All-Poor Souls

B239: Catholics believe in “Purgatory” after death. Is it ever possible to go from Purgatory to Hell?

First of all, we need to grasp firmly the truth that one must be in a state of “Holiness” to enter the kingdom of heaven. There is absolutely no question that those who die in God’s grace and friendship are assured of their eternal salvation. Therefore, they will never go to Hell. However, if they are imperfectly purified, they need to undergo a “purification” after death in order to enter heaven. This process is called Purgatory – the final purification for some of the Elect, and the belief has been part of church doctrine (officially restated at the Councils of Florence and Trent in the 15th and 16th centuries).

There is no undisputed biblical basis for Purgatory. However, the classical text that is normally used is 2 Maccabees 12:38-46, where the living are praying for those killed in battle. Some of the early Church Fathers spoke in the third century of prayers for the dead. And after St. Augustine, the biblical text in 1 Corinthians 3:12-15 became used as a reference to the purifying fires needed by some after death.

It is important to remember that the bishops united in Council officially defined the existence of Purgatory, thereby making it an article of faith. They also said that the souls in purgatory are indeed helped by our prayers of intercession, including the prayers of the eucharistic liturgy.

KNOW YOUR CATECHISM! The Church’s doctrine on this final purification is outlined in the Catechism (CCC #1030-32). The people in Purgatory are called “Holy” souls, because of the assurance of their salvation. Also giving us hope is the reminder that each one of God’s children is united in the supernatural unity of the Mystical Body of Christ. Therefore, as a Communion of Saints, we help each other with our intercessory prayers (CCC #1474), living or dead. Because of this belief, every time we visit a gravesite we pray that “eternal rest” be granted to our loved ones, and to all the faithful departed. We continue this remembrance in our daily prayers as well. An old tradition says that “no one enters heaven without taking someone with him.”

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Q500: I am sort of afraid of pain, and even more terrified about Death. Am I in the majority or minority when it comes to thoughts like these?

It doesn’t really matter whether it is only a few or a vast number of people who feel the way that you do. The important thing is to understand what God wants you to know about those things, particularly “death.”

A chapter entitled “Death” in the 1990 book, “Wisdom of the Saints, an Anthology” has this quote: “Do you not know that only the thoughtless and insane consider the faithful departed to be dead?” Those were the words of St. John Eudes, the great French evangelist and preacher who was born at the dawn of the 17th century. He is voicing a basic principle about the death of those who are faithful Christians: you aren’t really “dead” after all; you simply move into or are transformed into a new form of life. In today’s first reading (Wisdom 3:1-9), that author has the same insight: after death, you are in the hands of God and no torment can ever touch you again; also, he continues, you are in peace.

Our entire earthly life has but one goal: to accept God’s free gift of eternal salvation and become fully human, a fullness according to God’s image. It astonishes our mind when we approach the mystery of God’s unconditional love for us. We discover a love that wants us to share in His divine glory after we have completed our mission here on earth. Jesus is very reassuring today, when he promises us that he will raise us on the last day – “us” referring to all who believe in him, trust in him, and are faithful to him in their behavior.

So with Jesus on our side, at the right hand of the Father, interceding for all who believe in him — really, there is Nothing whatsoever that we need to fear about that split second in time that we call “death.” It is simply a brief link to our goal, when we will be united once again with all the faithful departed who have gone before us! So do not live in fear; trust in Jesus’ promise, and live in peace and anticipation!

KNOW YOUR CATECHISM! Jesus sanctified us (made us holy) by his sacrificial death (CCC #606) so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life with him (CCC #219).

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