If God is So Merciful, Why is There a Purgatory?

Last week I tried to answer a question that puzzles many Catholics: How does the reality of hell and eternal damnation fit with our belief in the God of mercy?

As a matter of fact, I also get many questions about purgatory in this regard. For example, a few weeks ago I received one from "J.P." in the Philippines: "If God has mercy for us ... why does He still send people to purgatory? If a person, before death, sincerely repents of his sins and confesses them and prays the Chaplet of The Divine Mercy, why is there still a possibility for him to go to purgatory anyway, and not straight to heaven?"

Let's tackle the second half of your question first, J.P. The kind of person you describe - someone on their "deathbed," so to speak, who has made a sincere confession, is sincerely repentant for his or her sins, and prays the Chaplet of The Divine Mercy (or the Chaplet is being prayed for them as they are dying) - is certainly more likely to go directly to heaven after their death than most other people. But you ask: "why is it still possible for him to have to go to purgatory anyway"?

Well, the short answer is: because only the Lord knows the human heart. As the Catechism tells us in entry 2563:

The heart is our hidden center, beyond the grasp of our reason and of others; only the Spirit of God can fathom the human heart and know it fully. The heart is the place of decision, deeper than our psychic drives. It is the place of truth, where we choose life or death. It is the place of encounter, because as image of God we live in relation: it is the place of covenant.

When a person is dying, only God knows the depth of sincerity in his repentance, in other words, whether or not the individual has truly "let go" of his attachment to his sins, or whether his repentance is really only partial and half-hearted in some way. If one's repentance proceeds from a deep love for God (what the Church calls "perfect contrition" or "contrition of charity" - see Catechism, 1452), then it results in the complete purification of the sinner, and no need for any "punishment" or "purification" in purgatory would remain (see Catechism, 1472).

One thing we can count on is that our merciful God will pour out His grace upon us in our last hours - especially in sacramental confession and through the Chaplet - to lead us to that inner purification and healing, to prepare us for life with Him in heaven.

The first part of your question, J.P., will take me a bit longer to answer. Basically, you are wondering why a "merciful" God would ever send someone to purgatory. I think the short answer is: Because purgatory is a place of Divine Mercy, and not only a place of Divine Justice!

This is hard for us to fathom. We tend to think of "mercy" and "justice' in God as opposites. But God has no internal contradictions in His nature - no "opposite sides" to His character. As the First Vatican Council clearly teaches, He is one, simple, eternal act of infinitely perfect Being. That means that all of His acts of justice are right and fair, but also loving and merciful at the same time. That's why St. John the apostle wrote in the New Testament: "God is love" (1 Jn 4:8). He did not say, "God is sometimes loving" or "God is usually loving" - rather, "God is love," pure and simple, ever and always. Even when He is exercising His justice. Even when His love for us has to be "tough love."

Let's see how this applies to purgatory. The Church's teaching on purgatory is summarized in the Catechism, entry 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."

Elaborating on this traditional teaching of the Church, Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J., wrote in Fundamentals of Catholicism (vol. 3), "The souls in purgatory, after their particular judgment, know for certain that they are saved; in this they rejoice. But since they need cleansing, they are separated from God for a time. This separation is most painful to them, since their whole being longs to be united with God."

I wrote about the mystery of purgatory at length for the Eucharistic Apostle's of The Divine Mercy, Cenacle Formation Manual 3, so allow me to quote myself (!), because I am not sure I can do any better with this deep mystery than I did then:

Clearly, this "purifying" and "cleansing" of souls in purgatory is an expression of the mercy of God, and not merely of His justice. On the one hand, it is only just that those who were partially and imperfectly penitent for their sins on earth should make up their debt to divine justice by undergoing "purgatorial or cleansing punishments" after their death (Council of Lyons, 1274). On the other hand, this divine punishment is more remedial than retributive. In other words, God intends it for the healing and rehabilitation of the soul. Much as a person might need to have a tooth pulled in order to restore his dental health, so the soul can only attain full health by the uprooting of its inordinate attachment to creatures, and especially its own pride and ego. This healing process for the soul is painful, but necessary if the soul is ever to be prepared for heaven, and attain the holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Heb 12:14). Thus, God purifies imperfect souls by punishing them in a way that heals them, making them holy, and ready for heavenly joy. In this way, the Lord's justice is exercised with great mercy.

The church has never precisely defined the pains of purgatory. But some of the saints have reasoned that it consists primarily in the spiritual pain of "longing for God," and several saints have had private revelations to that effect as well (e.g., St. Catherine of Genoa). St. Alphonsus Liguori wrote that for the souls in purgatory, "the supernatural love of God with which they burn draws them with such violence to be united to [God], that when they see the barrier which their sins have put in the way, they feel a pain so acute that if they were capable of death, they could not live a moment" (The Great Means of Salvation, no. 20).

Nevertheless, the saints do not teach us about the sufferings of souls in purgatory primarily in order to frighten us, but in order to move us with compassion to come to their aid. As St. Augustine wrote: "One of the holiest works, one of the best exercises of piety that we can practice in this world, is to offer sacrifices, alms, and prayers for the dead" (Homily 16). To pray for the souls in purgatory is truly a work of mercy. [In fact, one of the special charisms of the Congregation of Marians of the Immaculate Conception is to pray for the poor souls in purgatory. Their Father Founder, The Venerable Stanislaus Papczynski, MIC, who will be beatified on September 16, 2007, was especially concerned about the spiritual condition of the many soldiers who died suddenly on battlefields, and so compassion for the many souls who die unprepared became an integral part of the new religious order that he founded].

It is in the light of the fullness of Church teaching about purgatory, therefore, that we can better understand the vision that St. Faustina recorded in her Diary, entry 20, and her subsequent, compassionate concern for the souls there in need of our prayers:

I saw my Guardian Angel, who ordered me to follow him. In a moment I was in a misty place full of fire in which there was a great crowd of suffering souls. They were praying fervently, but to no avail, for themselves; only we can come to their aid. The flames which were burning them did not touch me at all. My guardian Angel did not leave me for an instant. I asked these souls what their greatest suffering was. They answered me in one voice that their greatest suffering was longing for God. I saw our Lady visiting the souls in purgatory. The souls call her "The Star of the Sea." She brings them refreshment. ...We went out of that prison of suffering. [I heard an interior voice] which said, My mercy does not want this, but justice demands it. Since that time, I am in closer communion with the suffering souls.

So you see, J.P., God's mercy would rather not have to take the form of "tough love"; He would rather see us all ready and able to go directly to heaven at the moment of death. But the fact that many of us need to go to purgatory for a time first is not an ultimate defeat for His merciful love for us. Far from it; the "flames" of purgatory, we may surmise, are the flames of the fire of the Holy Spirit Himself, who purifies us in the refiner's fire of His love.

Let me close these reflections with a passage from C.S. Lewis's book, A Grief Observed. Reflecting on the death of his dearly beloved wife, he wrote:

She was a splendid thing, a soul straight, bright, and tempered like a sword. But not a perfect saint. A sinful woman married to a sinful man, two of God's patients, not yet cured. I know there are not only tears to be dried, but stains to be scoured. The sword will be made even brighter. ... But oh God, tenderly, tenderly.

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy.

Got a question? E-mail me at questions@thedivinemercy.org

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