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Questions about Purgatory: Answered by the Saints

The writings and mystical experiences of the saints encourage us to sincerely repent of our sins and to do penance in this life so that we can limit or avoid purgatory altogether.

Original Source: The Four Last Things: Good Catholic Digital Content Series

Despite a great interest in purgatory among the faithful, the Church does not actually go into great detail about it in its official doctrine.

The Church teaches us that purgatory is real; that it's needed for the temporal punishment of saved souls if penance during their life was insufficient; that this purification is accomplished through a purifying fire; and that these souls depend on our prayers to obtain heaven sooner.

Aside from this, it is the saints' writings and experiences that fill in the details about purgatory.

IS PURGATORY A PLACE?

One of the first questions that comes to mind when we think about purgatory is whether it is a real place filled with souls, or if it is to be understood as an individual state of being.

According to the experiences of the saints, the answer is: both. Purgatory is an actual place located above the region of hell. This is the general place where souls go who need to be purified for heaven. However, in some cases certain souls receive their punishment on earth in the places where they sinned during their life. We have multiple accounts throughout the Church history that describe both situation.

Purgatory as a Place

God gave many saints a special grace to visit purgatory in order to encourage their charity for the holy souls. One of the most remarkable of these stories comes from St. Cristina the Astonishing. She died as a young woman and was taken to visit purgatory, hell, and heaven. God then brought back to life so that she could give public testimony to the existence of each of these places.

As soon as my soul was separated from my body, it was received by angels, who conducted it to a very gloomy place, entirely filled with souls. The torments which they there endured appeared to me so excessive, that it is impossible for me to give any idea of their rigor.

I saw among them so many of my acquaintances, and, deeply touched by their sad condition, I asked what place it was, for I believed it to be Hell. My guide answered me that it was Purgatory, where sinners were punished who, before death, had repented of their faults, but had not made worthy satisfaction.

St. Cristina spent the remaining years of her life doing the most extreme penances, in full public view, to help relieve the sufferings of the Holy Souls.

Purgatory on the Earth

One of the many saints who was met by a soul experiencing the punishment of purgatory – not in purgatory proper, but on earth – was St. Padre Pio. One day, while the saint was praying, he was startled by an unexpected visitor who told him:

“I am doing my Purgatory here. I was a student in this friary, so now I have to make amends for the errors I committed while I was here, for my lack of diligence in doing my duty in this church.”

Padre Pio offered his prayers for the suffering soul, who was then able to enter heaven.

ARE THE FIRES OF PURGATORY REAL?

Another common question about purgatory is whether the fire experienced there is material or spiritual. No formal definition has been given by the Church. What we do know for certain is that this fire is real and not figurative.

The testimony of the saints, going back to the Church Fathers, is that “The same fire punishes the damned in hell and the just in Purgatory” (St. Thomas Aquinas). However, this fire is experienced differently by the just and the damned: the souls in purgatory love God and want to be purified by the pain, while the souls in Hell reject God and are therefore tormented by the pain.

We can use our experience in this life as an analogy to understand this: God sends everyone heavy crosses to carry in order to strengthen our virtue; some are purified by the pain and draw closer to Him, while others are embittered by the pain and draw farther away from Him.

Although we do not know the specific nature of this fire, we do know that the Holy Souls experience it as painful, burning flames. As described by St. Faustina:

“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 … The flames, which were burning them, did not touch me at all.”

HOW DO THE HOLY SO