The first two are purified by “the penetrating love of Christ,” he said.
But for the temporal punishment of sin, which can also be described as a “moral debt,” we can be helped by the prayers of other Christians, he said. Because “the fact is that with our sins, not only do we offend God, and we do damage to ourselves, but also we do damage to other people.”
Q. Is purgatory a place or is it, as Pope Benedict XVI said, citing St. Catherine of Genoa, more of “an interior fire”?
“There are a lot of theological speculations on this particular issue,” O’Callaghan explained.
He said the fire of purgatory has been interpreted by modern theologians such as Yves Congar, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI) as “the fire of the face of Christ.”
“And in that sense it’s like a fire,” he said, referencing 1 Corinthians 3:13, which says: “the work of each will come to light, for the Day will disclose it. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire [itself] will test the quality of each one’s work.”
That passage refers to the “idea of a fire that is purifying, that gets rid of the things that are wrong and bad,” the priest said.
“But,” he emphasized, “at the same time, it’s not an impersonal fire: It’s the fire of the one who loves us and saves us and looks after us” — it is the “fire that emanates from the face of Christ.”
Q. What do non-Catholic Christians believe about purgatory?
“In general, Protestants have denied the doctrine of purgatory,” O’Callaghan said.
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This denial dates back to the 16th century and the Protestant Reformation, he said, when Martin Luther and John Calvin thought Catholics were making two mistakes: denying God’s capacity to forgive sins and making salvation dependent on human works.
“In fact, Calvin went so far as to say that the ancient practice of praying for the dead was a mistake, that they shouldn’t have been doing it, and they should have just left things in God’s hands,” the priest said. “But of course, we know that salvation is in God’s hands.”
“As Catholics, we know that God is the one who saves us,” he continued. “But we also recognize the fact that God’s saving power is involved in our lives [in a way], which we have to accept and receive intelligently and willingly with all our heart.”
“And that is a painful process because we have to overcome the sinful inclinations that are present in our lives,” he said. “So that’s why you might say the purifying process, which will take place in a definitive way after death, is already taking place in this life.”
O’Callaghan said St. John of the Cross, a contemporary of Luther and Calvin, was someone who developed the idea of the continuity between purification on earth and purification after death.
“In other words, the idea that precisely because God’s grace renews us and goes deeply into our soul, that produces a purifying process ... which may not be complete by the time a person dies, before the end of their lives.”