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Purgatory: Service Shop for Heaven | Reverend Anthony Zimmerman
By no means will any of us enter heaven, or even want to
enter there, unless our characters are in perfect shape, and our deficits are
paid up in full. Purgatory is the service shop where repair work is done, and
where books are balanced. The Poor Souls must wait for entrance into heaven,
but they sense God's assistance while they make their final preparation. They
already know what he will say finally: "Well done, good and faithful servant! Enter
into the joys of the Lord." They understand and accept God's kindness as well
as his concern that justice be done. Their tension is pictured, albeit
imperfectly, in the drama of God's meeting with Adam and Eve after their sin.
Adam and Eve, after their transgression, saw their raw
nakedness and were ashamed. They fled into the woods to escape a face-to-face
encounter with the Lord God. But the Lord God went in search of them, like the
Good Shepherd, intending to bring them to a better state of mind:
Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they
were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons. And
they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the
day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God
among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, and said to
him, "Where are you?" And he said, "I heard the sound of thee in the garden,
and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself." He said, "Who told
you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you
not to eat?" The man said, "The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave
me fruit of the tree, and I ate." Then the LORD God said to the woman, "What is
this that you have done?" The woman said, "The serpent beguiled me, and I ate" (Gen. 3:7-13).
Note how the Lord God took the initiative to draw near to
Adam and Eve, like the Good Samaritan who paused in his journey to rescue a
victim of robbers. The victim lay there helpless, have alive, half dead. If God
had not come to the rescue of Adam and Eve, they would have remained alienated
from him forever. It is a picture of life after death, when we will indeed be
alive in mind, but dead in body, unable to move about on our own. We will be
totally at the mercy of God. When God finishes with the Particular Judgment, he
will direct us to join him in heaven, or to depart from him in hell, or to
repair our condition in purgatory.
God asked our first parents, first of all, what they had
done. They should get insight and confess voluntarily, with conviction. He will
not force them to act, nor impose alien views. They must bare themselves to
recognize the evil they had done. Seeing the truth, they must convert. Adam stuttered
through his confession, making excuses, but finally stating his sin with the
happy three words: "I ate it." Eve had an excuse too, but she also brought
herself to make the confession. The Lord God then gave them their penances.
They must convert, and thereafter stabilize and seal this conversion by
enduring pain and hardships. Eve must accept the realities of created womanhood
instead of trying to remake herself into a goddess. Adam must cope with thorns
and thistles and perspire from hard labor, to obey God rather than caving in to
a seductive partner. Both are then banned from the sight of God's face for a
number of years. God showed his concern by providing sturdy leather clothes
when exposing them to the climate outside of Eden. Their penance was of long
duration: "Thus all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty
years, and he died" (Gen. 5:5). They persevered, nevertheless, as we can gather
from the Bible. When the time was right, after Christ's Redemption, they would
be readmitted into God's presence. The Book of Wisdom states, for example:
Wisdom protected the first formed father of the world when
he alone had been created and she delivered him from his transgression, and
gave him strength to rule all things (Wis. 1:1-2).
Saint Irenaeus (125-203) upholds Adam and Eve as models
for us because they not only stood up after their Fall, but they made their
experience with sin into a stepping stone toward subsequent growth. Thus, with
the help of God, they turned evil into their own good. Irenaeus blames Gnostics
for not giving our Adam due honor: "But those who deny salvation to Adam gain
nothing by this except that they make themselves to be heretics and apostates
from the truth, and show that they are advocates of the serpent and death" (Against
Heretics III, 23, 8).
We do not know how long some souls are detained in
purgatory, but we do know that when they emerge from the darkness into the
light of God's presence, they are perfect. Every angle is perfect. Every facet
is clear, like cut and mounted diamonds. The dazzling beam of God's light
renders them incandescent without causing pain, resistance, or distortion. His
light now lights up the thousand angles of their rich characters developed via
life's experiences. The wealth of their talents reflects his light into
brilliant rainbow colors. The saints are all lovely in their beauty. Swept up
by the Spirit, they flow with elation in the stream of God's love for himself.
Like Moses, they jubilate in the endless wealth of the I AM, of God's boundless
love, truth, and beauty, of essential Splendor pulsing with Life:
The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to
anger, and abound ing in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast
love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will
by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the
children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation
The blessed participate not only in God's affirmation of
himself, they also affirm themselves and their company with his approval. They
luxuriate in their friendship with Christ first of all:
The blessed see in God, in the Word, also the holy
humanity which the Son assumed for our salvation. They contemplate the
hypostatic union, the plenitude of grace, of glory, and of charity in the holy
soul of Jesus. They see the infinite value of His theandric acts, of the
mystery of the Redemption. They see the radiations of that Redeemer: the
infinite value of each Mass, the supernatural vitality of the mystical body, of
the Church, triumphant, suffering, and militant. They see with admiration what
belongs to Christ, as priest for all eternity, as judge of the living and the
dead, as universal king of all creatures, as father of the poor
(Garrigou-Lagrange, in Life Everlasting, Tan Books, 1991, pp. 228-9).
They salute also the Mother of God who meets them as Queen
and as Mother, managing to be both at once. With the other beatified they join
the celebration of joy, a fortissimo of what Beethoven strove to express it in
his Ninth Symphony. Lagrange observes that they also reach out to help those
who are still on the way:
Parents know the spiritual needs of their children who are
still in this world. A friend, reaching the end of his course, knows now to
facilitate the voyage of friends who address themselves to him. St. Cyprian
speaks thus: "All our friends who have arrived wait for us. They desire vividly
that we participate in their beatitude, and are full of solicitude in our
regard" (Lagrange, 229).
The main doctrines about purgatory, the station before
heaven for those not using the express lane, are presented in the Catechism
of the Catholic Church as follows:
1030 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.
1031 The Church
gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is
entirely different from the punishment of the damned. The Church formulated her
doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and
Trent. The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture,
speaks of a cleansing fire:
I like to think that we might be able to regulate the pace
of our cleansing process in purgatory in accordance with our own choice, at
least to some extent. The Lord does not, I think, burn out our rust there with
precision-automated furnaces. He is a Good Shepherd who comforts lost sheep on
his shoulders. He is not a tyrant who knows no love. With that thought in mind,
we are not wrong, I believe, in hoping that God will allow us to regulate
somewhat the intensity of the cleansing process in purgatory, whether we wish
hurry via concentrated effort, or amble along in more leisurely fashion. Wisdom
describes God as one who is considerate and kind:
As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before
the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that
whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in
this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain
offences can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come.
1032 This teaching
is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in
Sacred Scripture: "Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead,
that they might be delivered from their sin." From the beginning the Church has
honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above
all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the
beatific vision of God. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences and
works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead:
Let us help and commemorate them. If Job's sons were
purified by their father's sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for
the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who
have died and to offer our prayers for them.
Thou sparest all things, for they are thine, O Lord who
lovest the living. For thy immortal spirit is in all things. Therefore thou
dost correct little by little those who trespass, and dost remind and warn them
of the things wherein they sin, that they be freed from wickedness and put
their trust in thee, O Lord (Wis. 11:26; 12:1-2).
After all, if we have made our spirits bitter by harboring
for decades an unforgiving spite against one who has wronged us, we will need
to correct that cicatrized misgrowth in purgatory. We may want some time before
we abandon our folly and agree to accept God's bargain-sale offer: "Forgive us
our trespasses as we forgive those who trespassed against us." We will have to
convert ourselves, turn ourselves around, make a U-turn, from hating that
neighbor to loving him, from despising him to honoring him, from turning away
from him to turning toward him. Some may want to hang onto their spite longer
than others, be fore yielding to the gentle call of grace; before embracing the
wisdom articulated by Sirach: "Does a man harbor anger against another, and yet
seek for healing from the Lord?" (28:3).
If we were stubborn on earth and held out against the
truth, we will likely carry this baggage of stubbornness right into purgatory.
We may even harbor it foolishly for who knows how long. Until we relax and
relent and re pent, we are not fit for heaven. We may cling to our spite for a
while, even at the cost of suffering for it. As Sirach says about the passion
of anger: "In proportion to the fuel for the fire, so will be the flames, and
in proportion to the obstinacy of strife, will be the burning" (Sirach 28:10).
Fortunately, we can convert in purgatory without being embarrassed before the
neighbors, which might make it easier to convert there than here. Our neighbors
in purgatory are all like ourselves. All try to purge out the old leaven, and
put on Christ's newness:
For Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us,
therefore, celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of
malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth (1 Cor.
Martyrs escape the need of any cleansing in purgatory
because they have already given witness that God is supreme in their lives.
Nothing stands between them and God be cause they paid the price of their
witness with their lives. For others there are various means of doing penance
for sins in this life, and we may believe that the souls in purgatory have some
choice in selecting penance in accordance with conditions of the soul now
separated from the body.
Adam bit the bullet by confessing to the Lord: "The woman
whom thou gavest to me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate it" (Gen.
3:32). Married partners tend to sin with each other when they contracept.
Contraception, abortion, sterilization--these are grave matters, often
aggravated by the malice of collusion or seduction. If done with sufficient
knowledge and freedom, these acts bar the soul from admission to the Holy City:
But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the sorcerers,
idolaters, and all liars, their lot shall be in the lake that burns with fire
and brimstone, which is the second death (Rev. 21:8).
Contraception and sterilization, do they bar us from
The issue of contraception is not peripheral, but central
and serious in a Catholic's walk with God. If knowingly and freely engaged in,
contraception is a grave sin (Archbishop of Denver, Charles Chaput, pastoral
letter July 22, 1998).
The Archbishop of Denver said nothing new in that
sentence. This is the constant and unchanging teaching of the Church. We may
think the doctrine is out of fashion on earth now, but we will not think so
after death. Changeless truths of eternity are not altered by the
roller-coaster fashion changes of human society. If people arrive in eternity
while in the state of grave sin, their sad lot is set forever. Even if they
protest innocence, or shout that the commandment was impossible to keep, their anger
avails them nothing. The Wise Man said: "If you will you can keep the
commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice" (Sirach
15:15). The door to heaven does not open to the foolish who were not watchful:
Afterward the other maidens came also, saying, "Lord,
lord, open to us." But he replied, "Truly, I say to you, I do not know you."
Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour (Matt. 25:11-13).
Conversion from mortal sin is possible before death, but
it is not possible after death. An act of perfect contrition before death can
cleanse the soul of mortal sin. It means complete conversion to God's way of
life, it means a rejection of the deed of mortal sin, and it includes a resolve
to confess when possible and not to sin again. All of this is to be done in
perfect love for God with grace infused by him into our souls. The easier and
more secure way is to confess the sin to a priest in the confessional, much as
Adam and Eve confessed to God in Eden. Christ is marvelously kind and generous
to those who confess their sins. As the CCC teaches:
1496 The spiritual
effects of the sacrament of Penance are:
Satisfaction done during this life for sins has the added
value of merit toward a higher reward in heaven. In purgatory, however, souls
do not gain new merit when they offer satisfaction for their sins, so most
theologians tend to believe. The wiser move is to get on with our full
conversion here, in this life. Here the yoke is easy and the burden is light
(cf. Matt. 11:30, but there the yoke will be more galling, and the burden
heavier, so many spiritual writers warn. Moreover, despite the harder burden,
no new merit is acquired. The CCC lists good penitential means as follows:
- reconciliation with God by which the penitent recovers
- reconciliation with the Church;
- remission of the eternal punishment incurred by mortal
- remission, at least in part, of temporal punishments
resulting from sin;
- peace and serenity of conscience, and spiritual
- an increase of spiritual strength for the Chris tian
and integral confession of grave sins followed by absolution remains the only
ordinary means of reconciliation with God and with the Church.
1434 The interior
penance of the Christian can be expressed in many and various ways. Scripture
and the Fathers insist above all on three forms, fasting, prayer and
almsgiving, which express conversion in relation to oneself, to God and to
others. Alongside the radical purification brought about by Baptism or
martyrdom they cite as means of obtaining forgiveness of sins: efforts at
reconciliation with one's neighbor, tears of repentance, concern for the
salvation of one's neighbor, the intercession of the saints and the practice of
charity "which covers a multitude of sins."
A powerful detergent to purify oneself from remnants of
contraception and sterilization is periodic abstinence. Long-term offenders
who, in penance, abstain periodically for some months can heal their marriages
and renovate their personal spiritual lives. The master of the vineyard gave
the same full day's wage to those who started working at the eleventh hour as
to those who started in the morning. Repenting couples thereby prove to
themselves that natural family planning is indeed possible and that
contraception was never necessary. They bear witness to God, though belatedly,
that his laws against these practices are proper.
Do souls in purgatory have to struggle to rectify their
lives? Very likely, yes. Deeply imbedded dispositions of sin may re quire some
extra mending time in purgatory:
When sin is remitted by grace, the soul is no longer
turned away from God, but it can retain a defective disposition. . . . Do these
dispositions remain in the separated souls? Yes. They are like rust,
penetrating at times to the depths of the intelligence and the will. Does this
rust disappear suddenly upon entrance into Purgatory? Some theologians think
so, because an intense act of charity can immediately take away these evil
Now we do not find this answer in St. Thomas, but rather
its contrary. He says . . . "The rigor of suffering corresponds properly
speaking to the gravity of the fault, and the duration of the suffering
corresponds to the rootedness which the sin has in the subject" (IV Sent
., dist. 21,q. a. 3). Now uprooting is generally a
long process, demanding a long affliction or a long penance (Lagrange, 182).
Nevertheless, the Poor Souls do want to get themselves
purged, so they accept the pains willingly even as they hurt. "The more this
suffering penetrates the depth of their will, the more lovingly they accept it.
Egoism, selfishness, the rust of sin, is burned away, and charity reigns
without rival in the depths, rooted there forever" (Lagrange, 183). Peace grows
as charity clears away the obstacles: "No peace is comparable to that of the
souls of purgatory except that of the saints in heaven. This peace grows as
hindrances disappear. As the rust disappears, the soul reflects more and more
perfectly the true sun, which is God. And its happiness grows in the same
measure" (Lagrange, 182, quoting St. Catherine of Genoa).
We can help the Poor Souls in purgatory to obtain a quick
rectification of character and to telescope their penance into reduced time. God
works this favor for them gladly in answer to our earnest efforts. We have
confidence that God even helps the souls to convert instantly and that he
forgives unpaid debts with a jubilee generosity in response to our prayers,
especially through the offering of Holy Mass. We know from our own experience
in life that a break with sin can be dramatic. God helps us to do with ease
what we had thought was undoable. "The king's heart is a stream of water in the
hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will" (Prov. 21:1). God can turn the
heart as he wills. We can forgive when
he floods our wills with grace. We can
stand up on spindly legs like the Prodigal Son and say "I will return
to the house of my father." We are electrified, we walk on air, we are
ourselves again. If God helps us to do this on earth so dramatically, we trust
that he likewise helps the Poor Souls to do so in response to our
An experienced priest friend used to say: "Show me a
person who prays for the Poor Souls, and you show me one who has great faith."
How very pleasing it must be for our dear ones in purgatory to know that we
generously offer alms, prayers, penances, and especially the Holy Sacrifice of
the Mass for their quick release. Lest we forget, we do them immense favors by
gaining indulgences. This opens for them the largess of the treasury of the
Church through a very special response to the intercessory prayer of
indulgences. The CCC teaches:
indulgences the faithful can obtain the remission of temporal punishment
resulting from sin for themselves and also for the souls in Purgatory.
A ninety-three-year-old religious sister delighted
visitors with this enthusiastic assessment of purgatory: "The Poor Souls are so
happy they are saved," she rhapsodized, "that they don't mind the pains. They
jump up and down and celebrate with incredible joy, shouting over and over: 'We
made it! We made it!'" Within a year she herself entered the next life. St.
Catherine of Genoa harbored a similar insight: "Souls in Purgatory unite great
joy with great suffering. One does not diminish the other" (see Lagrange, 167).
The Lord approves with joy, and heaven goes ablaze with
fireworks, each time a re leased Poor Soul soars swiftly upward, buoyed on the
wings of our prayers. We pray: May the souls of the faithful departed, through
the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.
This article originally appeared in the June 1999 issue of
Homiletic & Pastoral Review.
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Reverend Anthony Zimmerman is Professor Emeritus
of moral theology, Nanzan University, Nagoya, Japan. He promotes Natural
Family Planning and publishes books and articles. His latest two books published
by University Press of America are: Evolution
and the Sin of Eden, and The
Primeval Revelation in Myths and in Genesis. More of Father Zimmerman's
writings can be found at CatholicMind.com.
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