Some Protestants criticize the doctrine of purgatory by saying it’s “bad news” in contrast to the “good news” of salvation revealed in the Bible. But nothing could be farther from the truth. The Catholic doctrine of purgatory is indeed good news, even providing consolation for believers. It does so in a variety of ways.
For one thing, purgatory consoles believers who struggle with sin. We’re all too familiar with our own weaknesses. Perhaps it’s binging of Netflix, texting when someone is trying to have a conversation with you, a brief indulgence of an uncharitable thought, a failure to promptly meet the needs of your spouse or friend when able. The list goes on and on.
It would be pretty darn hard to go through a day without falling short of Christian perfection in some way, at least for us ordinary folks. Such a task would be heroic. Heroes are rare!
Now think about the fact that death can surprise us at any moment. Jesus says, “The Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matt. 24:44). Elsewhere, he says, “Remember then what you received and heard; keep that, and repent. If you will not awake, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come upon you” (Rev. 3:3).
If death can come upon us so quickly, and we’re as spiritually ill adjusted as we are, it would seem there’s no hope for us entering into the glory of heaven. We might not die with our wills turned fully away from God as our life’s goal, but the guilt of venial sin and the effects of sin would impede us from entering such glory. Despair of final salvation would be inevitable—that is, if purgatory weren’t real.
Purgatory remedies that despair and infuses joy within the soul. It allows believers who love Jesus but continue to struggle with sin in their lives to know that their shortcomings against Christian perfection are not enough to guarantee keeping them from the glory of heaven. What’s so bad about that?
Purgatory also consoles us in that it manifests God’s love for us. God loves us so much that he does everything he can to make it possible for us to be united with him, including providing us a postmortem opportunity to be freed from venial sin and any remnants of sin that impede us from entrance into heaven.
Isn’t God’s love for us part of the gospel’s “good news”? Sure, it is! Purgatory is a doctrine that manifests such love to us. And all this applies to those we love as well. So purgatory consoles us not just with regard to our own entrance into heaven, but also with regard to our loved ones.
Purgatory gives us the assurance that even though our loved ones die without the perfect holiness required for heaven, we know they’re not forever excluded from there. The late Marian scholar Fr. Martin Jugie puts it beautifully:
They who mournfully follow the coffin, are consoled with thoughts of the mercy of God; of the expiation of venial sin and the cleansing of the wounds, left by mortal sin, after death; of extenuating circumstances which may have rendered certain sins venial for the dear deceased one. The anguished heart, torn with dread about the fate of the loved one, clings to this last hope, and there finds solace and some peace.
That’s good news!
Next, the doctrine of purgatory provides consolation for a believer because it offers hope that our loved ones who die with imperfection aren’t forever excluded from heaven. But a believer might still be disheartened by the thought that if his loved one isn’t in heaven yet, then he can’t have a relationship with that person in the present moment. He would have to wait.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. The doctrine of purgatory entails that we can assist our loved ones in purgatory by offering the Mass, prayers, indulgences, almsgiving, and other works of love for them. This is based on the Christian belief in the communion of saints, which includes the souls in purgatory.
The holy souls are still members of the mystical body of Christ. Death did not separate them from us. As St. Paul writes, “who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall . . . [the] sword? . . . I am sure that neither death . . . nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:35, 38-39).
From this it follows that we are not separated from our loved ones who might be in purgatory. We are still united to them by grace. Consequently, our relationship with them can continue. We don’t have to wait until they get to heaven. That provides a believer great consolation. That’s definitely not bad news.
Some Protestants say we’re blurring the real distinction between the visible (Christians on earth) and invisible (Christians in purgatory) dimensions of the one body of Christ. Just because there’s one body, so it’s argued, it doesn’t follow that our relationship with each dimension is the same.
It’s true that our relationship with our loved ones in purgatory is not the same as our relationship with them here on earth. But the relationship we have with them by grace is the same. In fact, it’s even better because they’re confirmed in grace without the possibility of falling from it. From this it follows that the relationship with them is secure, on condition that we stay in grace.
This relationship we have with them by grace is what allows us to continue expressing love toward them, even though it’s not the same kind of expressions of love as when they were on earth. We can’t hear or see them when we talk to them. We can’t give them a hug. But we can pray for them and will what’s good for them—namely, the removal of any impediments to entrance into heaven.
The relationship might not be the same. But it is a relationship nevertheless!
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One rationale for this is that the souls in purgatory are perfected in charity. Since charity involves not only love of God, but also love of neighbor, and love of neighbor is expressed in intercessory prayer, it seems reasonable to conclude that the souls in purgatory would express their love by interceding for us.
That our loved ones in purgatory are praying for us is a consoling thought. Their prayer for us, and our private request for their prayers, is one way by which we keep a relationship with them.
It’s good news to know we have friends who can’t waver in charity and are constantly praying for us. For St. James says, “The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects” (James 5:16).
The consolation we can provide the holy souls in purgatory in turn brings us consolation. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that love is “to wish good to someone,” “just as he wills good to himself.”
It follows from this definition of love that the good the souls in purgatory experience by having their impediments to heaven removed is experienced as our own good. That means that their consolation is our consolation; their source of joy is our source of joy. As the late Frank Sheed writes, “there is a special joy for the Catholic in praying for his dead, if only the feeling that there is still something he can do for people he loved upon earth.”
This article is adapted from Karlo Broussard’s new book Purgatory Is for Real, available now at the Catholic Answers shop.