Image: Baroque fresco, 1749, Simon Benedikt Faistenberger. Saint Ulrich am Pillersee parish church: Virgin Mary gives a black penitence belt to Saint Augustine and his mother Saint Monica. At the bottom, with this belt Saint Nicholas of Tolentino is freeing poor souls from the purgatory.
One thing we see through the history of the Church is that, with certain doctrines, something changes in the way they are understood. Take, for example, purgatory.
In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, you might be surprised to know that there are only three paragraphs devoted to it (1030, 1031, and 1032). The first states that those who die in God’s friendship, but are still imperfectly purified, are assured of eternal salvation. They undergo a purification to achieve the necessary holiness.
It states that this purification is totally different from those in hell, which is eternal separation from God. Many of the visionary saints have described the suffering as a purifying fire, but that is not part of our revelation. It is only an image of suffering for us to contemplate since the body is buried in the ground and the soul, in its imperfect union with God, could not suffer from any physical punishment.
First, we have to remember that purgatory is a very important and essential doctrine of the Church. Scripture emphasized that, when we die, we are accountable for our lives on earth. Jesus died for us in order for us to be saved. But we are still responsible for our lives and our sins. We cannot white wash this by saying, “It doesn’t matter what I do. I believe in Jesus. He cleanses me.” Yes, Jesus died, but we are still accountable.
Second, we must remember that, even if we die with sin on our souls, that does not keep us from heaven. What that means is our union with God is not perfect. Heaven is perfect union with God; purgatory is imperfect union with God. That’s why the Church says that those in this state "are assured of their eternal salvation.”
Third, if we talk about suffering, we should give up the idea of fire. We should concentrate more on the realization that, in this intermediate state, the imperfect souls now see God’s infinite goodness as well as their own sinfulness. Isn’t it a great suffering to experience, after the death of a loved one, the regret of not having done enough for them when they were alive? We think of all the things we could have done, our own selfishness, and so much more. Purgatory is better seen as a suffering for what might have been if we loved more.
So how does it end? Purgatory could be turned into simply a pity party for ourselves, which, of course, is more self-centeredness. The end comes when we finally surrender to God’s love, knowing that, even in our sins, God loved us as we are: weak and fragile sinners. We must allow God’s love to cleanse us. We must fall into his arms.