ViewpointRediscovering the Authentic Catholic Vision of Purgatory

On November 2, the Church throughout the world celebrates the Commemoration of All Souls, a day which, though popular in days gone by, has been neglected in recent decades. This neglect may be a reaction to an overly negative view of purgatory and a severe notion of divine judgment.

The concept of purgatory is, however, essential to Catholic theology and practice. Granted, the concept of purgatory was often badly preached. Many people thought of purgatory, as Hungarian theologian Ladislaus Boros pointed out, as "a gigantic city of torment, a cosmic concentration camp, in which wailing, groaning, and moaning creatures are  punished by God."

Perhaps the most profound truth embodied in the doctrine of purgatory is that we are not frozen, so to speak, in the moral and human condition that obtains at the moment of death. If we arrive at death's door as imperfect and incomplete Christians, far from the holiness of the saints, we are not condemned forever to that state.

God still reaches out to us and calls us to himself, to a completion of our life-long journey into Christ. Purgatory should be seen as a process of dynamic transformation and sanctification, a completion of what began in us at baptism.

Anglican theologian John Macquarrie expresses this well when he says that purgatory is one aspect of the process of sanctification whereby we are conformed to Christ. It is the completion of the process of putting on the mind and attitude of Christ.

In the twelfth century, William of Auvergne described purgatory as the fulfillment of our earthly penance. If penance is understood as a process of conversion and transformation, we will come to see purgatory not as a fearsome reality, but as the consummation of the whole movement of Christian life to salvation.

But what about the fire of purgatory?  The early fathers of the Church saw the fire of purgatory as a creative fire that cleansed and purified. The fire of purgatory is the living fire of the Holy Spirit, not the fire of destruction and desolation. St. Catherine of Genoa spoke of "the purgatory of God's burning love." We can link this with the mystical tradition which spoke of union with God as entry into a divine fire, into what St. John of the Cross called "the living flame of love."

The pain of purgatory, then, is not the pain of divine punishment and wrath, but the pain of growth and transformation, the pain of breaking out of the old self into the new. Purgatorial suffering, according to John Macquarrie, comes from "the painful surrender of the ego-centered self" so that the God-centered self may emerge.

It is vital that prayer for the dead not be seen as bleak bargaining with a harsh God who casts imperfect souls into a ferocious, if temporary, pit. It must rather be conceived of and practiced as a warm and generous outpouring of love for those who have gone before us. It is an act of solidarity by which we accompany the dead on their pilgrimage to final perfection and happiness. It is a testament on our part to the worth and goodness of the departed, offered to a God who wills our salvation.

We would do well, then, to celebrate All Souls' Day by making our own the kind of spirituality – by no means my invention – that I have set out here. Attending Mass on All Souls' Day and remembering our own deceased relatives and friends – indeed all souls who ever lived – throughout the month of November are practices that need to be recovered and pastorally promoted.

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