What Exactly is Purgatory?

The month of November is dedicated to praying for the souls in Purgatory. But that may make you wonder, what exactly is Purgatory? Whether you are a new Catholic or simply have never given it much thought, the teaching of Purgatory can be confusing.

That was the case for a listener named Lenore, who called in to Go Ask Your Father™ and told Monsignor Stuart Swetland, “I’ve just returned to the Catholic Church, and I am confused [about Purgatory]. I get two different ideas. One is that it is fire, and you are in fire until you’ve made up for the sins you’ve committed in your life. And then when you’re at that point you go to heaven. And the other is that the pain and the suffering that you have is that you know that you’re going to see God, but you don’t see Him there, so it’s a pain of separation. So which is it?”

Msgr. Swetland responded, “Well, we don’t know exactly. The image of fire partly comes from some private revelation that some of the saints received. But also Paul, in his writings to the church in Corinth, he talks about how all of our works and our lives will be tested by fire. And only that which is true and good will last. Much like the Psalm is used, the expression of us being purified like gold and silver are refined.”

“Well, if you’ve ever seen silver refined you know that they take it, they melt it, and then the dross comes to the top and they scrape it off,” he continued. “Some of the dross actually catches on fire and burns up. And they do that again and again and again. It’s those kinds of biblical metaphors or verses that lead people to talk about the fires of purgatory, but also some of the mystical experiences of the saints. The Church hasn’t dwelt on that in particular.”

Though we don’t know exactly what the experience of Purgatory will be like, we do know what it is. Msgr. Swetland explained, “What the Church teaches is that Purgatory is a state. It’s a state of being and it’s a process by which one is made more perfect, by the grace of God, for those who have not yet become perfected.”

“In the Catechism of the Catholic Church you can look at paragraph 1031 where a definition is given as a state of final purification after death, and before entering into heaven, for those who die in God’s friendship. So in that sense this is totally different than anything those who have rejected God would experience. But in some way we have to become perfected, and that’s what the state of purgation, or Purgatory, is.”

He pointed out that unlike Heaven or Hell, Purgatory is a transitional state. A soul in Heaven or Hell has no need for us to pray for them, because they have already reached their eternal destination. This is why we on earth offer our prayers and sacrifices for the souls in Purgatory, so that we may speed the transition of their souls from Purgatory into Heaven.

“It’s a state in between,” Msgr. Swetland said. “It doesn’t last because it’s only temporary and it won’t be there at the end. With the last four things, Purgatory isn’t one of them because it’s transitional. That’s why I like to talk about it as finishing school. Because it’s the finishing school of love, the perfecting school of love.”

Listen to the full conversation below, and tune-in to Go Ask Your Father weekdays at 1:00 p.m. Eastern/10:00 a.m. Pacific on Relevant Radio® and the Relevant Radio App.