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What Happens in Purgatory?

Purgatory is a state of purification before heaven. But what actually happens in Purgatory? We can’t know every detail about it in this life, but Tim Staples shows us where the Bible gives clues.


Caller: So my question is: I know by definition what Purgatory is, I know it’s a place of temporal suffering for venial sins; but I’m awfully curious how, specifically, that works. I know there’s suffering involved, but do we have any information on what is involved here, like a stern talking to from God, or actual…what exactly happens, I guess?

Tim Staples: Well, you’re talking about a mystery when we talk about the communion of saints in general. We have a general understanding of what that means, but of course, some of it is mysterious.

But generally speaking, we have a principle in Sacred Scripture, as it’s understood in the magisterial teachings of the Church, that is quite clear. If we die in a state where we not only have venial sins on our soul, but we have temporal punishment due for sins already forgiven—mortal sins that are already forgiven yet were not fully purified—and this is kind of easy to understand when you think of it like this: if you commit, let’s say, a mortal sin against the sixth commandment, you go to confession, and you are forgiven of the eternal punishment due for that sin; but there can be still an attachment to that sin, or a tendency, like especially if you’ve formed a habit of a particular sin, you still have that tendency to sin—which is not itself a sin, it’s an imperfection until the will is engaged—and so there can be venial attachment to that sin as well.

Now, once that attachment reaches the point of a mortal sin, where you give in to it even in your mind, that’s matter for another confession. But we’re talking about an attachment that is venial. So there can be these venial attachments to sins already forgiven, punishment due for these sins, and the end, of course, is healing. You see this indicated—I know I’m doing more than you asked here, but—1 Corinthians 3:15, St. Paul describes this state of being after death, where you have folks who are going through the fire, as it were, being purified, and being saved. That’s generally what we’re talking about, is the purification.

Now, how does this purification happen? Well, we get insight into that in a lot of other biblical texts. Because, you know, 1 Corinthians 3:15 describes it as like going through fire, so there’s some sense of suffering. Now obviously that doesn’t mean a literal fire, because we’re talking about disembodied spirits. There’s nothing to burn. But there is some sense of fire, which is a pain of sense, as the Council of Trent described it: as a “pain of sense.”

What does that mean? Well, we’re talking about disembodied spirits so we don’t really know! But we can get a sense of things, can’t we, because we see verses of Scripture like 2 Corinthians 1:6, where St. Paul says “If we suffer, it is for your salvation and consolation…which is made effectual in you enduring the same sufferings that we suffer.” So Paul is saying: “Look, we’re suffering as members of the Body of Christ for other members of the Body of Christ.” How does that happen? Well, this is the mystical union we call the communion of Saints—how we can suffer as members of the Body of Christ and effect healing in one another. Colossians 1:24, St. Paul says “I fill up that which is lacking in the sufferings of Christ in my body for his body, which is the church.” Oh my goodness, see? We’re seeing here that we can suffer for other members of the Body of Christ. We also can suffer for our own sins as well. Romans 8:17 says “We will be glorified together with him if we suffer with him.” So we’re called to join our sufferings with the sufferings of Jesus Christ, and that effects purification even in this life—in both our own souls and in the souls of others.

So again, we’re getting snapshots of this, the principles for this, in Sacred Scripture, and down through the centuries the Church has clarified this so that we say: look, if I can suffer and be purified in this life, well of course I can suffer and be purified in the next life as well. And if I can suffer for Cy Kellett now, well, if Cy were to die and go to Purgatory, why couldn’t I suffer for him when he’s in Purgatory? It’s the same principle: we’re joined together as members of the Body of Christ, as Paul will describe it in 1 Corinthians 12:26-27, “If one member suffers, all suffer.” So there’s a connection, we’re connected as members of the Body of Christ and by the power of Christ working in us and through us we can effect healing in ourselves as well as others.

Christ, of course—and as the first principle, the charity of Christ, which is working in us and through us to purify, to burn away, to get back to that image of 1 Corinthians 3:15, passing through fire—well, that involves suffering. So in that suffering, we are being healed. That’s what’s happening in Purgatory, so that those who have these light sins or imperfections on their soul can be finally purified so that they can behold God in the beatific vision.

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