Viewpoint: Rediscovering the Authentic Catholic Vision of Purgatory

by Msgr. M. Francis Mannion

On November 2, the Church throughout the world celebrates the Commemoration of All Souls, a day which, though popular in days gone by, has been neglected in recent decades. This neglect may be a reaction to an overly negative view of purgatory and a severe notion of divine judgment.

The concept of purgatory is, however, essential to Catholic theology and practice. Granted, the concept of purgatory was often badly preached. Many people thought of purgatory, as Hungarian theologian Ladislaus Boros pointed out, as “a gigantic city of torment, a cosmic concentration camp, in which wailing, groaning, and moaning creatures are  punished by God.”

Perhaps the most profound truth embodied in the doctrine of purgatory is that we are not frozen, so to speak, in the moral and human condition that obtains at the moment of death. If we arrive at death’s door as imperfect and incomplete Christians, far from the holiness of the saints, we are not condemned forever to that state.

God still reaches out to us and calls us to himself, to a completion of our life-long journey into Christ. Purgatory should be seen as a process of dynamic transformation and sanctification, a completion of what began in us at baptism.

Anglican theologian John Macquarrie, expresses this well when he says that purgatory is one aspect of the process of sanctification whereby we are conformed to Christ. It is the completion of the process of putting on the mind and attitude of Christ.

In the twelfth century, William of Auvergne described purgatory as the fulfillment of our earthly penance. If penance is understood as a process of conversion and transformation, we will come to see purgatory not as a fearsome reality, but as the consummation of the whole movement of Christian life to salvation.

But what about the fire of purgatory?  The early fathers of the Church saw the fire of purgatory as a creative fire that cleansed and purified. The fire of purgatory is the living fire of the Holy Spirit, not the fire of destruction and desolation. St. Catherine of Genoa spoke of “the purgatory of God’s burning love.” We can link this with the mystical tradition which spoke of union with God as entry into a divine fire, into what St. John of the Cross called “the living flame of love.”

The pain of purgatory, then, is not the pain of divine punishment and wrath, but the pain of growth and transformation, the pain of breaking out of the old self into the new. Purgatorial suffering, according to John Macquarrie, comes from “the painful surrender of the ego-centered self” so that the God-centered self may emerge.

It is vital that prayer for the dead not be seen as bleak bargaining with a harsh God who casts imperfect souls into a ferocious, if temporary, pit. It must rather be conceived of and practiced as a warm and generous outpouring of love for those who have gone before us. It is an act of solidarity by which we accompany the dead on their pilgrimage to final perfection and happiness. It is a testament on our part to the worth and goodness of the departed, offered to a God who wills our salvation.

We would do well, then, to celebrate All Souls’ Day by making our own the kind of spirituality— by no means my invention—that I have set out here. Attending Mass on All Souls’ Day and remembering our own deceased relatives and friends—indeed all souls who ever lived—throughout the month of November are practices that need to be recovered and pastorally promoted.

Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Salt Lake City. Reprinted by permission of Catholic News Agency.


  1. Speaking as a simple believer and not a cleric or theologian, I’d like to respectfully counterargue. For the life of me, I can’t see why we join a timeless and hopefully blessed afterlife and need a timed punishment. I can’t see how people need to be prayed (or loved or solidaritied) into heaven, as if God was hamstrung by our sins until we tapped him on the shoulder enough that He felt moved to action. We accompany them in life, and then they accompany us as that great cloud of witnesses. Purgatory seems like a lovely theory to me, one that seems to fit our own agenda more than God’s. And again respectfully, since I am writing about God and heaven, let me assure you that I have no idea what I am writing about until we get there.

  2. I have two images of Purgatory. The first is from the original “Star Wars” movie. Purgatory is that bar on the planet that is a stopover place for everyone. You catch up with friends, meet some surprising folks, hear amazing stories, and catch your ship home. (I always remember the folks in the corners, who have maybe been there for years–grade school lessons kick in and I pray for them.)

    The second, courtesy of Fr. Mike Taylor, SJ, sometime in the early 70s. In this case, you meet Jesus after you’ve died. Face to face, you can see in his eyes he knows everything you’ve done and avoided doing, and why. Yet his face is kind, his eyes filled with love. Human instinct is to turn away, to look anywhere but in those loving eyes. Jesus holds your face, gently turns you to himself. You turn away. Again he draws you back. The dance continues until you look at him without shame or excuses or embarrassment.

    1. @Shannon O’Donnell:

      Absolutely. Good for Fr. Taylor. Perhaps having read what Fr. T. wrote, my old PP used to say that he didn’t think of Purgatory as a matter of extended time, but of momentary intensity. I like that too.

      Dante’s Mount Purgatory is a positive place, where the journey is upwards, as opposed to hell where they are going downwards.

      John Henry Newman’s Purgatory is the water in which the Angel gently lowers the soul of Gerontius. So Purgatory is like an extended Baptism.

      I am rather looking forward to it, actually. Jesus can clean me up much more thoroughly than I can ever do. In manus tuas, Domine …


  3. Dante’s Purgatorio gets overlooked by the drama of the Inferno and the theological density of the Paradiso – and it shouldn’t, because it’s probably the most lyrical of the three parts.

  4. For Catholics to meditate on purgatory, I recommend Mitch Albom’s book, “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” (but cross out the heaven part and use “Purgatory” instead; and also the movie “Groundhog Day.”

  5. Jesus and his followers proclaimed the ressurection of the body rather than the immortality of the soul. We all know or believe that with the exceptions of Jesus and Mary, the bodies of believers lie still, awaiting for the Day of the Lord when He will call them forth and provide each with a glorified body in which there will be no more death or pain or crying out. I wonder if the doctrine of purgatory is not a way of the church acknowledging our solidarity in prayer with all who fall asleep in the hope of rising again. However, since there is no chronological time in eternity, the church has traditionally felt compelled to speak of saintly souls who have “already” encountered the Savior, albeit without the bodies that makes them human beings. This is a Great Mystery but one that impels us to wait in joyful hope for the final and glorious coming of Jesus Christ so that the prophecy of God’s destroying death forever will be fulfilled. Do any if us really know the whereabouts of the souls of the just other than to say things like they are safe in the hands of God? But we do know the remains of their bodies lie still also awaiting that Day. When we pray for the dead are we not expressing our deepest hope and desire that God’s endless mercy endures beyond the grave. The funeral liturgy refers to the bodies of the deceased as those who died in baptism and thus enjoy a share in his resurrection. It is a wonderful and blessed custom by which we pray for the faithful departed and even the not so faithful departed.
    The tragedy is that this noble belief and practice became intertwined with the material support of the church and its clergy. The very idea of snatching souls out of purgatory for a few coins cried out to heaven for vengeance and was an essential component of the reformation that split the church asunder. I believe we need to review our practices by which gifts in memory of the deceased are associated in any way with influencing the judgement and mercy of God.

  6. Lewis beautifully writes in Letters to Malcolm:

    My favourite image on this matter comes from the dentist’s chair. I hope that when the tooth of life is drawn and I am ‘coming round’,’ a voice will say, ‘Rinse your mouth out with this.’ This will be Purgatory. The rinsing may take longer than I can now imagine. The taste of this may be more fiery and astringent than my present sensibility could endure. But . . . it will [not] be disgusting and unhallowed.”

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