Purified in Love. The Experience of Purgatory
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Purified in Love. The Experience of Purgatory

Purified in Love. The Experience of Purgatory

 Purified in Love – The Experience of Purgatory

James Tolhurst FAITH MAGAZINE November - December 2015

The main difference that is noticed in a modern Catholic funeral is the abundance of flowers and candles, (which have become the universal mark of condolence) and almost in inverse proportion, the scarcity of Mass cards and Mass stipends. Thirty years ago it was the other way round. We need to ask if people still believe in praying for the faithful departed and that it is “not a fond thing vainly invented.” The practice was strongly endorsed by the Council of Trent in 1563 precisely to counter the arguments of the Reformers. There is a Memento in every Eucharistic Prayer,  and the 2nd November and the subsequent month is dedicated to the Holy Souls.  Has it just withered away in people’s minds ?  

Pious remembrance is better than nothing, but it easily slides into a certain agnosticism. We can wonder whether we wander disembodied in the next life, ‘having passed over’ or maybe dwell  in some alternate universe. Perhaps we console ourselves with the thought that our dead are all with God in heaven, like the angels - which of course is an impossibility, as we are a different species. Cardinal Basil Hume visited Jennifer Patterson (of the Two Fat Ladies) in hospital, as she lay dying of cancer, and said as he was leaving, “Well, Jennifer, see you in heaven.” To which she is supposed to have replied, “No, Eminence, but I hope we meet in Purgatory.”

Yes, there is heaven (and hell) and “there is also that place we call Purgatory,” said Pope Innocent IV in 1254. We need to keep it in mind, as it is the destination where we hope to arrive when our own life is over. The problem is the word itself: purgatives were one of the painful medical interventions which our ancestors had to undergo when they were ill. What became known as Pride’s Purge was the forceful removal of 186 members of parliament and the arrest of 45 by Colonel Thomas Pride in 1648, which resulted in The Rump. The emphasis therefore is on the painful atonement for sin which has been built up during life and for which the settlement must be made : David, having repented for his sin, was still punished for it (2 Sam. 12:13-14).

The Merciful Love of God

There is a painful side to purgatory. It is termed ‘temporal’ punishment (not that there is any concept of time in eternity) which is the basis for the Church’s  almost overlooked, because unexplained, teaching on indulgences - no longer time-limited in days, months, quarantains and years (like bail bonds), but since Indulgentiarum doctrina of 1967, partial or plenary (total).  The emphasis is now placed more firmly on the merciful love of God and the merits of Our Lady and the Saints, to hasten the pilgrimage that the Holy Souls undertake.  Such pain suffered is not a vengeful imposition, “to be appeased in wrath, dear Lord” – using the words of  Fr. Faber’s hymn - in the same way that there is much less emphasis on corporal penance, as purgative of sin.  The importance is now placed on  purification : “He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, till they present right offerings to the Lord.” (Mal.3:3).The Church has replaced the word purge  with purify in its most recent documents (Vatican II Lumen Gentium n.49,50,51 and The Catechism of the Catholic Church 1030,1032). Purgatory is seen as a purifying  process.

The Soul is already filled with Light

      But this purification even if it is not punitive, is not yet heaven.  Writers would describe it in terms of an imprisonment; Newman’s hymn says “in prison for the debt unpaid”. Theologians would express this in penal terms. Some, like St. Bonaventure would say that it exceeds by far all the pains of life; others like St. Thomas  would talk of a lesser penalty, “even if minimal”: the mitissima omnium poena (the smallest punishment of all). Interestingly they use the same language with regard to limbo -but that is another subject which can’t be gone into at the moment. Van Noort would argue that the souls would have “something of the pain of hell and the joy of heaven”, ingenious, but theologically, an oxymoron.    Both Trent and The Catechism of the Catholic Church as well as the 1979 Letter on Certain Questions concerning Eschatology make the point that any sense of punishment “is altogether different from the punishment of the damned.” The reason of course is that as St John Paul II put it in 1991, “the soul is already filled with light, certitude, joy, because the person knows that he belongs forever to God.”

In the hope of the Resurrection

We need to banish from our minds any spectacle of souls writhing in agony in pools of fire, “letting the fire wear out their stains…”  However St. Cyprian talks of being purged for a long time by fire and St. Clement of Alexandria mentions a fiery trial.   Eusebius talks of “passing over the fiery river and that fearful water, the drops of which are fire” and Newman would talk of the ‘penal waters’ in The Dream of Gerontius. These are images not so much of Purgatory but of Hell, even if you say it is only temporary, or the pain is just about bearable. This created problems for the Orthodox delegates at the Council of Florence in 1444 and it was agreed that the fire could be dropped as part of a quid pro quo, with the Greeks agreeing to some suffering; with the truly righteous being immediately beatified.  St Justin had earlier maintained that “the souls of the pious are in some better place” and St. Catherine of Genoa would affirm, “No greater joy could be compared to the joy of the pure soul in Purgatory than the joy of the blessed in paradise.” St Bernard added that those in Purgatory are happier than those on earth.” As we say, they “have fallen asleep in the hope of the resurrection” (Eucharistic Prayer II).

Who shall stand in his Holy Place?

But we must not simply dismiss the images of the prison or the fire; instead we should set them against the understanding that nothing unworthy can enter the presence of God.  The encounter with the All-Holy God was an awe-inspiring experience (Exodus 3:5. 20:18-19; Lev. 19:2). For who could say, “I have made my heart clean; I am pure from my sin ?’” (Prov. 20:9). Isaiah had to exclaim “I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King the Lord of hosts” (Isa 6:5). “Who shall stand in his holy place ? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who desires not worthless things,” says the Psalmist  (Ps 24:3-4). The Levites had to be cleansed for their ceremonials. “He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, till they present right offerings to the Lord.” (Mal. 3:3) Certain rituals and kosher laws were demanded of God’s holy people (Lev 11:14; Num.19:11): “the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh” (Heb. 9:13). Yom Kippur was set aside for self-examination and atonement for sin. Before Passover we are told “Many went up from the country to Jerusalem, to purify themselves” (John 11:55).  The man without the wedding garment is not admitted to the bridal banquet in the parable of the kingdom (Matt. 22:11) and Jesus reminds us that we must “be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect,” (Matt. 5:4) so that we are worthy to enter that kingdom where “nothing unclean shall enter” (Rev 21:27).


It is a truly painful and undeniable fact that we are all sinful and unclean. We are “but dust and ashes”, and we rightly proclaim with the centurion every time we come to Communion that we are unworthy for the Lord to enter under our roof. When faced with the prospect of heaven there has to be that remorseful admission of “those carnal and worldly affections…whether we would have Christ, or our delights” (Augustine, City of God, ch. 26). St. John of the Cross maintains that the souls in Purgatory “suffer great doubts about whether they will ever leave and whether their afflictions will end.”  (Dark Night II,7) St Thomas More talks about his sufferings in the Tower lessening the pains of Purgatory. But St. Catherine of Genoa approaches this from another angle: “The greatest suffering of the souls in purgatory, it seems to me, is their awareness that something in them displeases God, that they have deliberately gone against His great goodness” (The Spiritual Dialogue).  It is not therefore the fact of God inflicting punishment but rather the necessity of the removal of obstacles between us and God’s love.  “The fire, when applied, would be powerless over them if they did not have imperfections from which to suffer. These imperfections are the fuel that catches on fire, and once they are gone there is nothing left to burn,” says St John of the Cross (Dark Night II,10). In Purgatory there is that struggle between the burning desire for God and the biting shame of being unworthy, “To love and to be denied the object of one’s love,” says Tauler. This conflict is  resolved in the love which triumphs in martyrdom, for “in the evening of life we will be examined in love.” Divine love “is so awe-full that it does cause pain – one realises one’s own nothingness and the immensity of God’s goodness,” to quote Agnes Holloway. In my own Concise Catechism for Catholics it is stated, “Those who die without perfect love of God will be purified in love in Purgatory” (Q. 242). In our lives there should be that longing to meet God in complete abandonment so that we can love him alone. St. Peter needed to atone for his three-fold betrayal, by a similar expression of his love. We surely believe that the sufferings undergone in this life, if accepted with a genuine love of God will gain for us remission of our sins and the reward of eternal life. When the time comes to leave this world, to be “a valiant soul without fear of death” (to quote St. Oliver Plunkett),  we make our final sacrifice to God for the life that he has given to us. It should be as the prayer says, “I take from your hands my illness and all I have to suffer; and when you call me at last, I will accept even my death from you to make up for my sins.”(Roman Ritual

The Night where No One can Work       

But undergoing Purgatory itself is essentially a passive process: “the night where no one can work” (John 9:4). It is a great act of charity to ask God in our prayers to hasten the purification of those souls we call holy, but who are not holy enough to enjoy the fullness of the light and joy of God’s presence. It is true, as St. Paul says that Christ loved the Church and sacrificed himself to make her holy, making her clean by baptism, but he is waiting to take those souls to himself so that they will be glorious, with no speck or wrinkle, but holy and without blemish (Eph. 5:25ff ). That is Purgatory as it ends in heaven. We neglect to think about it at our own risk – one day we will need the prayers of those we leave behind, and now we should remember those who have died – the Curé of Ars calls them “the mendicants of another world.” Judas Maccabeus considered offering sacrifice for those who had died was a “holy and pious thought” (2 Macc. 12:45). As early as AD 140, Aristides of Athens wrote, “If one of the faithful dies, obtain salvation for him by celebrating the Eucharist and by praying next to his remains.” We bear in mind our faithful departed in the Masses we offer for them -  in our deeds, our almsgiving and our prayers - especially if they are indulgenced. They are worth more than many flowers.

After all, we should be keeping our hearts fixed even in this life on what God has prepared for those who love him, Jesus has told us, “Set your hearts on his kingdom first” (Matt. 6:33). “There we shall rest and we shall behold and we shall love and we shall praise. This is what shall be in the end without end” (City of God, ch. 22: that sharing of God’s blessedness, when Purgatory will be no more.

Fr. James Tolhurst was Spiritual  Director of the English College, Valladolid. He was the first reviews editor of Faith  and is the author of A Concise Catechism for Catholics and editor of  Cardinal Newman’s Tracts for the Times.

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