Purgatory: A Key Doctrine

The dogma of Purgatory is an all-but-forgotten teaching of the Church, yet it is extremely valuable in supporting the call to perfection. The fundamental purpose of Purgatory is not forgiveness of sins, but making up for sins, reparation. The damage done by sin, especially to our own souls, is “repaired” in Purgatory.

When a boy accidentally throws a baseball through a neighbor’s window, it is one thing to be forgiven by the owner, another thing to repair the window. When a man does something terrible to his wife, it is one thing to receive her forgiveness, quite another to make it up to her. True, Jesus has paid most of the price for sin, but we have a relatively small price to pay as well. St. Paul says, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and I make up in my own flesh what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ, for the sake of his body, which is the Church” (Col 1:24). So, there is a place or state we enter to repair the damage our sins have caused.

The biblical support for Purgatory is found, among other passages, in St. Paul:

Each one’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any one has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. (1 Cor 3:13–15)1 made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin” (2 Macc 12:46). Prayer for the dead is linked to the doctrine of Purgatory since, if the dead are in Heaven or Hell, there is no need or no reason to pray for them. See also Mt 12:32.]

This is a painful proposition, Purgatory; one that is not well known. It was defined as a dogma of the Church at the Council of Trent in 1563.2 The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:

The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire: “As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire . . .” (Gregory the Great). (CCC 1031)

St. Catherine of Genoa wrote: “the divine essence is so pure and light-filled — much more than we can imagine — that the soul that has but the slightest imperfection would rather throw itself into a thousand hells than appear thus before the divine presence.”3 And the Anglican C.S. Lewis wrote:

Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, “It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy”? Should we not reply, “With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.” “It may hurt, you know.” “Even so, sir.”4

To deny the doctrine of Purgatory would be to make hollow Christ’s teaching that we must be made perfect, as our heavenly Father, or that we should love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and love our neighbor as ourselves. Most people who die in the state of grace love God a great deal, but not with all their heart, soul, and mind. Is it reasonable to think that, if we fall short of loving God totally but die in the state of grace, Jesus will meet us at the gates of Heaven and say, “That teaching on perfection (Mt. 5:48) — don’t worry about it; come on in”?

The Pain and Joy of Purgatory

St. Augustine wrote: “The fire of Purgatory will be more severe than any pain that can be felt, seen, or conceived in this world.”5 Thomas Aquinas taught something similar:

In Purgatory there will be a twofold loss, namely the delay of the divine vision, and the pain of sense, namely the punishment by bodily fire. With regard to both, the least pain of Purgatory surpasses the greatest pain of this life.6

St. Francis de Sales balances this misery with a certain sweetness for the souls in purgatory:

Their bitterest anguish is soothed by a certain profound peace. It is a species of Hell as regards the suffering; it is a Paradise as regards the delight infused into their hearts by charity — a charity stronger than death and more powerful than Hell . . .7

Why is there such joy in Purgatory? Because once we are there, we are sure of entering Heaven one day. It’s guaranteed.

Nonetheless, despite the delight of those being cleansed, the Church herself calls them the “Church Suffering,” and I know of not one holy soul in Purgatory who has appeared to a saint — and several have appeared — and told them, “It’s delightful here. Come and join me!” All have rather asked for prayers or penances or Masses to expedite their release.

The “Duration” of Purgatory

St. Robert Bellarmine, Doctor of the Church, wrote, “There is no doubt that the pains of Purgatory are not limited to ten or twenty years, and that they last in some cases entire centuries.”8 St. Catherine of Genoa wrote, “It would seem better to suffer for a thousand years every woe possible to this body in this world, than to remain one hour in purgatory.”9

Bl. James Alberione, founder of the Society of St. Paul and the Daughters of St. Paul, wrote:

The soul which suffers but briefly believes that it has been suffering for a long time. Many revelations say that only an hour in Purgatory seems longer than a century.10

We speak of time in Purgatory only analogously. Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, a noted twentieth-century theologian, commented:

Theological opinion, in general, favors long duration of purgatorial purification. Private revelations mention three or four centuries, or even more, especially for those who have had high office and great responsibility. . . .

Purgatory is not measured by solar time, but by eviternity and discontinuous time. Discontinuous time . . . is composed of successive spiritual instants, and each of these instants may correspond to ten, twenty, thirty, sixty hours of our solar time . . .11

(Eviternity [or aeviternity], according to St. Thomas Aquinas, “differs from time, and from eternity, as the mean between them both” [S.T. I, q10, a5].)

The Saints’ Experiences

St. Margaret Mary wrote of a Benedictine monk who appeared to her in a “pitiable condition,” in fire of which she herself felt the heat. He told her that because he had directed her to receive Holy Communion, he was given the grace to approach her and ask her to offer her sufferings and actions for him for three months to ease his sufferings. He told her he was in Purgatory because he was too concerned about others’ opinions of him, he was too attached to other people, and he was not as charitable to his fellow monks as he should have been. She received permission from her superior to do as he asked and endured terrible suffering, feeling the heat from his presence, which continued the whole three months. After this he appeared to her in glory, about to enter Heaven, and promised to help her from there.12

Teresa of Ávila related two experiences.

Eighteen or twenty years ago [a] nun died in the house I was in. She had always been sick, and been a very good servant of God, devoted to her choir duties and most virtuous. I thought certainly she would not enter purgatory, because the illnesses she suffered were many, and that she would have a surplus of merits. Four hours after her death, while reciting the hours of the Office before her burial, I understood she departed from purgatory and went to Heaven.13

Another friar of our Order, a truly very good friar, was seriously ill; while I was at Mass I became recollected and saw that he was dead and that he ascended into heaven without entering purgatory. He had died at the hour I saw him, according to what I learned later. I was amazed that he hadn’t entered purgatory. I understood that since he had been a friar who had observed his vows well, the Bulls of the Order [precepts] about not entering purgatory were beneficial to him.14

Teresa said that from her visions, she was not aware that any soul had gone directly to Heaven besides the friar she mentioned above, St. Peter of Alcántara, and one Dominican priest.15


In summary, then, Purgatory is an important dogma of the Church, one that supports the biblical call to perfection. We priests should speak often of this reality, especially on All Souls Day and at funerals. After all, the main purpose of a funeral Mass is to pray for our deceased loved ones and to expedite their entry into the Kingdom. But, following the example of the saints, we should frequently urge Masses and prayers for the Holy Souls. Such efforts will never go unrewarded.

  1. Adapted from the RSV Bible, Catholic Edition. Some other biblical passages which support the teaching on Purgatory: “And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Mt 18:34, 35). The implication here is that one may make up for sins after death. Also, in Maccabees we read, “Therefore, [Judas Maccabeus
  2. Council of Trent, Session 25, Dec. 3, 4, 1563: Decree Concerning Purgatory; see The Canons and Decrees of The Council of Trent, trans. H.J. Shroeder, OP (Rockford, IL: TAN Books, 1978), 214.
  3. St. Catherine of Genoa, Catherine of Genoa: Purgation and Purgatory, Classics of Western Spirituality (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1979), 78.
  4. C.S. Lewis, Letters To Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, ch. 20, paras. 7–10, pp. 108–09 (as found at angelfire.com/pa3/OldWorldBasic/purgatorycslewis.htm).
  5. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Supplement, App 1 Q2 a1; trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New York: Benziger Bros., 1948), 3018.
  6. Ibid.
  7. St. Francis de Sales, Esprit de Francis de Sales, ch. 9, p. 16; as found in F.X. Schouppe, Purgatory (Rockford, IL: TAN Books, 1986), 26.
  8. Robert Bellarmine, De Genitu, lib. ii. c. 9; as found in Schouppe, Purgatory, 68.
  9. Life and Doctrine of Saint Catherine of Genoa (The Christian Press Assoc. Publishing Co., New York, 1907), Chapter XVI; found at ccel.org/ccel/catherine_g/life.
  10. Bl. James Alberione, Lest We Forget (Boston, MA: Daughters of St. Paul, 1967), 77.
  11. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, Life Everlasting & the Immensity of the Soul: A Theological Treatise on the Four Last Things Death, Judgment, Heaven, Hell (Rockford, IL: TAN Books, 1991), 176, 177.
  12. St. Margaret Mary, Autobiography, (Rockfore, IL: TAN Books, 1986), 110.
  13. St. Teresa of Ávila, Autobiography, Kavanaugh and Rodriguez translation, Vol. I, ch. 38, n. 29, p. 266.
  14. Teresa of Ávila, Autobiography, ch. 38, n. 31, pp. 266, 267.
  15. Teresa of Ávila, Autobiography, ch. 38, n. 32, p. 267.
Rev. Thomas G. Morrow About Rev. Thomas G. Morrow

Reverend Thomas G. Morrow has a doctorate in Sacred Theology from the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family. Fr. Morrow is a priest of the Washington (DC) Archdiocese. He is the author of several books, including Be Holy: A Catholic's Guide to the Spiritual Life. His website is: www.cfalive.org.


  1. Avatar Ted Heywood says:

    Timely, sobering and truly – the very definition of ‘tough love’.

  2. Avatar bill bannon says:

    I deeply encourage all readers to a short cut that you can make long by repetition. All week all year at various times I do partial indulgence work for murder, fire,storm victims in the news media by making and saying the sign of the cross which obtains said indulgences per the Enchiridion of Indulgences. I copy a victim’s photo to photo library and I do my works over their photo. You can do three an hour on every hour if you are at home all day. I sometimes do them while driving. I sometimes do a straight hour of them over the photos…one by one. I personally do not like most formal prayers with flowery language in them. The sign of the cross is the answer to that….do and say it. I love doing it and I hope one day to meet in heaven those I helped and we will laugh together. I do not do them with the certitude that they reached purgatory…I do them in hope that each reached purgatory. I personally believe that Christ was talking about indulgence work in a very obscure passage that includes a manager who reduces the debt owed by various clients of his boss. With the sign of the cross work, you can reduce the debt of sufferers….and later they will welcome you into everlasting dwellings in gratitude…the many mansions of the resurrected world of the just.