Purgatory is a much misunderstood doctrine among Catholics. It is commonly believed that this place is a second chance to be saved, or that one can sin all they want and still be saved through its expiatory fires. Purgatory exists as a result of God’s mercy. The requirements for entering Heaven are very high because “nothing unclean will enter it” (Revelation 21:27). To go directly to Heaven you must be completely free from the stain of sin. What this means is that you cannot have any unrepented venial sin in your life, you must have fully paid the penalty for all of your sins, and you cannot have attachments to the world that takes you away from God such as materialism, jealousy, and hatred. With this in mind you can see how difficult it is to avoid Purgatory, but with the grace of God it can be done.
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The purpose of Purgatory is to purge us of all our unrepented sin, atone for all of the unexpiated sin in our life, and remove all worldliness from us so that we can fully love God and each other. Once the stain of sin has been completely removed, the blessed soul may enter glory and full communion with God in Heaven.
Where Is Purgatory?
Theologians have been debating for centuries on the location of Purgatory. Some of their conclusions are that it may be at the gates of Heaven, located in an area of Hell, or perhaps it doesn’t physically exist at all but is simply a mental state of purification before entering Heaven. The fact is that no one really knows the answer to this question. The Church has not made any infallible declarations on this. All that we know is that it does exist and this is what has been taught since the Apostolic Age.
The purification process in Purgatory is painful. The holy souls see how their sins have separated them from God and deeply regret what they have done. Even venial sin causes suffering because although it is a minor sin, it does offend God since it is disobedience to His will. The holy souls have an intense desire to be in Heaven but are prevented entry because of their impurities. This causes great pain within them and they plead, “out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; Lord hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to my supplication” (Psalm 130:1, 2). Even though the souls suffer greatly, they also have a great joy within their hearts from the hope that one day they will be in Heaven. St. Catherine of Genoa said that “apart from the happiness of the saints in heaven, I think there is no joy comparable to that of the souls in purgatory”.
How to Help the Holy Souls
Prayers for the dead have been said since the Old Testament era. Jews believed that it was “a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins” (2 Maccabees 12:46). Praying for the dead is one of the seven spiritual works of mercy. There are many devotions you can do to help the holy souls. The first and greatest act is offering Masses for them. This is the most powerful prayer we can participate in and if we only have one devotion to the holy souls, this should be it. More souls are freed through the Mass than by any other prayer. Remember to pray for the holy souls during each Mass you attend.
The second most powerful prayer is the rosary. The repetitive simplicity of this devotion hides its greatness. After each decade, you can add the following prayer:
O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, and lead all souls to Heaven, especially those in most need of your mercy. Amen.
There are many things that you can do for the holy souls. The important thing is to do something, and do it consistently. Exercising just one day per week will do you little good, and praying infrequently for the holy souls will do them little good as well. Remember them every day and you will see the difference in your life as a result of their gratitude.