences you hear from secular courts of someone being sentenced to three hundred years in prison.  Obviously, no human can serve that kind of sentence, even if you count they die in jail and you keep their body in the prison graveyard.  It is a measure of the penalties they have incurred due to the number, nature and gravity of their crimes.

It does mean that we shouldn’t waste time here on Earth just getting by on the minimum – being a “good person”.  We are meant to be saints and that is what we should strive for (she said, fully aware of her own impertinence in lecturing others with good advice she doesn’t follow herself).  Purgatory is mercy, not punishment.

Now, that Dante quote from the Purgatorio, Canto XI, where the souls on the first Terrace, that of the Proud, who as they circle the mountain pray the “Our Father” for themselves and for us, and Dante reminds us we should return their love by prayer for their purification:


Our Father, who are in Heaven,

circumscribed only by the greater love

you have for your first works on high,

praised be your name and power

by every creature, as is fitting

to render thanks for your sweet breath.

May the peace of your kingdom come to us,

for we cannot attain it of ourselves

if it come not, for all our striving.


As your angels make sacrifice to you

of their free wills, singing hosanna,

so let men make an offering of theirs.

Give us this day the daily manna

without which he who labors to advance

goes backward through this bitter wilderness.

And, as we forgive those who have wronged us,

do you forgive us in your loving kindness–

measure us not as we deserve.


Do not put to proof our powers,

which yield so lightly to the ancient foe,

but deliver us from him who tempts them.

This last petition, our dear Lord, is made

now not for ourselves–for us there is no need–

but for the ones whom we have left behind.

Thus praying for safe haven for themselves and us,

those shades trudged on beneath their burden,

the kind that sometimes weighs us down in dreams,

as they, unequally distressed,

plodded their weary round on that first ledge,

purging away the darkness of the world.


If good is always said of us up there,

what can be said and done for them on earth

by those whose wills have roots in good?

Surely we should help them wash away the stains

they carried with them, so that pure and light

they may approach the star-hung spheres.


Oops – I’m a liar (guess which terrace of Purgatory I’ll be perambulating for that!)  I said we’d talk about indulgences, but to prevent this from becoming The Post That Ate The Internet Monk, I think I will leave that for Part 2 next week (if Jeff will indulge me).

Remember to light a candle to St. Nicholas of Tolentine for the Holy Souls!




  1. Matt Purdum says

    As usual, N.T. Wright gets it right. Purgatory is an allegory about the present, set in the future.

  2. Christian Mann says

    I stumbled across this in my RSS reader, and I couldnt help but notice there are no biblical references in this article to 1) demonstrate that purgatory exists, 2) that the purposes described for purgatory are neccessary at all or 3) that the process of purgatory exists.

    The closest example of Biblical purgatory might be in Revelation 6, where the martyrs cry out to the Lord for vegence. This, however, demonstrates 1) knowledge of the previous 2) no knowledge of the future and 3) being in the presence of God.

    Then take a look at Luke 16: ”…the poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment,…”
    There is no intermediate location, no need for additional cleansing, etc, rather the poor man is immediately in heaven (unless one is to claim Abraham is not in heaven, see Rom 4:9), and the rich man immediatly in the torments of hell.
    This passage is different from the parables in that it uses real names, guiding the reader to understand that this is a real event rather then a mere story.

    Furter, according to 2 Peter 3:13 (as well as Isiah 65, 65) there will be a new heaven and a new earth. We see the entire universe ‘melt’ away in Peter’s words. In Revelation we are told that all of hades is cast into the lake of fire, and that the ‘new Jerusalem’ will descend on the new heaven and new earth.

    Most importantly,
    *Christ took all the penatly for our sin: Gal 3:13 ”Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us”
    *Christians are now completely sanctified through Christ: Heb 2:11 ”For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source”
    *Christians are once and for all justified and redeemed in Chirst: Rom 3:23-24 ”..for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus”
    *Christians are justified by faith: Eph 2:8 ”For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God”

    So the big picture is that there are 2 kinds of people, the saints & the aints. You’re either justified by faith in Christ, thus a slave of Christ, and going straight to heaven, or you are a slave to sin and going straight to hell. Then will come the apocalype, followed by the judgement, where all hell is thrown into the lake of fire, and all heaven reconciled with the new earth with Jesus as Lord. There is no room or neccesity for a purgatory.

    • Might I suggest a review on the article of a few days ago about a “Biblical Church”?

      …and a not that the Catholic Scriptures contain books that were removed during the Reformation (see Question #2 in this piece).

    • Did you miss the part where Martha quoted 1 Corinthians 3? She also cited 2 Maccabees, which I’m going to assume that you don’t treat as Scripture.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Of course not, that’s Romish Popery.

        The Treaty of Westphalia ended the Reformation Wars in 1648, yet God’s Holy Reformers still nail their theses and issue their anathemas.

    • I’d also suggest Colossians 1:24.

    • Christianity is such a funny thing…I once had a die-hard protestant, fundamentalist, Bob Jones-schooled fellow tell me that Purgatory was a popish lie, but that Abraham’s Bosom, which you describe, was a place of waiting to enter into the presence of God, where your lifetime of sins are revealed to you, so that you understand fully the degree of mercy you are receiving. He also described Abraham’s Bosom as a place where unresolved sins are purged….Which sounds quite similar to Purgatory, doesn’t it? He used Luke 16 as context.

      My suggestion is to not use Luke 16 as an argument against Purgatory, in favor of the idea that we’re automatically in the presence of God when we die. There’s a great deal of historical argument about the Bosom…Is it a waiting station for OT and NT folk who died before Christ’s blood was shed? Is it Purgatory? Or, for lack of better words, a cooler side of Hades, not quite Hell, not quite Heaven? Again, it sounds like Purgatory when you frame it that way.

      I would love to hear from Father Ernesto on Purgatory. I may be wrong, but I believe that Orthodox Christianity rejected the concept of Purgatory, but acknowledges that there may some post-death purification. Can our Orthodox brothers and sisters tell me if this is correct?

      As far as all the other scriptures…Let’s not forget James 2:17…”faith without works is dead”. I reiterate that Christianity can be made into a puzzle…Am I a backslider because I don’t do good works? Or am I really saved, justified, and headed to my mansion in the sky, just because I believe, even if my life doesn’t reflect it?

      I’m not saying the aforementioned to provoke an argument, but to encourage us all to remember the Holy KISS…Keep It Simple, Stupid. Trust God. I’ll side with David and Job on this discussion, and say, “His ways are too terrible for me to understand….”

      • Here is an article to shed some light on Orthodox beliefs about the nature of life after death and a response to the purgatory doctrine. I personally like the take presented in the last paragraph:

        “Some Church Fathers, such as St. Cyprian and St. Augustine of Hippo, seemed to believe in a purification after death. However, the character of this purification is never clarified, and especially (as St. Mark of Ephesus underlined at the Council of Florence) it seems there is no true distinction between heaven, hell and the so-called purgatory: all souls partake differently in the same mystical fire (which, according to St. Isaac of Syria, is God’s Love) but because of their spiritual change they are bound to different reactions: bliss for those who are in communion with him; purification for those in the process of being deified; and remorse for those who hated God during their earthly lives. Because of this confusion and inability of the human language to understand these realities, the Church refrains from theological speculation. Instead, she affirms the unbroken Tradition of prayers for the dead, the certainty of eternal life, the rejection of reincarnation, and the communion of the Saints (those living and those who have fallen asleep in the Lord) in the same Body of Christ which is the Church. Private speculation is thus still possible as it was in the time of the Church Fathers. “

      • Sorry, forgot to link to the article:


        • Thanks, Clay! It’s interesting to see the statement, “the Church refrains from theological speculation”. Wow, if more of us took that stance, instead of taking so much pride in being theological experts, pointing fingers and saying, “We’ve got it right, not you!”, how different would Christianity look in our world?

      • Oh, sure! And it’s important to note, as I would like to hammer home again and again, Purgatory is notabout the forgiveness of sins by the grace of God or redemption, it is about the TEMPORAL purification and purging of attachment.

        Let’s take the Rich Young Man of Luke and Mark versus St. Francis of Assisi, the Poverello. Jesus looked with love upon the rich young man, who (we may assume, since he is not condemned as the Pharisees are for a show of exterior virtue) really did keep the law and the commandments, and told him he lacked but one thing: sell all you have, give to the poor, and come follow me.

        Now, had you asked the rich young man, I’m quite sure he would have said he loved God above all else – until he was put to the test. And whether or not he thought the Master was a prophet of God, or whether he had realised that He was God made Man, he failed in this test – because of attachment to earthly goods (which are good in themselves).

        St. Francis was a rich young man who received a blow to his pride and, when called, he did indeed give up all and followed Christ, to the extent that he was said to have wedded the Lady Poverty.

        What became of the rich young man in the Gospels? We have no idea. Was he condemned to Hell for rejecting Christ? Did he repent? Maybe later on he did indeed sell all he had, and lived in common with the community of believers, as described in Acts.

        In life, St. Francis purged his attachment to earthly glory and wealth – as should we all. But suppose we come to the end of our life, or die before we can complete our detachment?

        As I gave a rather flippant example in a comment on an earlier post: Uncle Titus committed a particular sin, confessed it, was forgiven, and is now performing his penance before being re-admitted to the communion of the local church. Unfortunately, Uncle Titus gets run over by an ox-cart before he completes his penance.

        What is his state? Is he in Heaven or Hell? He hasn’t completed his penance on earth and has not been in communion with the body of believers, but the guilt of his sins has been forgiven – is he to be condemned for that?

        Or what about all the people we know who may have been perfectly nice, but…. (or even weren’t so nice, but repented late, or never repented, or we’re unsure as to their final disposition). Some may have the confidence to say that they’re in Hell. More of us may not be so confident as to where they are. Is there no means of reconciling justice with mercy?

    • Thank you for raising the parable of Dives and Lazarus. I did think about that while writing this piece, and it fascinates me.

      What exactly is meant by the term the bosom of Abraham? The early Church (and the Easterns will bear me out on this, see all the icons of the Harrowing of Hell) considered that the patriarchs of the Old Testament were set apart waiting to be delivered to Heaven; the Limbo of the Patriarchs, in classical Catholic theology (and to complete that Dante quote in the post above):

      ‘Tell me, master, tell me, sir,’ I began,
      seeking assurance in the faith
      that conquers every doubt,

      ‘did ever anyone, either by his own
      or by another’s merit, go forth from here
      and rise to blessedness?’

      And he, who understood my covert speech:
      ‘I was new to this condition when I saw
      a mighty one descend, crowned, with the sign of victory.

      ‘Out of our midst he plucked the shade
      of our first parent, of Abel his son, of Noah,
      and of Moses, obedient in giving laws,

      ‘the patriarch Abraham, and David the king,
      Israel with his father and his sons,
      and with Rachel, for whom he served so long,

      ‘as well as many others, and he made them blessed.
      And, I would have you know, before these
      no human souls were saved.’

      Now, if we take that the “bosom of Abraham” refers to Heaven and that the pre-Christian Jews who died in blessedness were taken into Heaven, this opens to us the question – what was the restoration achieved by the death of Christ on the cross, if communion between God and man had not been broken?

      What is meant in the letter of Peter, where he mentions that “18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water.”

      Who are these spirits in prison? It is mentioned that they are the disobedient – what purpose is served by Christ going to them if they are condemned in Hell? As well, what do you think is meant by the phrase in the Creeds (Apostles or Nicene, take your pick) “He descended into Hell”?

      Purgatory also, I think, involves the different understandings of justification and sanctification, imputed versus infused. But that’s getting into deeper theological waters.

      I don’t ask that you accept the doctrine if you cannot find it convincing, just that these are some of the reasons Roman Catholics believe the things we do.

  3. Aidan Clevinger says

    Hmmm…a very good article, and a very good clarification for me on the Catholic doctrine. I confess I’m still not convinced. The quote from 1 Corinthians, in context, is speaking about doctrine; and even if you accept it as a blanket statement on our works it still gives the implication of a sudden, violent purification.

    What about the thief on the cross? He was evidently a very sinful man – the Romans only crucified the worst of the worst (with at least one notable exception). And yet Christ tells him that he will, that day, be with Jesus in paradise. Furthermore, what about the Second Coming? We’re told in 1 Thessalonians that the dead in Christ will come WITH Him, and that those who are still here on earth will be IMMEDIATELY translated into the new Kingdom. But what if the dead have not yet completed their purgatorial sufferings? What if the living are not yet holy enough to merit Heaven?

    I completely understand where you guys are coming from with this, but I just don’t see the Scriptural evidence. It makes sense rationally, but not biblically. Particularly when you consider that the whole tenor of the New Testament rings with the affirmation that God already considers us perfect in Christ, and that our unity with Him (first in death and afterwards in the Resurrection) secures for us the end of all sin, suffering, etc.

    Great article, though. Out of curiosity, is the indulgences article forthcoming? Furthermore, where’s a good place to learn Catholic doctrine? Should I jump into Trent with a running leap, or go to the modern Catechism, or both?



    • If all goes according to Hoyle, we will have part two on indulgences this time next week.

    • If Jesus were a god, which most Christians believe, then wouldn’t he have the right to offer a special pass? Or maybe the crucifixion that the thief (and really it seems a little disproportionate to crucify someone for thieving!) was undergoing was part of his working things out deal. Kind of a purgatory in itself.

      • The Good Thief, who accepted his punishment as just, and asked for the mercy of God is a great example.

        There are three forms of baptism: baptism by water (the conventional baptism we all know) but also the baptism of blood (undergone by the martyrs, who died for their faith, even if some of them were catechumens who had not been baptised by water and the Word yet) and baptism of desire (where someone may wish to be baptised but has no means to gain it, e.g. a pagan who is living where there are no Christians to baptise him but has read and believed the Gospel – think of the Ethiopian eunuch, if St. Philip had not been sent to him by the Holy Spirit).

        The thief on the cross can be said to have undergone the baptism of desire and maybe the baptism of blood (he wasn’t being executed for his belief in Christ but for his wordly crimes).

        Certainly he, by accepting the rightfulness and justice of his sufferings for his crimes, was purging his earthly attachments 🙂

      • Jesus is not A God! Jesus is THE God. One third of the Holy Trinity.

      • cermak_rd,

        according to N.T. Wright, the thief wasn’t merely a pickpocket. The Greek term is lestai and means a brigand; specifically, someone who robs to gain money to fund terrorist/insurrectionist activities. So he was executed essentially for treason against Rome.


        • Ah that explains it. Thank you.

          I suppose it was the same rationale that England used for hanging brigands in Ireland. Of course, I don’t know if England actually did this. It’s referenced in the song the “Outlaw Rapparee” and whether that was written as truth or propaganda I don’t know. Cromwell was pretty cruel, so maybe.

    • Modern Catechism. Trent is great for “Let him be anathema!” which is a technical theological phrase, but it might make anyone (modern Catholic as well as Protestant) feel that people are being bundled off to Hell without much sympathy 🙂

  4. Christ +

    (yet again).

    The cross of Christ is just never enough.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Just Walk the Aisle, Say the Magic Words (and really really mean it), and you get your Fire Insurance and Rapture ticket?

      “Miracles should not come so cheap.”
      — G.K.Chesterton

      • Don’t forget that bonus DVD collection of Kirk Cameron’s Greatest Flicks…but that’s only if it’s your first time praying the prayer and being baptized (at least the first time in that church).

    • – love

      (yet again)

  5. How old is the doctrine of Purgatory? Was it formulated by the Western Church before the separation of East and West or after? I do not know much about Eastern Orthodoxy but I think the Eastern Church does not have the concept of Purgatory and I guess I want to ask: If somebody is thinking about becoming Roman Catholic but is not able to accept this doctrine (and as a matter of fact many other doctrines as well) what would it mean for him/her? Would it be schizophrenic to even think about becoming Roman Catholic or at least to participate in the life of a local parish?

    • Think about it, Martin, and if you really, really can’t accept it, don’t take the plunge. You are required to assent intellectually to all the doctrines held by the Church, and you can’t cross your fingers and hope while saying the words.

      But that does not prevent you, while in the phase of discernment, from becoming involved in parish life to the best of your ability. Come along and see us, warts’n’all!

    • Martin, check Gal 2:21 – the doctrine of Purgatory is one of the reasons that I am not RC today! (among a few others). The thing that bugs me, is if I have to pay for some of my sins, which ones? Which sins was Jesus’ death not enough to cover? The Bible clearly teaches that none of us are worthy on our own merit. It is the suffering and death of Jesus that opened the door for us to God! This is why the Temple Veil was torn in half from top to bottom when He died.

      However, this said, I must also remind all who read this thread, that God is bigger than our understanding of Him! God considers the hearts of those who believe in Him.

  6. I think this may be my favorite thing that you have written, Martha. Thank you!

    And that is a great quotation from St. Augustine.

    I read somewhere that the Pope said that purgatory may be something that happens in what we could think of as a blink of an eye. So, he is not abandoning the doctrine, but is perhaps putting it in a way that non-Catholics can get their heads around it. I think our problem comes from our not understanding time and eternity. I know I don’t understand. I cannot understand how the universe had a beginning or that it always was. I cannot understand space having no end. I cannot understand eternity. I cannot understand God.

  7. Sorry to break it to you, Martha, but this is NOT confusing at all. Even if previous doubters remain unconvinced by your exposition, you’ve enabled thoughtful people to disagree with the actual understanding of Purgatory and not the popular misunderstandings.

    I also love that St. Augustine quotation, and, of course, the Dante. His treatment of the Lord’s Prayer is very helpful to me to put new life and understanding into what sometimes risks becoming a rote recitation.

    • Ditto…..it is one thing to disagree, quite another not to understand at all.

      And I hope this great article helps our other brothers and sisters understand why you are unlikely to hear a RC proclain that they “are SAVED!” There are just too many boards in my eye for me to judge my own progress toward sainthood and full rejection of sin. I’d be surprised if I DON’T need the remedial course….

      • What must I do to be saved? Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.

        Or something like that was the response to the Jailer. Not a long “well maybe you will if…. or perhaps after this….”

        Not looking to start a fight, and Martha thanks for the effort in explaining it. I do have a better understanding of it now.

  8. When I was in college, I got engaged to a girl that I had been dating for 3 years. I also a bit of a problem with porn. I didn’t tell her about it until after we were engaged, during premarital counseling. And you know what? We aren’t married. She broke up with me. We tried to work it out. But it didn’t work.

    In a solipsistic world where I’m the only person who exists, just being forgiven might be enough to fully restore me back to Eden. But in the world that God put us in, where we have to interact with other people, sometimes we hurt others. And to fully redeem those broken relationships, to achieve full restoration to where they were before, I’m going to need more than just “Well, Jesus forgives me, and you should too.” I lost the trust of someone that I loved. Should I have just yelled “grace alone!” at her when she told me I needed to earn it back? Perhaps assured her that God would sanctify me in His own good time?

    I know that you can’t prove Purgatory from Scripture. (Of course, you can’t really prove the doctrine of the Trinity just from Scripture, either. And I wonder if anyone ever told St. Paul to prove those epistles he was writing from Scripture?) But I believe in it, because I lived it. I believed in it while I was still Protestant, before I ever considered joining the Catholic Church. Thanks for writing this, Martha.

    • Powerful stuff, man.

    • Aidan Clevinger says

      But you can prove the Trinity from Scripture. Origen and Tertullian have been doing it since the 2nd and 3rd century AD…

      I agree with Cunnudda above, a very powerful story. But with all due respect, I don’t think we can use our experience to judge what God should or will do. Aren’t we “new creatures” in Christ?


  9. In Biblical terms, one thing I see that supports the idea of some sort of on-going purification or healing after death is Rev 22: the tree whose leaves are “for the healing of nations.” What purpose does that serve if all things are perfected and healed at the moment of the resurrection?

    But on the other hand, I have trouble seeing how the idea of purgatory squares with the doctrine of the physical resurrection of the dead. Those who have died in Christ are described as being asleep right now, resting in God’s care, awaiting resurrection in the new heaven and earth – maybe conscious, maybe not; the Bible isn’t clear on that. Besides, how could there be suffering or pain for someone who does not yet have a body? And on the other hand, how could there be a time of pain and suffering after the resurrection if, as Rev 21 seems to indicate, our resurrected bodies will be impervious to “death or mourning or crying or pain”?

    • Oh, I’m not competent to pronounce on the doctrine of “soul sleep” (if that is how it is referred to?)

      As to other minor points:

      “Besides, how could there be suffering or pain for someone who does not yet have a body?”

      Even in our earthly life, there are emotional and psychic pains besides the physical ills. The pains of yearning, of desire, of wishing to be with the Loved and being conscious of our unfitness – these may be the pains of purgation.

      I think (I await correction) that one element of Eastern Orthodox thought holds that the tormenting fires of Hell are exactly those of the Divine Love: the furnace of charity which is a consuming fire to the damned is the same fire that purges the saved and is the consolation of the blessed in Heaven.

  10. By the way, Miss Martha, thanks for another wonderfully written piece. Still waiting on the publications of “Miss Martha’s Guide to All Things Irish-Catholic (For Protestants, Americans, and Other Relative Oafs)”.


  11. I, too, struggled with the doctrine of Purgatory until I read this by Father Thomas Green in When The Well Runs Dry.

    “I had always been puzzled by the doctrine of Purgatory, particularly by al the talk about fire and smoke and pain. It seemed like a peculiarly vengeful way for an all-good God to act … But when I began to realize that Purgatory is not vengeance but purification and transformation, the whole doctrine seemed not only acceptable but necessary. Sooner or later we have to be made divine if we are going to love as we are loved, if not in this life, then certainly after death. Since most people choose to avoid the call to purifying transformation during this life, it seem only logical that this call would have to be faced later, since not sooner. The only alternative would be to remain untransformed forever, and that is hell!”

  12. Martha,

    The translation of Dante you are using may win me over in the Dante v. Milton debate. Thanks for passing your thoughts along.

    • It’s the most recent one I know of, the Hollander version (Robert and Jean Hollander from a couple of years back, put up on the Princeton site).

      The dead-tree versions are well worth getting, because they do have great notes, and they really explain elements of Roman Catholic theology excellently and in an accessible way (as I am always saying, I get my theology out of Dante).

  13. Well written, Martha. Thank you as always.

  14. As a Southern Baptist the most I really understood about purgatory before this was ‘it was where people in the Middle Ages didn’t want to go/stay so they paid big money to build cathedrals to avoid it’. 🙂

    As a paernt who does not embrace punitive parenting (note: I didn’t say I don’t discipline, so don’t go there) and who does understand the ideas of natural consequences (you lie, you are not trusted; you don’t take care of your things, you lose the privilage of having them, etc), I’m having trouble seeing the rational here. Yes, I can see the ‘the pattern was established’ issue, but Christ died to free us of that slavery, not just to pay for our sins. The natural consequeces seem of our sins seem to be earthly consequences.

    I also might have a misunderstanding about babies. I have been told by friends that babies who die without baptism go to purgatory and must be ‘prayed out’. Can you educate me on this – confirm or inform. It would seem that an infant would have no opportunity to sin or have established ‘habits or connections’ that need to be burned away.

    Also, just personal curiousity and wanting to read more, can you give the reference on the early Irish tradition that you referenced at the beginning.

    • Hi Elizabeth

      Up until recently, the commonly held view was that unbaptised babies went to limbo because they had committed no sins to necessitate Purgatory – yet were still stained with Original Sin and so couldn’t go straight to heaven.

      Recently, the Vatican released a document with the catchy title “The Hope of Salvation for Infants who Die without being Baptised” which can be found here:


      Which in very technical theologial language says that basically “infants who die without baptism are entrusted by the Church to the mercy of God”

      Not sure where your friends got the idea about babies being in Purgatory though…….


    • No, babies don’t go to Purgatory.

      The older thinking was that which resulted in the concept of Limbo – which was, let me emphasise, never taught as a formal doctrine to be believed, but as a ‘best guess’ kind of hypothesis.

      Briefly, if we (a) all of us, even babies, share in the Original Sin of our first parents and (b) must believe in Christ to be saved and (c) baptism is not just an ordinance, it is the gateway to being incorporated into Christ, what becomes of those who die without baptism but are not worthy of Hell, either because of their natural virtues (the virtuous pagans who have never had the opportunity to hear the Gospel) or because of their incapacity to commit personal sin (babies and young children who died unbaptised before attaining the age of reason)?

      On the one hand, nothing that is sinful can enter Heaven. On the other hand, it is unjust to punish those who are not at fault, and God is Just, so He cannot be unjust.

      Therefore, developing on the idea of the “Limbo of the Patriarchs” (the state of the ‘spirits in prison’ to whom Christ preached, as in 1 Peter: 13, where it was hypothesised the virtuous Jews such as Moses, etc. waited until the coming of Christ and the restoration of Heaven to man), the idea of Limbo as a place of perfect natural felicity, where the souls of the innocent could go, was put forward.

      It is not Heaven, because they did not possess the supernatural/cardinal virtues (faith, hope, charity) and so cannot attain to the Beatific Vision. It is not Purgatory, because they are not saved and will not be going on to Heaven once the temporal guilt has been purged. It is not Hell, because there is no punishment or torments.

      Recent thinking has changed that, as the Pope put it back in 2007, we hope in the Divine Mercy and that the souls of unbaptised infants are indeed in Heaven, but we have no sure knowledge one way or the other.


      • Humm….interesting. I’m not sure about the idea of a soul being denied communion with God because the parents weren’t fast enough to the baptismal font, so I’m glad that is being rethought. . And then the example of the thief on the cross being told he would go to paradise.

        Thank you for explaining all of this. 🙂 As others have said, I don’t necesarily agree, but I’m glad to have a better understanding.

    • Re: the Irish penitential tradition – from the online version of the 1913 Catholic Encylopedia, the article on the Sacrament of Penance:

      “The practice, moreover, was regulated in detail by the Penitential Books, which prescribed the canonical penance for each sin, and minute questions for the examination of the penitent. The most famous of these books among the Greeks were those attributed to John the Faster and to John the Monk. In the West similar works were written by the Irish monks St. Columbanus (d. 615) and Cummian, and by the Englishmen Ven. Bede (d. 735), Egbert (d. 767), and Theodore of Canterbury (d. 690). Besides the councils mentioned above (Minister) decrees pertaining to confession were enacted at Worms (868), Paris (820), Châlons (813, 650), Tours (813), Reims (1113). The Council of Chaleuth (785) says: “if any one (which God forbid) should depart this life without penance or confession he is not to be prayed for”. The significant feature about these enactments is that they do not introduce confession as a new practice, but take it for granted and regulate its administration. Hereby they put into practical effect what had been handed down by tradition.”

      Articles on Wikipedia, which you may or may not consider to be a reputable source 🙂

      The Monastic Rule of St. Columbanus, online at CELT (database of Irish manuscripts hosted by University College Cork):


      “A diversity of faults should be cured by the application of a diversity of penance. Therefore, my dearest brethren: It has been ordained, my dearest brethren, by the holy fathers that we make confession before meat or before entering our beds or whenever it is opportune of all failings, not only mortal ones, but also of minor omissions’’ since confession and penance free from death. Therefore not even the very small sins are to be omitted from confession, since, as it is written, “He who omits small things gradually declines’’ so that confession should be made before meat, before entering our beds, or whenever it is opportune to make it.

      Thus him who has not kept grace at table and has not responded ‘Amen’, it is ordained to correct with six blows. Likewise him who has spoken while eating, not because of the wants of another brother, it is ordained to correct with six. If one has called anything his own, with six blows. And him who has not blessed the spoon with which he sups with six blows, and him who has spoken with a shout, that is, has talked in a louder tone than the usual, with six blows.” etc. (it goes on for a long list of faults and what should be the appropriate penances).

      For all those who like to witter on about Celtic Christianity (versus the mean ole Roman Christianity considered to have been imposed after the Synod of Whitby), the Irish were very austere: they went into ‘internal exile’, into places such as Skellig Mhicil, and practised asceticisms such as standing up to the waist in cold rivers or lakes while reciting the Psalms.

      • <> I thought all that was self-imposed before the Roman impact vs imposed by others – the ‘green’ and ‘white’ martyr thing. But my reading is somewhat limited to the book Celtic Christianity by Joyce, so I’m not very well versed on the subject.

        • Exactly the point, Elizabeth. I get the urge to tear out my hair when I see much maundering online and in RL about “Celtic Christianity” because it’s all about some lovely, fluffy, nature-loving, tree-hugging, equal-rights, free-spirited warm fuzziness – and then the mean ol’ Romans goose-stepped in from the Continent and imposed guilt and repression on the British Isles.

          Whereas, as you say, if you look at the historical actuality, the Irish were happily being all ascetic and austere and penitential all on their own for ages before the Normans showed up.

  15. Well written, clear explanation, humorous, insightful, enjoyable, and yet…unconvinced. Thanks for your work Martha.

    • That’s as good as I can hope for, Brendan. Thank you very much. If it at least comes across as “Okay, I can see that they have a reason for thinking that other than that they’re all nuts”, then my work here is done.


  16. Martha,

    like some others, I’m not convinced either, but you’ve given me much to chew on. Thank you so much for such a clear-eyed explanation of Purgatory. Now, I can’t simply dismiss it as “medieval Catholic superstition” or some such throwaway.

    I am very glad that you are a part of this blog.

  17. Well written as usual, Martha- thank you.

    For the one who asked about the Orthodox view, hopefully Fr Ernesto will drop by. I also offer some quotes from this page:
    part of a series written by Fr Thomas Hopko, Dean Emeritus of St Vladimir’s Seminary.

    “The Kingdom of heaven is already in the midst of those who live the spiritual life. What the spiritual person knows in the Holy Spirit, in Christ and the Church, will come with power and glory for all men to behold at the end of the ages.

    “The final coming of Christ will be the judgment of all men. His very presence will be the judgment. …For those who love the Lord, His Presence will be infinite joy, paradise and eternal life. For those who hate the Lord, the same Presence will be infinite torture, hell and eternal death. The reality for both the saved and the damned will be exactly the same when Christ ‘comes in glory, and all angels with Him,’ so that ‘God may be all in all.’ (I Corinthians 15-28) … [T]he ‘fire’ that will consume sinners at the coming of the Kingdom of God is the same ‘fire’ that will shine with splendor in the saints. It is the “fire” of God’s love; the ‘fire’ of God Himself who is Love. ‘For our God is a consuming fire’ (Hebrews 12:29) who ‘dwells in unapproachable light’. (I Timothy 6:16) For those who love God and who love all creation in Him, the ‘consuming fire’ of God will be radiant bliss and unspeakable delight. For those who do not love God, and who do not love at all, this same ‘consuming fire’ will be the cause of their ‘weeping’ and their ‘gnashing of teeth.’

    “Thus it is the Church’s spiritual teaching that God does not punish man by some material fire or physical torment. God simply reveals Himself in the risen Lord Jesus in such a glorious way that no man can fail to behold His glory. It is the presence of God’s splendid glory and love that is the scourge of those who reject its radiant power and light.”

    So, in Orthodoxy there is no “Purgatory” as a place for satisfaction of temporal justice for the saved before the Lord’s return. However, some of the great Orthodox teachers have written that the Presence of God at the Lord’s return will have a purgative effect on those who belong to him, because no one is sinless, and we have an eternity to progress in recovering the likeness of God which we lost when the first humans turned from God as the source of their life (we never lost the image of God). We begin that now as we live a life of “purging” of all that gets in the way of loving God and one another, helped by prayer, fasting, almsgiving, care for the poor and outcast (all mentioned by Jesus) and by the sacramental life and worship of the church.

    In addition, some of these holy and great Christian teachers, notably St Gregory of Nyssa and St Isaac of Nineveh, as well as some others among the Orthodox saints, have expressed the possibility that all people, once confronted with the unfiltered love of God, will eventually freely turn to Him, and will also join the rest who have previously turned to God. No one “gets off Scot-free” without undergoing judgment and cleansing, and there is definitely an advantage to turning to God sooner rather than later. Met. Kallistos Ware discusses this in the last chapter of his book, “The Inner Kingdom”. This is the “minority view” but to my knowledge has never been declared heretical. Orthodoxy is very inclined to entrust people to God’s mercy, and some of our greatest saints have prayed for the salvation of all. When asked about friends and family outside the church, Met. Philaret of New York (d.1985) is reported to have said, “The Lord, ‘Who will have all men to be saved’ (1Tim 2.4) and ‘Who enlightens every man born into the world’ (Jn 1.43) undoubtedly is leading them also towards salvation in His own way… They have a Saviour Who desires the salvation of every human being. He will take care of them. You and I should not be burdened with such a concern. Study yourself and your own sins…”


    • Thanks, Dana!

    • Dana, I read Met. Kallistos Ware’s book The Inner Kingdom and liked it very much. I also like very much the quotation you wrote here from Met. Philaret. There is great wisdom in his statement!

    • “…as well as some others among the Orthodox saints, have expressed the possibility that all people, once confronted with the unfiltered love of God, will eventually freely turn to Him, and will also join the rest who have previously turned to God.”

      This is one of the many things that attracts me to Orthodoxy, but where I live the possibilities to participate in a life of an Orthodox parish are very limited while the presence of RC is quite abundant and because I want to find a true home and not to “stay in the hallway” I will have to make a decision especially because of the children.

      Thanks Dana very much

      • Martin,

        I do know what you mean about wanting to settle into a home. I spent nine years in the Ev. wilderness waiting to see where the Lord would lead me, and Orthodoxy really came out of left field for me. It was about three years between when it first “came on the radar screen” and when I was finally received.

        I drive 65 minutes one way to Liturgy. It’s hard for me to participate in parish life, that’s true, and even more so because of my husband’s wish that I make the trip only on Sunday and the church feasts. (He is not in agreement with my becoming Orthodox; also, our kids are all grown and out of the house and he’s lonesome when I’m not there.) At my parish, there are some things I can do while I’m there on Sunday. A lot of folks are on line and we have a Yahoo email list, so I’m not entirely out of the loop.

        I hope some Orthodox parish possibilities open up for you.

  18. As part of of an Pastoral search committee we were interviewing a potential candidate for Pastor. He was asked: “Are there certain things that you tend to avoid when preaching?” He responded:
    “Those items that are outside of recorded history, the creation of the world, and how the world will end seem to be a little fuzzy compare to the rest of scripture. I like to focus on the part in the middle that is so much clearer. So, you won’t find me preaching a lot about whether the return of Christ pre or post tribulation, or on what happens after death. Quite frankly the Bible isn’t clear enough in the details for me to spend a lot of time on it.”

    I quite liked his response. We called him as Pastor.

  19. I love reading from Martha of Ireland she is a great writer and a great Christian sister as far as I am concerned, however I don’t agree about purgatory. When Jesus told the thief on the cross he would be with him that day in paradise that is enough for me. Also, if Our Lord didn’t satisfy the sacrifice for sin once and for all, what was the point of His coming and taking our suffering on Himself. As for praying for the dead, I probably pray for my deceased husband daily–not that he be saved or have sin removed from him (that’s settled as far as I’m concerned), but that his heavenly journey would be one of continued growth and happiness. It’s good to hear explanations of differing view points for the sake of understanding our brothers and sisters. I find that I’m just very protestant on some issues and would have to agree to disagree.

  20. My introduction to a non-reactive view of Purgatory came in the charismatic church. There are numerous preachers and “experiential” writers that discuss a purifying fire. I bring it up just to say that although the word “purgatory” is not applied to their ideas, it still exists and holds credence. The idea that we are clothed in Christ’s righteousness but desire to have ourselves cleansed to be with the Holy One is not a liturgical church view alone.

  21. i do not agree with the official RCC teaching of Purgatory, however, i do agree with the idea of purification even if immediately in the presence of Jesus upon death…

    The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire.” Rev 1:14

    yeah, i would think that anyone standing in the presence of the Glorified One would not be able to withstand the gaze of such intense scrutiny, no matter how loving one wishes to understand this Jesus whom we worship…

    yeah, i could easily see myself undone in such a scenario & everything not of Him cauterized by the intensity of such a burning gaze of love. instantly? or even so intensely we are purified in such a way as our spiritual state can handle without being obliterated?

    and then we consider it actually part of the process of being in His presence? not punitive at all, but definitely preparatory? and even loving???


    • additional thoughts:

      i was never comfortable or totally accepting of the notion of Purgatory when i was a practicing Catholic…

      since its details were deliberately ambiguous or sketchy, the added guilt factor of doing things to lessen the time of loved ones that had passed seemed to be about as theologically manipulative as anything Protestanism later cooked up in its ~500 year history…

      nothing really freeing in its consideration. nothing really comforting either. as if the wondering of the eternal state of loved ones at the time of death insufficient theological angst to deal with. no, you needed additional ‘what-ifs’ that worked the guilt factor even harder for those poor suffering souls while we are enjoying our natural lives here upon the earth…

      the way i figured it was this: as a theological minimalist i simply concluded if one is indeed in Purgatory, then “whew, they were in!” if not, well, the added guilt factor & other specific ritual observances intended to shorten time there a waste of time anyway…

      even as a pre-teenager the doctrinal considerations simply did not compute. and this was way before anyone had a notion of what that slogan really meant. i was no theological prodigy, but heck, there were a few key doctrinal concerns i had even as i was immersed in RCC religious practice…

  22. In John 19:30 Jesus said “It is finished” not “it is finished for the most part.”

  23. Martha-

    I love you as a poster and consider this a big bear hig from Washignton, D.C. But the idea of purgatory which I was taught growing up Catholic and reinforced through All Saints day is kind of like the Catholic version of the rapture for me. Fundgelicals are masters at twisting and weaving the Bible and through their pciking and choosing you have the “Voila the rapture” based theology. Its bad theology and has its own issues. But I would suggest that the Catholic church has a lot of issues going for it. But the idea of purgatory is not one of them. From my perspective (and if I am wrong call me on the carpet….) purgatory is stretching and picking apart some scripture from the book of the Bible that Protestants rejected and as far fetched as the rapture.

    If I am making my theological argument made on bad information I will retreat. Hugs from DC 😀

    • *gets out big nun ruler to rap you over knuckles*

      All Souls’ Day, Eagle, not All Saints’ Day! Did you not read the bit where I carefully included the 2nd November as the day for visiting graveyards and praying for the souls of our families, friends and benefactors?


      As for the rest, that’ fine. If to you it’s stretching Scripture, then that’s a genuine problem of interpretation that has to be addressed to youir intellectual satisfaction.

      • Eagle see Mother Superior pull out the ruler and terrified he runs for his life!!! 😯

        • Just be glad we don’t have women’s ordination. If I were Pope… let’s just say, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith would be a heck of a lot busier (and some of that would be dusting off the equipment down in the dungeons) 😉

  24. Hi Martha,

    Someone brought this up in an earlier comment, but I was hoping you’d have enough time to address it:

    Did the thief on the cross, to whom Jesus said he would join the Lord in Paradise, not need Purgatory? (Forgive me if this has already been asked/answered.)

    • I cannot answer for Martha, but if God Himself gives you Absolution, the life review and learning inherent in Purgatory probably doesn’t apply. However, many of us fail to note and regret all of our sins prior to temporal death (MHOO)

      • The Church talks about Purgatory in very loose, non-specific terms. Very few paragraphs are devoted to it in the Cathechism. It is essentially a mystery.

        There is a lot of freedom in how it is viewed. The “fire” is a spiritual or emotional fire. Real fire won’t do too much to a incorporeal soul. Souls are outside of time–so purgatory can’t be thought of in terms of today or one week or one hundred years. We just don’t know.

        I tend to look at Purgatory as coming face-to-face with the God who loves me more than I can possibly understand here on earth. When I see him face-to-face I will understand how all consuming his love is and how my faith and love has been miserly in return. My understanding of what it means to be his son is so limited and incomplete compared to what Sonship he will give. It’s the fire of radical love and radical forgiveness.

        Looked at from that perspective, as the all consuming love of God for a sinful creature, the Good Thief may have experienced purgatory. We just don’t know.

    • flatrocker says

      The doctrine of Purgatory does not require every last one of us to pass through it. The thief on the cross proves this. If one passes on in a perfect state of grace with a total sense of contrition (like the thief on the cross), there is no need for purification.

      For most of the rest of us however…..

      Oh how I love Thee, I turn my life over to Thee… but it’s that darn baggage that I carry. How do I release it?
      Dear Lord please purify – if not in this life then in the next.

      • Flatrocker, I didn’t state that everyone goes to purgatory. I said it’s a mystery and we just don’t know. I didn’t say the good thief went to purgatory, I said we don’t know. It’s a mystery.

        My main point is that purgatory isn’t necessarily seen as a place of suffering inflicted by a spiteful, angry God. It not a place where we are cleansed by torment, but a place where we are cleansed by love. St Catherine of Genoa described it as a place where we we recognize our utter sinful creaturehood and the poverty of our response to an all loving God,who continued to love us even as we squandered and wasted his grace.

  25. Here’s link to a talk Pope John Paul II gave about Purgatory. Take not that he says that purgatory is more an experience than a place.


  26. I have to get involved in this discussion, because Purgatory was the first uniquely Catholic doctrine that I believed in, and that led directly to my reconciliation with the Catholic Church.

    I was attending a Bible study, led by the assistant pastor of my boss’s parish. One night at question and answer time, Fr. Dave was asked about Purgatory. His explanation of it as being a time and place where unfinished business is taken care of, hit me hard. I could not shake my sudden, completely unexpected acceptance of the doctrine. (And at the time, I used some spiritual weapons that hadn’t failed me )

    The Scripture that I link it to is the passage about how some people’s works will be burned in the fire, but they themselves will be saved.
    Another passage that could point toward Purgatory is the parable of the unforgiving servant, who is thrown into prison, until his debt is paid,

    I’m not sure if I missed it or not, because I didn’t see a distinction between the forgiveness of sin and the temporal effects of sin. They are different. Imagine a kid is jumping around the house and knocks over a large piece of furniture, injuring his knee at the same time. His parents would forgive the furniture damage, but the boy would have the possibility of a knee problem the rest of his life. Purgatory heals the knee injury.

    Another image of Purgatory that is fairly common is house cleaning, in preparation for a king’s visit. Most of us don’t keep our houses in that good of shape, yet we welcome the visit. So we spend time cleaning. The cleaning time is Purgatory.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      One night at question and answer time, Fr. Dave was asked about Purgatory. His explanation of it as being a time and place where unfinished business is taken care of, hit me hard. I could not shake my sudden, completely unexpected acceptance of the doctrine.

      That’s the best analogy I’ve ever heard to describe it. Just because you’re Saved (TM) doesn’t mean you don’t have unwanted baggage/unfinished business that needs to be taken care of.

      And Purgatory resolves a logical paradox. You have two people; one was Saved (TM) early on and lived a Godly (TM) life, the other could have understudied for Antichrist and got Saved (TM) near the end of his life, with everything he did before that and their side/aftereffects still echoing. Both are Saved (TM), both are entering into Heaven. Just one has done things worthy of St Francis and the other of Adolf Hitler, and what they have done in their lives has also shaped their selves and souls.

      Yet they’re both Saved (TM). “Under the Blood” and all that. (This dilemma is much more obvious with the Altar Call/Say-the-Magic-Words take on “Getting Saved (TM)”.)

      Purgatory resolves this paradox, simply and elegantly. The second guy has got to take care of the unfinished business and heal his soul from what he did all that life before that End-of-Life Altar Call. Which takes “time”. (At least subjective time.) And that “taking care of business” and healing up to enter into Deep Heaven is Purgatory.

    • I’m thinking of the lizard in “The Great Divorce” — the man needed to be purged of it in order to stay in heaven.

    • Anna A, I like your comments and I, too, considered the passages in the Gospel you refer to as indicating there may be some kind of passage that some people refer to as purgatory. I don’t have a problem with the concept of purgatory, though I think we all have no idea of what it really is like and we have no idea about the “time” involved in purgatory because we don’t understand eternity. Our concepts of days, weeks, months, whatever won’t work when we talk about purgatory, heaven, etc. Which is why I know I am going to have some issues when Martha gives us her next post about Indulgences. I just want that whole Indulgences thing to go away!

  27. Bill Ferrell says

    A very good post. I enjoyed it!

  28. Christiane says

    6 “Then flew one of the seraphims unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar:

    7 And he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged. ”

    from Isaiah, chapt. 6

  29. Hi Ms. Martha,

    I have been looking for a larger version of the same pictures you posted in this article under “4) Who are these “Holy Souls” you mention?” section. Do you know the name of the artist or where can I get/purchase a poster size picture. Please help! This picture do wonder for the children when we explain what is going on at the Mass.

    Thank you and God Bless,
    Ly Lora

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