PURGATORY: WHAT CAN I EXPECT THERE?
Who gets to skip purgatory and go straight to heaven?
The lucky ones who will go directly to heaven are the ones who have already shed every last trace of self-love left in their hearts. They are the saints who have already made reparation for the sins of their life. Their hearts are left with nothing but pure love for Christ.
Remember, one sin might take just seconds to commit, but the reparation or punishment could take years, and could involve severe pain. Thanks to the merits of Christ won for us, our souls can indeed be repaired and can be made beautiful, just as they were intended to be.
So what happens when we get to purgatory?
Expect some sort of pain.
Perhaps you went through a time in your life when you were in severe physical or emotional pain. Perhaps you came out of it closer to God. Perhaps during the painful experience, you recognized a serious sin you had been committing and turned away from it.
If that happened, you experienced purification.
Purgatory is just a finishing up of the purification we go through on Earth.
Even if we have been forgiven from our sins in Confession, it’s possible we have not yet been punished or have not yet done sufficient penance to heal the damage we caused by those sins while on earth. That’s what purgatory is for.
Don’t be surprised if the pain from the punishment outweighs the pleasure you derived from the sin.
St. Augustine said: “Man is forced to suffer even after his sins are forgiven, though it was sin that brought down on him this penalty. For the punishment outlasts the guilt, lest the guilt should be thought slight if with its forgiveness the punishment also came to an end.”
No, our work is not done when we exit the confessional. Let’s say Johnny picked up your new computer in a rage and threw it out the window from the tenth floor. But later, he is truly sorry. You, in your great mercy, forgive him. But to make things completely right, Johnny plans to buy you a new computer. He doesn’t have the money, so he gets an extra job to pay for it and simultaneously works to restore your trust. But what if he dies before he gets to make amends?
That’s where purgatory comes in. That’s where final amends can be made.
Purgatory was created for our benefit, so that we may all enjoy eternity to the fullest. In the same way, surgery may be painful, but a doctor may order it for a patient with the goal of providing her patient with a more fulfilling future.
Some theologians have compared the pain of purgatory to child labor. The woman has severe pain, but rejoices in knowing what is to come.
Unlike on Earth, where we experience alternating periods of punishment, purification, work and play, in purgatory there is nothing but purging going on. Therefore, we assume it will be the most severe and most prolonged pain we’ve experienced.
How painful is it?
By most accounts, it is brutal. Many Church Fathers and later theologians said that the fires of purgatory were actually the same as the fires of hell. The difference, they speculated, was that purgatory was a temporary cleansing fire, rather than a fire of eternally punishment. Nevertheless, the Church has never officially declared whether or not purgatory involves fire or any specific kind of punishment.
St. Thomas Aquinas said the worst pain we feel on earth is not as painful as the least pain in purgatory.
Aquinas explains, “It is the same fire that torments the reprobate in hell, and the just in purgatory. The least pain in purgatory,’ he says, “surpasses the greatest suffering in this life. ‘ Nothing but the eternal duration makes the fire of hell more terrible than that of purgatory.”
St. Augustine: “Even as in the same fire gold glistens and straw smokes, so in the same fire the sinner burns and the elect is cleansed.” Here, St. Thomas Aquinas quotes Gregory the Great quoting St. Augustine.
How long do people have to spend in purgatory?
We do not know. Some theologians would say it could last anywhere from a second to many centuries, depending on the depth and number of sins, the intensity of one’s attachments to earthly things, and the amount of penance one had done on Earth.