Oregon Catholic Press photo
Light shines through windows of St. Peter Basilica. Church teachers say purgatory is the state of cleansing that happens when humans face God's infinite love.
Oregon Catholic Press photo
Light shines through windows of St. Peter Basilica. Church teachers say purgatory is the state of cleansing that happens when humans face God's infinite love.
In the popular imagination, not schooled in Catholic doctrine, there is confusion between purgatory and hell.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines purgatory as a "purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven," which is experienced by those "who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified."

The catechism then notes that "this final purification of the elect . . . is entirely different from the punishment of the damned."

Scripture teaches that nothing unclean will enter the presence of God in heaven (Rev. 21:27). Theologians say that while humans may die with their mortal sins forgiven, there can still be many impurities, including venial sins and reparation for more serious sins that have been forgiven but are still unsettled.

St. Augustine said in his City of God that "temporary punishments are suffered by some in this life only, by others after death, by others both now and then; but all of them before that last and strictest judgment" (21:13). It is between the individual judgment we all experience when we die and Christ's return and general judgment that the soul is purified of the remaining consequences of sin.

The word purgatory has the same Latin root as "purge." Though no one claims that purgatory is blissful, the focus is on being washed clean, not receiving punishment.  
Deacon Owen Cummings, theologian at Mount Angel Seminary, calls purgatory "the state of cleansing of the human person before entering into final and complete union with God."

The church formulated its doctrine on purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent in the 15th and 16th centuries. The tradition of the church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire.

"Language and images are strained here as we tried to describe the indescribable," says Cummings, who writes a question-and-answer column for Catholic newspapers in the Pacific Northwest. "Fire is best understood in this context as a metaphor for cleansing."

Some great Catholic thinkers, like St. Catherine of Genoa and Blessed John Henry Newman, speak of purgatory as the working out of the difference between human love and the infinite love of the Trinity.

"In other words, the human person comes before the infinite Love that God is, and consequently recognizes his/her utter unloveliness, and that sheerly painful recognition accompanied by intense regret brings about completion in Christ, the completion begun in baptism," Cummings explains.

One theologian, Father Paul McPartlan, describes purgatory as a state of grace where the human's transformation into Christ is perfected.

While Christians should hope that their deceased loved ones are in heaven, they must pray for them in case they are in purgatory, Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze said in 2007 when he led the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments.

"The people present at a funeral have no authority to canonize anyone," the cardinal said. "They can hope that the person has arrived in the house of the Father in heaven, but it is just as possible that the person is in purgatory."

Only God knows if that person is already in heaven, the cardinal said.

That's why we pray for the dead and why the church retains customs for reducing the time a soul must spend in purgatory. It's part of the belief that the church is not limited by time and space and that the community includes the living as well as the dead. Each can get help from the other.

"Our faith tells us this: The souls of the deceased pray for and help us. Exactly how they do this, we do not know," Cardinal Arinze said. "But we do know that in Christ the savior there is a communion between those who have arrived in heaven, those in purgatory and those still on earth."