Catholic understanding of purgatoryFrom the beginning, purgatory was one of the Catholic teachings that I had a hard time getting my head around. I had always been taught – if you believe in Jesus you go to heaven. So this was a new concept. No one wants to think they have to suffer again after death, right?

I’ve talked with one of my priests about it, heard about it in RCIA (Catholic preparation class), read about it and studied it, but today I finally GOT it and I have to thank the wonderful Father Mitch Pacwa, S.J. He addressed the issue for a caller to Catholic Radio Indy this afternoon and all the pieces of the puzzle suddenly came together for me, making it crystal clear.

I’ve been reading a lot about redemptive suffering, or the idea of letting your suffering “work” and have benefit for other souls, and recently blogged about it. Purgatory is entirely tied to this and I had missed it.

So here goes, a Catholic Newbie’s take on purgatory:

When Christ died on the cross for us, he did so to “take away the sins of the world.” But unlike Protestant churches who believe that once you “accept” Christ that your sins are “poof” entirely forgiven and that you go to heaven if you believe and are sorry for your sins, the Catholic church believes that the taking away of those sins might hurt a little and that there’s more work involved to get there.

When we enter heaven we will be in the presence of a “perfect” Father (to whom we are to model in His “perfection”), and therefore we must be perfect. How could we sully the presence of God with our fallen nature, our shameful thoughts, our bad deeds, our angry words — whether committed in the past or present and forgiven or not.

We do go to confession to be “forgiven” of these sins, but that does not entirely remove their effects. If we have gossiped about someone, the damage we did, even though we are sorry, may be unable to be corrected. We may still harbour anger toward someone even if we are sorry and even if we desire not to.

So we must be “purified” to perfection before we go to heaven — either here or in purgatory.

This is where redemptive suffering comes in. Some humans have purified themselves on earth, many of the saints! This involves suffering, just as we would suffer in purgatory. So many great people endure great suffering. Wonder why? Because they are being purified for heaven. Like Saint Therese of Lisieux who made every tiny act of sacrifice a work for God and dear Elisabeth Leseur who deeply suffered physically and who offered it all to God.

Christ suffered GREATLY on the cross. Why should we not suffer along with him to get to the wonderful reward he purchased for us by his death? I for one think it’s worth it!

The good news is, guys, that we GET to go to heaven. Before Christ, we could not get there at all no matter what we did. Now, we can work to get there through some suffering. That means suffering is GOOD. Christ made it good!

I think we can also offer up our suffering to purify other souls — both here and in heaven. We can ask to whom that suffering be applied or we can give it to the immense wisdom of our mother Mary or her son Jesus and let them distribute the good works where they know best.

I’d love some comments or questions on this topic. Please pipe in!