99 & 1/2 Won’t Do – A Meditation on Purgatory

I have blogged before on Purgatory. For example here: Purgatory – Biblical and Reasonable. I have also provided a PDF document on the Biblical roots of the teaching here: PDF Document on Purgatory .

On this Feast of All Souls I want to reflect on Purgatory as the necessary result of a promise. Many people think of purgatory primarily in terms of punishment, but it is also important to think of it in terms of  promise, purity and perfection. Some of our deceased brethren are having the promises to them perfected in purgatory. In the month of November we are especially committed to praying for them and know by faith that our prayers are of benefit to them.

What is the Promise which points to Purgatory? Simply stated, Jesus Made the promise in Matt 5:48: You, Therefore, must be perfect as you Heavenly Father is perfect. Now in this promise is an astonishing declaration of our dignity. We are to share in the very nature and perfection of God. This is our dignity:  that we are called to reflect and possess the very glory and perfection of God.

St. Catherine of Siena was gifted by the Lord to see a heavenly soul in the state of grace and her account of it is related in her Dialogue. It is here summarized In the Sunday School Teacher’s Explanation of the Baltimore Catechism:

The Soul in the State of Grace– Catherine of Siena was permitted by God to see the beauty of a soul in the state of grace. It was so beautiful that she could not look on it; the brightness of that soul dazzled her. Blessed Raymond, her confessor, asked her to describe to him, as far as she was able, the beauty of the soul she had seen. St. Catherine thought of the sweet light of that morning, and of the beautiful colours of the rainbow, but that soul was far more beautiful. She remembered the dazzling beams of the noonday sun, but the light which beamed from that soul was far brighter. She thought of the pure whiteness of the lily and of the fresh snow, but that is only an earthly whiteness. The soul she had seen was bright with the whiteness of Heaven, such as there is not to be found on earth. ” My father,” she answered. “I cannot find anything in this world that can give you the smallest idea of what I have seen. Oh, if you could but see the beauty of a soul in the state of grace, you would sacrifice your life a thousand times for its salvation. I asked the angel who was with me what had made that soul so beautiful, and he answered me, “It is the image and likeness of God in that soul, and the Divine Grace which made it so beautiful.” [1].

Yes, this is our dignity and final destiny if we are faithful to God.

So, I ask you, “Are you there yet?” God has made you a promise. But what if it is not yet fulfilled and you were to die today without the divine perfection you are promised yet completed? I can only say for myself that, if I were to die today, as far as I know I am not aware of mortal sin. But I am also aware of not being perfect. I am not even close to being humanly perfect, let alone having the perfection of the heavenly Father!

But Jesus made me a promise: You must be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect. And the last time I checked, Jesus is a promise keeper!. St. Paul says, May God who has begun a good work in you bring it to completion. (Phil 1:6).  Hence, If I were to die today, Jesus would need to complete a work that he has begun in me. By God’s grace, I have come a mighty long way. But I have a long way to go. God is very holy and his perfection is beyond imagining.

Yes, there are many things in us that need purging. Sins, and attachments to sin. Worldly clingings, and those rough edges to our personality. Likewise most of us carry with us hurts, regrets, sorrows and disappointments. We cannot take any of this to heaven with us. It wouldn’t be heaven. So the Lord, who is faithful to his promise, will purge all of this from us. The Book of Revelation speaks of Jesus ministering to the dead in that he will wipe every tear from their eyes  (Rev 21:4).  1 Corithians 3:13-15 speaks of us as passing through fire in order that our works be tested and that what is good may be purified and what is worldly may be burned away. Job said, But he knows the way that I take; and when he has tested me, I will come forth as pure gold (Job 23:10).

Purgatory has to be – Yes, gold, pure gold, refined, perfect and pure gold. Purgatory has to be if God’s promises are to hold. The Protestants have no place for Purgatory because they interpret our perfection merely to be a legally declared perfection. Classical Protestantism speaks of an “imputed righteousness.”  Imputed righteousness is  a righteous that is merely said of us but is not actually so. Luther thought of us as a dung hill, completely depraved, and God covered us with his righteousness like snow on the surface, but we were still dung underneath. For Luther we merely have declared of us a justitia aliena (an alien justice). But Catholic Theology has always taken God seriously on his promise that we would actually be perfect as the Father is perfect. The righteousness is Jesus’ righteousness, but it actually transforms us and changes us completely in the way that St. Catherine describes above. It is a real righteousness, not merely imputed, not merely declared of us by inference. It is not an alien justice, but a personal justice, by the grace of God.

Esse quam videri – Purgatory makes sense because perfection promised us is real: Esse quam videri (To be rather than to seem). We must actually be purged of the last vestiges of imperfection, worldliness, sin and sorrows. And, having been made perfect by the grace of God, we are able to enter heaven of which Scripture says, Nothing impure will ever enter it (Rev 21:27). And again, you have approached Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and countless angels in festal gathering, and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven, and God the judge of all, and the souls of the just made perfect (Heb 12:22-23).

How could it be anything less? – Indeed, the souls of the just made perfect. How could it be anything less if Jesus died to accomplish it for us?  Purgatory makes sense based on the promise of Jesus and the power of his blood to accomplished complete and total perfection for us. This is our dignity, this is our destiny. Purgatory is about promises not mere punishments. There’s an old Gospel hymn that says, “O Lord I’m running, trying to make a hundred. Ninety-nine and half won’t do!”

That’s right, 99 1/2 won’t do. Nothing less than 100 is possible since we have the promise of Jesus and the wonder working power of the precious blood of the Lamb. For most, if not all of us, purgatory has to be.

39 Replies to “99 & 1/2 Won’t Do – A Meditation on Purgatory”

  1. Sometimes when I think of all the lessons I am learning here, and all I have yet to learn … I sigh because I shall never get there … but reading your reflection I am saying thank goodness for purgatory. And if it is difficult now, how much worse will it be then? But it is good to know that Jesus will be there to wipe my tears then too …

    By the way, this weekend we had the opportunity to attend High Mass in Seattle and I cannot quite express how amazing and wonderful it was. I blogged about it here trying to capture some of my feelings about it: http://vijayabodach.blogspot.com/2010/10/high-mass.html and we hope to go back again. It was the Feast of Christ the King so it was extra special.

      1. Thank you. I’ve been blogging for about three years now, but the focus has changed a LOT.

  2. “Consider it all joy, my brothers, when you encounter various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. And let perseverance be perfect, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” James 1: 2-4

    To me this scripture encourages us in our trials to persevere perfectly so that we may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. But according to your post these words are not the whole story for we cannot be complete (perfect) without purgatory. In James we are being encouraged to do something we cannot do, to be someone we cannot be. Is God misleading us?

    Now I’m not saying there is no purgatory but I question the concept of absolutism.

    Why? Because I clearly hear Jesus saying “with God all things are possible”. Matthew 19:26. And I hear Jesus’ conversation with the thief on the cross in Luke 23:42,43 “Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. He replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

    Why shouldn’t/can’t I believe Jesus will/can do the same for you and me?


  3. Msgr:
    Thank you fo this post. A dinner table question in my family that I am not certain how to answer. If we die having confessed and been absolved of mortal sins we have committed, are these sins still a stain on our soul that must be purged or does a person only “need” purgatory for those sins that are not confessed/absolved.

    At first I must admit that the cynical part of me thought that this was a precocious teenager’s trick question. But having reflected a bit, I need a solid answer here for her.

    Thanks for your time/guidance.


    1. The sins are forgiven but the temporal punishments and effects remain and must be healed. Consider the following scenario. You ask me to take 3 steps to the right and I refuse and take 3 steps to the left. I then regret offending you in this way and request your forgiveness. You do forgive. However, I am now six steps away from where I need to be and must still make that journey. This is what is meant by the temporal effect and punishments due to sin. Purgatory would include our being restored of the effects of sins committed though forgiven.

      1. That explanation makes a lot of sense. I have known about the temporal effects and punishments since my childhood, but I have never been able to explain the concept to others. This gives me a little something to go on.

  4. I think no one would have rejected purgatory if the doctrine were better understood back in the centuries surrounding the Reformation. Hey, even the schism with the Orthodox may not have been so deep. But I think that in the past, at least in the Western Church, purgatory was understood primarily in penal terms. But the actual sources in Scripture and the Fathers don’t make it sound that way. If one were to read, say, Fr. F.X. Schouppe in the 19th century, who used private revelations to deduce that we’d be spending periods much longer than our lives in absolute and utter agony only slightly less than that of hell, I can see how it was hard to square such an understanding with Divine Mercy or Love.

    I know it’s better to spend as little time as possible there, but I think the image of a refiner’s fire of Divine Love (which seems to be how the Fathers thought of it, and is certainly how the Christian East thinks of it) makes much more sense in terms of who God is than the mathematical/juridical model so prevalent in the West for so long.

    If I were a Calvinist, I’d be worried indeed – who leaves this life perfect enough to directly enter the presence of God? There has to be some sort of purification, or else we’re all in trouble.

    1. I agree we were not well served with the over-emphasis on exotic and terrible punishments in purgatory. The New Catechism makes itself clear to distance the Church from such extreme notions. When I was a young child purgatory was presented as really no different than hell except is was temporary.

  5. There are some wonderful books on the subject of Purgatory, and even a museum on Purgatory in Rome. It is a wise thing to meditate on. How sad that many obituaries (including Catholic thinking) has made an erroneous habit of sending all our deceased straight to heaven. They need our prayers, no matter how holy they may have seemed to us–God judges differently.
    A recent book on the subject, called “Hungry Souls” is quite an eye opener. It has pictures from the Purgatory museum and some quite interesting stories of saints and their contact with those suffering souls who appeared to them requesting prayers and Masses for their release.

    1. Agreed. I often tell people at funerals not to miss a step. Too many funerals pass right over the notion of judgment. This leaves our loved ones poor in the prayers we ought to offer. I often think the instant beatifications at funerals are more for our own sake than the deceased who could actually do more with our prayers than our kind words.

  6. Dear Msgr,

    Thank you for this blog entry and the PDF file. Could you expound on the purpose of our prayers for those in purgatory? I ask in light of this sentence in the PDF file:

    “Exactly how this purgation (or purification) is carried out is not revealed explicitly.”

    If we do not know how God carries out the purification process, how do we know that our prayers have a role? Or, indeed, have any effect? And I do wonder at times for how long I should pray for someone who I think would spend time in purgatory. Does the Church teach that purgatory requires time as we understand it – let’s say for the sake of argument six months in John Doe’s case. How could I know when to stop praying for his soul’s entry into heaven? Forgive me if I’m missing the point here.

    1. All we know is that prayer helps. Res ipsa loquitur (the thing speaks for itself). We know that prayers for the dead came to us from Jewish roots and we read about them in the Boook of Maccabbees. Although we do not know the exact mechanisms of prayer and how time here interacts with time there, it makes sense and is instinctual that we pray. I continue to pray for my grandparents, parents and sister though they all died a good while ago. If they don’t need my prayers I am sure the prayer will benefit others. God knows our heart in these matters and what is best.

  7. This brings to mind a situation a few years ago on my way to work on Metro, and having a conversation with a protestant cousin and one of her Church Members. We were discussing Grace and Salvation and I blurted out “Thank God for Purgatory”. They both proceeded to shake their heads in disagreement, so I put the question to them, “If you were to die at this very instant, are you worthy enough to go straight to Heaven”. I got plain looks and no answer. Like I said “Thank God for Purgatory” and Thank God for the promise of purity!!

    Let us Pray for the Soul in Purgatory.


  8. In Alpha we are taught by the Anglican priest that it is like when you steal some money and are brought to court, and a kind man comes in and provides the money that was stolen. You ask the judge can I go home now? He says, the man paid your fine but you still have to do the time. Jesus paid the price for our sins, and you can finish the sentance yourself.

  9. I remember as a child going into church on All soul’s Day, and gaining a plenary indulgence which I was told would release one soul from purgatory. We would leave the church and go right back in and gain another plenary indulgence for another soul. You could do this as often on that day as you wished. My questions are:
    1. If our loved ones who have died and are in purgatory can be released and enter heaven today because we obtain a plenary indulgence WHY IS THIS NOT ANNOUNCED IN EVERY CATHOLIC CHURCH? If it is not true or is doubtful I can see why it is passed over. However if it is the dogma of our Faith, why would it never be announced from the pulpit? It is making me doubt the efficacy of obtaining the indulgence if something so beneficial – ENTRY INTO HEAVEN – can be obtained today for our deceased parent, husband, wife , child etc. I heard all sorts of announcement last Sunday about CYO activites, bake sales etc. but nothing about this.
    2 Why is it rarely, if ever, mentioned
    3. Who granted this indulgence and when was it granted?
    4. Is it listed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church in the discussion of purgatory? Certainly it would be important for all of us to know how to obtain this unimaginable blessing for our loved ones.

    Thank you and thank you for your post MSGR.

    1. We should do a better jon of praying for the dead and metioning pugatory explicitly. We do this at every mass in my parish. However, there are some distinctions to be made as to gaining a plenary indulgence. They are difficult to obtain since one has to be free from all attachment to sin, so it’s not like magic. But it is a true fact that our prayers always help and we should be constantly aware of the power of prayer to help and change things, while avoiding overly mechanistic notions of how it works.

    1. Thanks for this link. It looks like an interesting book. But I wonder what Church approved apparitions are being referred to. I wouldn’t think that the Church would get involved in affirming or denying individual appearences of the dead. I’ll have to look more into it.

  10. St. Thomas Aquinas in The Summa Theologia at q. 69 – Art. 2 – Supp (Vol V). addresses: “Whether Souls are conveyed to Heaven or Hell immediately after death?” He states: If there is no doubt that Christ is in heaven, it cannot be denied that Paul’s soul is in heaven likewise. Also, some souls go down to hell immediately after death is evident from Luke xvi. 22, “And the rich man died, and he was buried in hell.” Even as in bodies there is gravity or levity whereby they are borne to their own place which is the end of their movement, so in souls there is merit or demerit whereby they reach their reward or punishment, which are the ends of their deeds. As soon as a soul is set free from the body it is either plunged into hell or soars to heaven, unless it be held back by some debt, for which its flight must needs be delayed until the soul is first of all cleansed. “I tell thee, thou shalt not depart, till thou hast paid the very last mite (copper); Luke 12:59.

    (Art. 4) Prior to the coming of Christ, the just were said to be in Abraham’s bosom as is told in the story of Lazarus the poor man, and the the rich man who died (Luke 16:22). While Christ’s body slept in the earth for three days, Jesus Christ broke the bars of hell, rescued Adam, showed Himself, and preached to the un-believers in prison, (1 Pete 3:19), and showed Himseld to the unbelievers to shame them, then Heaven was opened by Christ’s redemption; . But since after the coming of Christ the saints rest is complete through their seeing God, this rest is called Abraham’s bosom, but not hell by any means. It is this bosom of Abraham that the church prays for the faithful to be brought.

    St. Augustine said in The City of God, that “tempory punishments are suffered by some in this life only, by others after death, by others both now and then; but all of them before that last and strictest judgment (21:13).” Augustine also said in Confessions; “You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our heart can find no rest until it rests in you.”

    Purgatory is not mentioned in the bible, but neither is the Trinity, or Incarnation. Referrence to prayer for the dead are found in 2 Macc. 12:43-45 where atonement for the dead was made through prayer. Prayers are not needed by anyone in heaven, and cannot help those in hell. Monica, mother of St. Augustine asked her son to remember her at the the alter, to pray for her at masses. Purgatory, as I explain it to my children, is like when those beloved characters, Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tinwoodsman, and the Cowardly Lion, had to clean up before they appeared before the “Great and Wonderful Wizard of OZ.”

      1. And when they learn the “Wizard” of OZ was an illusion, a fraud—what then?

      2. Bill, the point of the analogy of Dorothy and her crew was directed at the discussion, purgatory, and not that the wizard is God, or a fraud. The point of the discussion is cleansing of the soul. I could have used the analogy that we clean up before appearing before a Civil or Criminal judge. The point, again is the focus of the 3rd abode. By the way, the children did grow in age, and did realize that the wizard was a “humbug,” but this did not effect their faith in God or the Trinity. Curious you should ask, did it effect you when you saw the man behind the curtain? Just asking!

  11. Someone has asked how long is Purgatory. Of course we don’t know, but some of the stories I read told of
    souls who came back after 30 or 40 years or more–asking for prayers. Our Lady told the children at Fatima that one of their friends was saved but that she would be in Purgatory until the end of the world. We don’t know how long to pray for someone, but we can continue to pray for them and if they are released ask that our prayers be directed to someone who has nobody to pray for them..

    1. Yes, it is a mysterious question of what time is after we die. But it just makes sense that we ought to continue to pray for deceased loved ones well into our future and unto our own death. I cannot imagine stopping prayers for my parents, grandparenets et al. I just do it without think I’m done.

  12. I believe that:
    1 Outside of heaven the happiest of people are in purgatory, like happy people getting a tatoo and willingly accepting the pain for the future enjoyment of it.
    2 When you can look Jesus in the eye without shame, your purgatory is over.
    3 God does not hide the truth from you after you die; if a man has beaten his wife he will know and feel what she went through.
    4 The good thief accepted his guilt, accepted his punishment and repented, so his purgatory was done on earth.
    5 God loved OJ Simpson so much he has given him, not punishment, but another opportunity to reflect and repent.

  13. St Catherine of Genoa wrote of her vision of purgatory that “I believe no happiness can be found worthy to be compared with that of a soul in Purgatory except that of the saints in Paradise; and day by day this happiness grows as God flows into these souls, more and more as the hindrance to His entrance is consumed.” A beautiful vision!

  14. My favorite theologian, bar none, was Origen, who maintained in his “On First Principles” that God will reconcile all of creation back to Himself. Origen admitted not having all of the details – Purgatory would seem to fit perfectly here – but he was certain of that reality. God will bring us all back into His wholeness.

    Viewed from that perspective, I cannot help but agree: The doctrine of Purgatory is not one of fear or suffering, but one of hope and promise indeed.

  15. Would you say Purgatory is a place or a state of being? Do we go from one place to the next or transition from one state to another such as being in a state of consciousness, goodness, sin or grace. I’m not trying to be clever. I just don’t see that I go somewhere different when I am asleep dreaming verses physically awake, in a deep meditative state., or physically dead. It would seem that we never come to an end but just wander from one state of being to another and all are imperfect to varing degrees due to various temporal physical and mental limiting factors resultant of our actions toward or against the true nature of the Holy Spirit. I don’t mean to be peevish but perhapse how people explain or see Purgatory is the reason some can’t accept it’s existence. You can’t be born a well adjusted adult. You have to go through many evolutionary states (physically, emotionally, intellectually, morally and spiritually) to get to that state. I can see where one might deny the Holy Spirit and therefore will condemn themselves of achieving the perfection promised in scripture. This would explain why St. Catherine of Siena could never really express the experience of a soul in a pure state of grace because it is a state of being, not a place to see or be. If physical life is a really a place, I should be able to go back to my childhood, but then some may say I have.

  16. I like the description of Purgatory from ” The Great Divorce”. Although I don’t remember Lewis ever actually calling it Purgatory, the souls his narrator meets and observes are experiencing pain. But it makes it clear that the pain is the result of their own inadequacy to experience heaven, and that it is necessary for their growth or development, so that they can experience it. Only an analogy of course, but I think a good one for developing a clearer understanding of the idea.

    1. In the Great Divorce, one of the spirits explains that, for those that choose to stay, the gray town below is purgatory (and will have always been purgatory), but for those who choose to go back, the gray town is hell (and will have always been hell).

      It is not exactly consistent with Catholic doctrine in this area, in that it comes close to hinting at the possibility of choosing after death (although the argument could be made that the choice, although expressed after death, was actually made before death), but the rest of the book is quite good.

  17. OK fellow bloggers and Msgr Pope I need your help. I’m stuck on this word perfect or being made perfect. There are about 120 references to this word/phrase. It seems to me that there are phases of perfection and that one can be perfect in this life but maybe not on a continuous basis. I think Hebrews 5 talks about Christ being made perfect. How can this be? He is sinless. Paul talks about it in Phillipians and in Corinthians. I’m not sure you can talk about purgatory making us ‘perfect’ without understanding that there may be moments of perfection here on earth. Again, You guys are better at figuring out the scriptures than I am. Sorry for the late comment. This is really buggung me.

  18. Being perfect i.e. making no mistakes imho does not really capture the perfection required of a Christian. St. Theresa wrote, “The one who makes no mistakes, makes nothing.” And nothing does not really met the requirements in Mt 25 i.e. “When I was hungry, you were perfect. But I was still hungry.”

    So the flip side of the same coin of purgation makes more sense to i.e. the perfection in love. Purgation focuses on the self; perfection in love focuses on the other. While our love is imperfect, we cannot really join that infinite and perfect exchange between the Father, Son & Holy Spirit so we go through the process of loving until we hold nothing back – to the point of giving one’s own life. http://divine-ripples.blogspot.com/2010/11/sweetness-of-pain.html

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