Over the past several years, I find myself frequently reflecting on the implications the teaching of purgatory as on my daily life. To cite the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph number 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.”
Wait! Hold it. Why would God need to postpone our union with Him for people who die in grace? Also, the word purgatory does not even make an appearance in the New Testament. I know that the teachings of the Catholic Church are based on both Scripture and Tradition, but how do we reconcile a major teaching with a collection of books [the Bible] that barely mentions purgatory?
Although I never really despaired about this seeming lack of evidence for purgatory, my inquisitorial nature still longed for answers in case my non-Catholic friends pushed me on this matter. Below I want to share three examples from my childhood that helped me better reconcile the apparent lack of evidence in the Bible for purgatory. I will also briefly highlight New Testament evidence I learned about that hint at and point toward the doctrine of purgatory.
1. Please use soap and water: The dictionary defines purgatory as “having the quality of cleansing or purifying”. Going back to what the Catechism tells us about this teaching, we are to undergo a final cleansing or purification before we enter the joy of Heaven. Thinking about a hygiene example as a kid helped me better understand the need for purgatory.
My parents developed a good habit of having our family sit down for dinner on a daily basis. One of the conditions before I could join the table was that I needed to wash my hands.
I needed to be clean before I could participate in the joy of our family meal. In an analogous way, our heavenly Father desires His children to be completely cleansed before we participate in the joy of Heaven. I was never going to be denied eating my food as a kid if I had dirt under my fingernails. I simply needed to undergo a purification process at the bathroom sink to clean my hands. Likewise, at death people who are overall good and holy people will not be denied Heaven. Rather, they will undergo a purification process to eliminate all stain of sin.
2. Do you Round the Bases if a Window is Broken?:
“Take me out to the ball game, Take me out with the crowd. Buy me some peanuts and cracker jack, I don’t care if I never get back, Let me root, root, root for the home team, If they don’t win it’s a shame. For it’s one, two, three strikes, you’re out, At the old ball game.”
Summertime will forever be linked to baseball. Despite being terrible at playing the actual sport in an official setting, I loved watching, studying, and playing backyard versions of baseball. Along with my love of the analytics of the game, my younger brother played. He was a fantastic ballplayer. I will always cherish the memories we made playing a pick-up game with the neighbor kids.
During a warm June afternoon my brother and neighbor friends played a game at a nearby elementary baseball field. Things were going great. We had a blast playing and kept our stomachs full with snacks. I do not remember who actually hit this particular home-run, but shortly after it soared over the fence a crash ensued. We paused. The window of the house next to the field broke. I do not remember the exact details of how the window was eventually fixed. What I do know is that the baseball game was interrupted until we resolved the broken window issue [i.e. telling the homeowner the news, offering to pay for the window, etc].
Celebration of the home-run hit could only happen once our crew mended things with the owner of the broken window. Similarly, our celebration in Heaven cannot fully occur until we are fully purified completely through the process of purgatory. Purgatory once again is not to be viewed as a roadblock to Heaven but rather a process to ensure our complete union with God.
3. Finder Keepers, Losers Weepers: In the spring of my 5th grade year, my classmates and I had a weekend long lock-in event hosted by our municipal police department to talk about the dangers of smoking and drugs. On my way to the registration booth, I noticed a twenty dollar bill. I picked it up and immediately notified the event staff that someone lost money. I am grateful that my parents raised me right to listen to my conscience as I was not tempted to obey the adage “Finders keepers, losers weepers”. Ironically, listening to my conscience paid off—literally—no one claimed the twenty dollars by the end of the weekend so the staff gave the bill to me.
This memory taught me that purgatory is a necessary process. If I did not listen to my conscience and simply pilfered the money that the person lost that I would need to confess the sin of stealing. Even if the individual forgave me of taking his twenty dollar bill the relationship would not be fully restored until I paid him back. Now imagine if the individual passed away before I could repay him. Here is where the doctrine of purgatory comes into play. God allows for purgation of the temporal effects of sin [i.e. not paying back someone you stole from] through purgative suffering after death.
Along with my experiences as a child, I discovered a passage from St. Paul’s epistles that hint at the doctrine of purgatory. The Apostle of the Gentile writes in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15,
According to the grace of God given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building upon it. But each one must be careful how he builds upon it, 11for no one can lay a foundation other than the one that is there, namely, Jesus Christ. 12If anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, 13the 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 14If the work stands that someone built upon the foundation, that person will receive a wage. 15But if someone’s work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire.
The Catechism actually cites this same passage in paragraph 1031 in its reference to a cleansing fire. St. Paul’s words tell us that although the purification experience is painful it is ultimately a cleansing experience and aimed at a higher aim—complete and full union with God! Having a deeper understanding on the purgatory increased my understanding the purpose of suffering and strengthened my fervor for God’s love. I am far from an expert in matters on purgatory, but I have learned a lot in the past few years. I will continue to learn and pray for knowledge on this subject from the Holy Spirit. If your window(s) get shattered by a baseball maybe your own perspective will change!