How does Purgatory work?
As established, Purgatory is the cleansing or purification, through temporal punishment, of the souls of those who have died in a state of grace but are not worthy to enter into the Beatific Vision. The Nature of this cleansing has been the source of long debate, especially in the early through the Medieval Church, with people questioning, for instance, whether the souls in Purgatory knew that they would eventually reach Heaven. The understanding of such matters long ago reached a good consensus, which runs approximately thus:
The individual in purgatory knows that he has died in a state of grace and will one day attain salvation in heaven. This is the result of the particular judgment to which each soul is subjected upon death – God has laid the state of the deceased person’s soul before him, and thus the soul knows all the graces it has received and all the sins it has committed, and what eternal fate it truly deserves.
This knowledge a) that one isn’t quite good enough for Heaven and b) that one will actually get there someday and that it will be the very definition of happiness, is a large part of the expiation of the soul. It is guilt at the wrongdoings that mar one’s soul – guilt after all, is painful, and guilt on the part of the exposed soul, after it has been stripped of its worldly concerns and distractions and had its sins shown to it by God, is VERY painful. This purification that comes through longing and guilt makes excellent sense in the context of the Traditional Christian understanding of pain and penance.
Modern society’s sanitized tylenol-driven approach to pain as something completely undesirable and negative is incorrect. The Church has always taught, as Christ taught, that “we need penance to make us do things we do not want to do.” It was Christ’s pain on the cross, in obedience to the Father, that made satisfaction for original sin, and, likewise, our sufferings and pain, even here on earth assist us by mortifying our desires and providing expiation and satisfaction for our sins. Thus, our sufferings and sacrifices are our most potent weapon in combating evil here on earth, and are for most people the avenue through which we enter into Heaven.
We saw an excellent example of the Christian understanding of suffering in John Paul the Great during the last years of his life. Far from being something that dehumanizes us, pain, if we accept it willingly and offer it to Christ as a necessary burden carried for His sake, actually makes us more fully human. It brings us into a greater union with Christ, because we can join not merely our prayers with His, but our pain with His. When we consider that our freedom from death has been bought at the price of Christ's pain, that His blood was the article of exchange for our salvation, the importance of accepting suffering -- both here on earth and eventually in Purgatory -- becomes far clearer, and makes much more sense.
Update: A lot of the time, you will see popular depictions of devils in Purgatory. This is incorrect -- the cleansing punishment of Purgatory is completely different and detached from the punative punishment of Hell. Devils, being damned, are confined to Hell and have no part in the activity of Purgatory.
File Under: Doctrine