Sense of Life. Articles in English. The Mystery of Purgatory.
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The Mystery of Purgatory

If at the moment of death we feel sorrow for our sins and retain even a minimal capacity to accept Christ’s love, then we can expect a painful process of purification — of growth in love — in purgatory: “the person will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor 3:15).

Here is how the Holy Father Benedict XVI explains the meaning of this verse from the First Letter to the Corinthians, which alludes to the mystery of suffering in purgatory: “[Saint] Paul begins by saying that Christian life is built upon a common foundation: Jesus Christ. This foundation endures. If we have stood firm on this foundation and built our life upon it, we know that it cannot be taken away from us even in death. Then Paul continues: ‘If anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, the 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. If the work stands that someone built upon the foundation, that person will receive a wage. But if someone’s work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire.’ (1 Cor 3:12-15)... It is evident [then] that our salvation can take different forms, that some of what is built may be burned down, that in order to be saved we personally have to pass through ‘fire’ so as to become fully open to receiving God and able to take our place at the table of the eternal marriage feast” (Spe salvi, 46)

What is the cause of suffering in purgatory?

The suffering of purgatory springs from one thing only — sin. Every sinful act brings about the destruction of concrete good and love in the person himself as well as in his relations with God and others. This destruction brought about by sin inflicts suffering on both the sinner and those with whom he is associated. Since all people form one Body in Christ and “are members one of another” (Eph 4:25), the sin of one hurts and inflicts suffering on others. After death the ties linking the deceased with those living on earth remain unbroken. Although physical time ceases to exist for that person, yet he will remain in the so-called “anthropological time” formed by his relationship of love or lovelessness with those living on earth. If a person’s sins cause suffering to one living on earth, then the deceased will have to suffer with the one on earth for as long as it takes the love of Christ to overcome all the results of the sins that inflicted the suffering. The pain of purgatory, then, is the consequence of the sins we have committed during our earthly life. The state of maturing in love that constitutes purgatory is marked by suffering endured in the certainty of achieving final deliverance and salvation. Accompanying this suffering is the helpless pain caused by our experience of all the consequences of our sins. We will become aware of the bitter fruits of our loveless deeds, irresponsible words, and omissions; of the extent of the harm we inflicted on others and ourselves on the road to salvation. In his catechetical session of August 4, 1999, Servant of God John Paul II stated: “Every trace of attachment to evil must be removed; every distortion of the soul — straightened out. The purification must be complete and this is the essence of the Church’s teaching about purgatory. The term does not signify a place, but a state of life. Those who pass through the state of purification after death are already living in the love of Christ, who raises them from the residuum of their imperfections” (cf. The Council of Florence, Decretum pro Graecis, 1304; The Council of Trent, Decretum de justificatione, 1580; Decretum de Purgatorio, 1820).

Helping the poor souls of purgatory

Purgatory is a state of maturing in love. In suffering the terrible pain caused by their sins, the poor souls experience in its fullness the truth that God called them into existence out of pure love that they might come to know perfect happiness in heaven. The wounds, the damage, and the deformations wrought by sin cause them intense suffering. Since the consequences of sin continue to be felt by those of living on earth, Jesus also requires their consent and cooperation in order to be able to heal and put to rights the terrible results of sin. We express this consent when we pray for the dead in a spirit of total trust, when we attend Holy Mass offered up for their intention, and when we consent to suffer for them. Prayer and living in accordance with Gospel principles in union with Christ are the only efficacious help that the poor souls in purgatory can expect from us. We are bound to pray for the dead. By failing to do so, we are guilty of a serious omission. Only Christ’s love is the fire that delivers, transforms, and enables us to be united in love with God and the entire community of saints. Jesus Christ is the vine, but we are the branches (John 15:5). As Christ’s branches we are all mediators of His love for others, but we become such mediators only when we undertake the daily labor of living by faith, by picking ourselves up every time we fall into sin, by removing every attachment to sin (chiefly through the sacrament of penance), and by uniting ourselves with Christ in confident prayer and the Eucharist. Let us be mindful, then, of our duty to pray for the dead every day. Let us not forget to offer up Holy Masses for their intentions and to avail ourselves of plenary indulgences for them. The poor souls, in turn, pray for us living on earth and help us on our way to salvation.

St. Faustina Kowalska received the special grace of experiencing the reality of purgatory. In her Diary, she describes the experience: “I saw my guardian angel, who bade me follow him. In an instant I was in a murky place filled with fire and a great throng of suffering souls. They were praying fervently for themselves, but to no avail. Only we can come to their aid. The flames that consumed them did not touch me at all. My guardian angel would not leave me for a moment. I asked these souls what their greatest suffering was. They replied in one voice that their greatest torment 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. I would have talked with them longer, but my guardian angel beckoned me to leave. We left that prison of suffering. [I heard an interior voice], which said, “My mercy does not want this, but justice demands it.” Since then I am in closer communion with the suffering souls” (Diary, 20).

Fr. M. Piotrowski SChr

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The article was published with the permission from "Love One Another!" in May 2016.

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