I cherish every dogma of our holy Catholic Faith. Every dogma is a gift from God, a “pearl of great price” (Matthew 13:46). Every verse from holy scripture, New as well as Old Testament, is sacred. In the Old Testament we have the Psalms. They are such a joy to read, a comfort to reflect on, a challenge to lift us up and give us confidence; they are a prelude to the Beatitudes. There is no way a person of “good will” could read the Psalms and the Gospels and not be convinced that this the “Word” of God.
Purgatory, on the other hand, is, for me, the most challenging dogma of our Faith, even more so than “no salvation outside the Church.” Not in regard to grave sinners who convert at the end of their life, but for faithful Catholics who suffer terribly before death. Yes, some of them (God knows, we don’t) do their purgation here before death. But most not only suffer here but they will suffer yet more in Purgatory. That truth is a challenge to my faith (small “f”). A challenge that I embrace and fully accept.
Death is horrible enough. Without the Cross of Christ, death is outrageous. There would be no one saved. But why such a severe sentence? I do not know. God wills it. That is enough. To even entertain a hesitating question about it, in light of sin, betrays the arrogance of a creature, who is nothing, daring to confront Him who is all Powerful, Just and Merciful. I do get something of an understanding of death and sin when I think about the Passion, especially the Agony in the Garden. Everything about the Passion should give us something of an understanding about the terrible offense of sin, of a creature’s turning away from a loving God.
But, it still does not give me an understanding about Purgatory for someone with the Faith and contrition (and maybe last rites) who has gone through excruciating torment, drawn out, and is denied immediate entry into heaven. Reading some of the revelations about Purgatory is frightening. And it should be. If you want to have the hell and purgatory scared out of you read Father F.X. Schouppe, S.J.’s book Purgatory.
Saint Catherine of Genoa, on the other, gives me a more balanced understanding in her writings wherein she says that the souls in Purgatory, whom she communicated with, have a joy beyond any joy to be imagined in this life. Still, according to many fathers of the Church, their suffering is beyond anything to be imagined in this life. Nevertheless, the fathers of the Council of Trent decreed that we must leave this mystery of the kind of pain in Purgatory to God, for it is not part of revelation. How this fire affects the souls of the departed we simply do not know (how could we?), and in such matters it is well to heed the warning of the Council of Trent in its session on Purgatory when it commands the bishops “to exclude from their preaching difficult and subtle questions which tend not to edification, and from the discussion of which there is no increase either in piety or devotion” (Sess. XXV, “De Purgatorio”). Note here that the Council fathers were speaking of “subtle questions” about the fires of Purgatory not the doctrine itself.
It is enough, the Council declared, to believe what is revealed clearly in scripture: It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins. (2 Machabees 12:46).
I do not know what good it does “for piety or devotion” to highlight opinions that are exaggerated, such as one I just read, which maintains that the fiery torments of Purgatory are so much more severe than any pains one can experience in this world that the latter pains would be like looking at a picture of a fire compared to roasting in the real thing. No doubt this kind of bizarre analogy is what the Council fathers at Trent were concerned about.
Saint Thomas Aquinas teaches that the pain experienced by a soul separated from the body in Purgatory is ligative, just as it is for the souls and fallen spirits in hellfire. By this he does not mean to diminish its as a torment but to accentuate that for a separated, immaterial soul the fire torments by ligation, binding the soul as it were, imprisoning it within its walls. Thusly, though the fire is a material, created fire, it cannot “burn” the immaterial soul, but it does torment it, because the soul is afflicted in other ways by the fire, which fire is God’s instrument of justice in the process of purging the effects of sins that were committed by illicit indulgence in the abuse of corporeal things.
“[The] fire of its nature is able to have an incorporeal spirit united to it as a thing placed is united to a place; that as the instrument of Divine justice it is enabled to detain it enchained as it were, and in this respect this fire is really hurtful to the spirit, and thus the soul seeing the fire as something hurtful to it is tormented by the fire.” (Summa Theologica Supplement Question 70, article 3)
Perhaps we can understand this better by considering how our soul is affected by our own physical pains. A headache is totally physical, nevertheless my soul is not at all happy when I have a headache. It wants to be rid of the pain, to be rid of any physical pain. Body and soul suffer together.
Many of the doctors of the Church are agreed in holding that the “fire” in Purgatory is the same as that which God created for “the devil and his angels” in hell, only that it is temporary. The souls in Purgatory, however, will never have the accidental pain that will afflict the bodies of the damned after the resurrection. In the horrifying vision of hell that Our Lady gave the Fatima children the damned souls looked like transparent burning embers tossed about “in a sea of fire.”
With the souls in Purgatory, the fire purifies. Not so with the damned. The souls in Purgatory have a great joy in their suffering; they want to be purified and to be made spotless, because they have supernatural charity and love God in their purification, a love for God far more than they had on earth. Each soul undergoing purgation suffers unexpiated temporal punishment for his sins to the degree that his will turned from God’s grace in this life. Hence each soul suffers differently, some more so, others less so, according to Divine Justice.
I hope that I am not misunderstood. I believe firmly by Faith in praying for the souls that have suffered much before death and in offering Masses for them — for only God knows their hearts even during the torments of death. How few, no matter the degree of pain in death, can fully expiate the temporal punishment due to their sins. Perhaps the “few” are “many;” we do not know, therefore it is indeed “a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins.” Martyrdom, however, takes away all temporal punishment due to sin.
“There shall not enter into [the heavenly Jerusalem] any thing defiled, or that worketh abomination or maketh a lie, but they that are written in the book of life of the Lamb” (Apocalypse 21:27).
“For other foundation no man can lay, but that which is laid; which is Christ Jesus. Now if any man build upon this foundation, gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble: Every man’ s work shall be manifest; for the day of the Lord shall declare it, because it shall be revealed in fire; and the fire shall try every man’ s work, of what sort it is. If any man’ s work abide, which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man’ s work burn, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as by fire” (1 Corinthians 3:11-15). (my emphasis).
We must not forget that God’s mercy is also at work tempering His Justice in Purgatory. Thus the good works done by the faithful during their lives, their almsgiving, their devotion to Our Lady, their prayerful attendance at First Friday and Saturday Masses, and the Sabbatine Privilege associated with their wearing of the Brown Scapular, all these, and so much more, do indeed mitigate the temporal punishment due to sin both in this life and the next. And, God’s Mercy is also extended through the prayers of the faithful on earth, especially when joined to the holy sacrifice of the Mass.
Lastly, after the Mass, there is nothing more purifying for the soul in this life than a true devotion to Jesus and Mary. And there is no devotion to Mary greater than holy slavery to her Immaculate Heart. So, if you want a briefer lay-over in Purgatory, live the consecration of holy slavery to the Mother of God. In these days of the final and decisive battle Our Lady assured the children of Fatima, on July 13, 1917, that she alone will be able to help us.