There are two sure events in life: birth and death. In Catholicism, the permanent afterlife destinations are heaven or hell, but it’s a mystery to define them. Mix in purgatory, a place where souls atone for sin temporarily and are cleansed before being welcomed into heaven, and it can be even harder to explain.
“It occupies so much of people’s anxiety, what happens when we die? So then people are curious about it,” said diocesan faith formation director Father Erik Pohlmeier. “I don’t know how many Catholics feel like they grasp what purgatory is, but my experience is that they hear about it a lot.”
Less hellfire and more holy, cleansing fire, purgatory is not a place of the damned, but rather a hope toward our heavenly home.
“By the way we talk about it, it’s like a temporary version of hell, but it’s not that at all,” he said.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church has three paragraphs devoted directly to the teaching of purgatory, 1030-1032. The Church formulated the doctrine on purgatory during the Councils of Florence (1431-1449) and Trent (1545-1563), the catechism stated.
It states, “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. The Church gives the name purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned.”
Understanding purgatory correlates with an understanding of heaven’s perfection. Catholics believe, as many Christian faiths, that when a person dies, they are judged for heaven or hell.
“If somebody is judged for heaven, to be in heaven is to be perfect, to live in the perfect love of God. And so purgatory is meant to purify what in us is less than perfect. Rather than hell, which is a rejection of God, a rejection of the love of God outright,” Father Pohlmeier said. “So we’re not rejecting God’s love, but we’re also not yet capable of fully receiving it. If we’re not purified, so that we can perfectly receive God’s love, than God’s love is painful to us to a certain degree and we experience that as human beings already.”
The pains of love can stem from a person’s own sense of unworthiness. Because the love of God is greater than all things, “purgatory is that purification of human imperfections that make it possible to receive love fully,” Father Pohlmeier said.
During the 11th and 12th centuries, when the concept of purgatory was widely accepted by the Church, indulgences granted absolution for temporal punishment that awaited a person in purgatory. The catechism states in part, “An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven.” (no. 1471)
The abusive sale of indulgences was one of the issues leading to the Reformation.
Today, plenary indulgences typically include sacramental confession, holy Communion and prayer for the Holy Father’s intentions. In regard to purgatory, the catechism states in part, “The Church commends almsgiving, indulgences and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead.” (no. 1032)
“The real kicker for talking about indulgences it says you can have no attachment to sin. So you can do good practices, but they’re not just about kind of banking on good practices; it’s about shaping your heart. If it’s not shaping your heart it’s not accomplishing anything,” Father Pohlmeier said.
While some Catholic devotions try to define the length of time in purgatory or say how many souls are there, no Church teaching quantifies purgatory or can say who is there or is not, Father Pohlmeier said, aside from knowing canonized saints are in heaven.
In 2015, liturgical artist George Hoelzeman, a parishioner at Sacred Heart Church in Morrilton, drew inspiration from parishioner feedback at Our Lady of the Holy Souls Church to create a shrine of Our Lady of the Holy Souls for their adoration chapel. It is one of only three parishes in the world known to be named for the Blessed Mother’s compassion for holy souls. The shrine was made to be “more inviting, compassionate and understanding,” Hoelzeman said, just as Mary is an intercessor and mother.
Purgatory was “very popular” in the High Middle Ages for artists, Hoelzeman said. Artists mixed in concepts of hell, including fire and suffering, final judgment and original sin. He also pointed to “art that depicts purgatory that have these people marching up a hill and variously going through stages of purification.”
Purgatory depictions slow after the Reformation, he said. In the 19th century Romantic period, Gustave Doré, in an illustration of purgatory based on Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” shows people “standing around under a tree. The idea was that they were just waiting to get into heaven.”
As a young altar server at Sacred Heart, Hoelzeman, now 56, remembers being “absolutely riveted” by a painting of a Requiem Mass that illustrates souls in purgatory and angels surrounding the altar as the host is raised to heaven. He later bought the painting from the early 1900s.
In artwork, “depictions of purgatory and hell were used as a way to remind us of, ‘Hey, be happy … but don’t forget you’ve got some things you need to work on.’ And we’ve got some things to work on. If you forget you have things to work on, you’re missing it and if you forget there’s joy, you’re missing it,” Hoelzeman said.
All Souls Day was celebrated Nov. 2, a day to pray for all souls, particularly those in purgatory.
Different cultures have a variety of ways to honor and pray for holy souls, including Day of the Dead or Día de los Muertos, which coincides with All Souls Day. In Mexico, elaborate celebrations, including parades, Masses and decorating cemeteries and homes with altars for deceased souls, mark the occasion.
In Venezuela, the celebration is relegated mostly to the Mass, where a priest can spend 20 minutes reading off the names of the dead. Some faithful then go to the graves of loved ones to put down flowers, said Father Nelson Rubio, a native of Venezuela and associate pastor at St. Theresa Church in Little Rock. As a priest, he tries to emphasize the mercy of God on days like All Souls, when purgatory can mistakenly be viewed with fear.
“I believe completely 100 percent in the merciful God and the merciful God doesn’t have limits,” he said. Father Rubio said while every Mass is offered for souls, All Souls is a day to especially remember those in purgatory, just like honoring mother’s year round, but giving special attention on Mother’s Day.
During the month of November in honor of all souls, parishes hold special Masses or blessings at cemeteries, books for writing the names of deceased loved ones to pray for and altar displays with photos or names that honor their memories and remind the faithful to pray for them.
Even though the concept of purgatory may be difficult to understand, Father Pohlmeier said the idea that makes sense to most is “when we die, how perfect is our love?”
“Are we attached to anything still? Because most people would sense that when I die, I’m not so bad to be condemned to hell, but I wouldn’t claim to be perfect; so I can’t be in heaven if I’m not perfect so how do I get perfect? How do I make up the difference between my state when I die and being in heaven? That makes sense to people. For Catholics, then it’s that period of purification to be made perfect,” he said.
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