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 SOULS FEEL PAIN WITHOUT A BODY?
The saints tell us that “The least pain in Purgatory exceeds the greatest we can suffer in this world” (St. Thomas Aquinas). How does a soul feel pain while it is apart from the body?
St. Teresa of Avila explains:
“This feeling is not in the body. It is in the interior part of the soul … how much more severe the feelings of the soul are than those of the body … such must be the nature of the sufferings of souls in purgatory, for the fact that these souls have no body doesn’t keep them from suffering much more than they do through all the bodily sufferings they endure here on earth.”
In this life, the more we love, the more we feel both joy and pain on account of our love. It is the same with the souls in purgatory. They experience an intense love for God stronger than anything we can feel in this life. The absence of their body does not diminish their capacity for love, therefore it does not diminish their capacity for pain.
DO ALL THOSE IN PURGATORY SUFFER THE SAME PAIN?
No two people sin alike in this world, therefore no two people will suffer in the same way in purgatory. Each soul experiences punishment in different degrees according to the particular sins that need to be purified from their soul.
For this reason the saints report that purgatory is divided into different regions or levels where the punishments are more or less severe. Many souls move through each of these levels until they are completely cleansed from their sins.
St. Brigid of Sweden says that purgatory has three main divisions, like a hierarchy, with the one being closer to heaven, and the other closer to hell.
The greatest punishment of purgatory is in the first level above the darkness [of hell] … The demons can touch it there; poisonous vermin and wild beasts are symbolically present there. There is heat and cold, darkness and confusion, all coming from the punishment of hell. Some souls are punished less there, some more, according as sins were atoned for or not while the soul remained in the body. …
God’s justice then carries … the souls, to other places where they only suffer from a lack of strength. There they dwell as long as necessary until they attain relief either from their own special friends or from the continuous works of the Holy Church. The more help a soul gets from her friends, the quicker she convalesces and is released from that place.
After this soul is brought to the third place where there is no other punishment but the longing to enter God’s presence and behold him in blessedness. Many souls dwell there for a very long time, except for those who had a perfect longing to enter God’s presence and behold him while they still lived in the world.
DOES EVERYONE GO TO PURGATORY?
If every trace of sin and imperfection must be removed from the soul before death, it may bewilder us how anyone goes straight to heaven when they die. Yet it is the experience of the Church that many souls have lived to such a heroic degree of virtue in this life that they avoided purgatory altogether. This is especially true of those who made atonement for their sin through charity and penance:
There are … those who have made so much atonement for their sins with their good works that their souls shall know no punishment (St. Bridget of Sweden).
God takes such care for the purification of the Holy Souls because He is both perfectly loving and perfectly just. Purgatory is loving, because the Holy Souls cannot be happy until they are pure. Purgatory is just, because each soul must receive the reward or punishment they are due in regard to every other soul in heaven.
[I would} do injury to the angel in heaven, if the spirit of an unclean person were put on the same level as one who is clean and fervently in love. Accordingly, no one will enter heaven, except for those who have been tried like gold in the fire of purgatory or who have proved themselves over time in good works on earth in such a way that there is no stain in them left to be purged away” (Our Lord to St. Bridget).
SHOULD WE TRY TO AVOID PURGATORY?
We should thank God for purgatory, because through this grace many souls will gain heaven and escape hell. Although purgatory is a great mercy of God, we should not aim to go there.
God has warned us of the severe pains and sufferings of the Holy Souls through countless saints over the centuries. These experiences of purgatory should encourage us to live a virtuous, penitential life while we can.
It is possible to avoid purgatory, and this is God’s will for us. As Our Lord said to St. Faustina when she saw the great suffering of the Holy Souls,
“My mercy does not want this, but justice demands it.”
Christ wants us to aim for the perfect love of God in this life, so that we will go straight to heaven when we die.
“Love nothing as much as me. Purify yourself constantly from sin … Hide no sin! Leave nothing unexamined! Do not consider any sin to be light or worthy of disregard! For anything you forget, I will remind you of and judge.
None of the sins you have done will come before my judgment if they are punished and expiated through your penance while you live.
But those sins for which you made no penance will be purged either in purgatory or by some secret judgment of mine, unless you make full satisfaction and amendment for them here in the world” (Our Lord said to St. Bridget of Sweden).
By ourselves we can do nothing; but with the life of Christ dwelling in our souls, we possess the strength and grace to live in perfect friendship with God in this life.
HOW CAN WE HELP OUR LOVED ONES WHO HAVE DIED?
Many of our loved ones more than likely died without making sufficient reparation for sins. We can help them the most by having Masses offered for them and by gaining indulgences for them. As we grow in holiness, our efforts to help them become more effective. This way we advance in holiness as they advance towards full union with God. Learn more about Indulgences. Another way to help them is to use sacrifice beads