Purgatory is a place of atonement for the sins we have committed throughout our lives, for which we have not yet been satisfactorily purified. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines Purgatory as “A state of final purification after death and before entrance into Heaven for those who died in God’s friendship, but were only imperfectly purified; a final cleansing of human imperfection before one is able to enter the joy of Heaven.”
How will this purification take place? It is believed that there are two forms of atonement that will cleanse us of our impurities before we can enter Heaven. The first is the pain of loss and separation from the beatific Vision. The second is the physical suffering of fire.
Here is how St. Thomas describes these methods of purification in his Summa Theologica:
“In Purgatory there will be a twofold pain; one will be the pain of loss, namely the delay of the divine vision, and the pain of sense, namely punishment by corporeal fire. With regard to both the least pain of Purgatory surpasses the greatest pain of this life. For the more a thing is desired the more painful is its absence. And since after this life the holy souls desire the Sovereign Good with the most intense longing--both because their longing is not held back by the weight of the body, and because, had there been no obstacle, they would already have gained the goal of enjoying the Sovereign Good--it follows that they grieve exceedingly for their delay.”
The following excerpt explaining the punishment in purgatory is from the book, Read Me or Rue it by Fr. Paul O’Sullivan:
"How Comes it that the Pains of Purgatory are So Severe?
1. The fire we see on Earth was made by the goodness of God for our comfort and well-being. Still, when used as a torment, it is the most dreadful one we can imagine.
2. The fire of Purgatory, on the contrary, was made by the Justice of God to punish and purify us and is, therefore, incomparably more severe.
3. Our fire, at most, burns this gross body of ours, made of clay; whereas, the fire of Purgatory acts on the spiritual soul, which is unspeakably more sensitive to pain.
4. The more intense our fire is, the more speedily it destroys its victim, who therefore ceases to suffer; whereas, the fire of Purgatory inflicts the keenest, most violent pain, but never kills the soul nor lessens its sensibility.
5. Unsurpassingly severe as is the fire of Purgatory, the pain of loss or separation from God, which the souls also suffer in Purgatory, is far more severe. The soul separated from the body craves with all the intensity of its spiritual nature for God. It is consumed with an intense desire to fly to Him. Yet it is held back. No words can describe the anguish of this unsatisfied craving."
Given these terrible images of the suffering in Purgatory, we must logically consider how we can avoid this punishment, and how we can help those who are subjected to it presently. These subjects will be discussed in the next 2 entries.