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5 Common Misconceptions about Purgatory

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. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1030) 

1. It's not just a giant waiting room.

Or a waiting game, or a place or time at all. As St. John Paul II said,

"The term does not indicate a place, but a condition of existence. Those who, after death, exist in a state of purification, are already in the love of Christ who removes from them the remnants of imperfection" (General Audience, 4 August 1999).

This makes it clear that after death, we will not all be sitting in the reception area of a doctor's office, waiting for our name to be called so we can enter the Kingdom. We are outside the realm of time when we leave behind our earthly bodies, and as such, we have no measurement of what this purification requires.

2. It's not re-judgment.

It's not a trial for our souls. Our eternal resting place has already been determined, this is preparation for that place. Purgatory is the part of judgment where all of our imperfections, wrongdoings, ungodliness, and stains are purged before entrance into the Kingdom of God. Nothing impure or less than perfect may meet the Lord, and therefore we must be made pure in order to enter His Light. However, being made pure is not contingent on a second judgment; once we have "made it" to purgatory, so to speak, we already know we have been saved! We are simply being made perfect, as our Heavenly Father is perfect, so that we can enter into eternal praise and worship of Him.

Our particular judgment happens at the moment of our death. We are immediately judged and it is established whether we choose to spend eternity with the Lord and the Communion of Saints, or whether we choose an eternity separated from all that is good and holy. Purgatory is not an opportunity for us to be confronted by our mistakes and try again. At this point, it has already been determined that we are saved! We actively choose this chance for a little extra help to be absolutely perfect before we make it to our final state of being one with God.

4. It's not an opportunity for repentance, nor is it punishment.

Purgatory is not a confessional; there is not priest waiting to absolve us of our sins upon becoming part of this reality. Similarly, this is not a state of torture for all of our transgressions. Once we are dead, we cannot repent, do penance, or actively choose to sin no more (because we are dead… It's impossible to sin more.) The purification that we undergo is holy fire, but this does not equate to punishment. It is a purging and interior fire whose only pain lies in the fact that in that moment, we are not yet with God.

5. It's not up to you at all!

Our purification and cleansing in purgatory depend on the prayers, penance, and indulgences of the living. After our deaths, we must rely on the goodness of those who survive to pray for us so that we might enter into the Kingdom. In purgatory, souls may intercede for the living, but not for themselves.

We only get one soul. The soul we are born with is the soul we will carry with us into eternal life. Because of this, everything we do in this life shapes what our souls will look like once we pass away. We are not just bodies! We are body and soul. The person we become during our earthly life does not disappear when we die! We have the opportunity now to become the whole person we would want to meet our Creator. Let us do our very best to live in such a way that we acquire a taste for heaven and let us pray for the purification of the souls in purgatory! November is set aside as a special month to pray for the souls in purgatory.


Sara is currently a graduate Theology student at the University of Notre Dame through the Echo program. She enjoys pizza, coffee, and arguing with her father about whether or not Jesus was Jewish (he was, for the record). If you know Cardinal Dolan, please contact Sara because she would love to be working for him come 2017. 

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