Purgatory does not indicate a place, but a condition of existence
where Christ removes the remnants of imperfection as physical integrity
is necessary to enter into perfect communion with God, according
to Pope John Paul II.
On the basis of definitive option for or against God, the human
being finds he faces one of these alternatives: either to live with
the Lord in eternal beatitude, or to remain far from His presence.
For those who find themselves in a condition of being open to God,
but still imperfectly, the journey towards full beatitude requires
a purification, which the faith of the Church illustrates in the
doctrine of "Purgatory" (cf. Catechism of the Catholic
Church, n. 1030-1032).
In Sacred Scripture, we can grasp certain elements that help us
understand the meaning of this doctrine, even if it is not formally
described. They express the belief that we cannot approach God without
undergoing some kind of purification.
According to Old Testament religious law, what is destined for God
must be perfect. As a result, physical integrity is also specifically
required for the realities which come into contact with God at the
sacrificial level such as, for example, sacrificial animals (cf.
Lv 22: 22) or at the institutional level, as in the case of priests
or ministers of worship (cf. Lv 21: 17-23). Total dedication to
the God of the Covenant, along the lines of the great teachings
found in Deuteronomy (cf. 6: 5), and which must correspond to this
physical integrity, is required of individuals and society as a
whole (cf. 1 Kgs 8: 61). It is a matter of loving God with all one's
being, with purity of heart and the witness of deeds (cf. ibid.,
The need for integrity obviously becomes necessary after death,
for entering into perfect and complete communion with God. Those
who do not possess this integrity must undergo purification. This
is suggested by a text of St Paul. The Apostle speaks of the value
of each person's work which will be revealed on the day of judgment
and says: "If the work which any man has built on the foundation
which is Christ survives, he will receive a reward. If any man's
work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be
saved, but only as through fire" (1 Cor 3: 14-15).
To reach a state of perfect integrity, at times a person’s
intercession or mediation is needed. For instance, Moses obtains
pardon for the people with a prayer in which he recalls the saving
work done by God in the past, and prays for God's fidelity to the
oath made to his ancestors (cf. Ex 32: 30, 11-13). Psalm 51 can
be considered, according to the perspective of the Old Testament,
as a synthesis of the process of reintegration: the sinner confesses
and recognizes his guilt (v. 3), asking insistently to be purified
or "cleansed" (vv. 2, 9, 10, 17) so as to proclaim the
divine praise (v. 15).
In the New Testament Christ is presented as the intercessor who
assumes the functions of high priest on the day of expiation (cf.
Heb 5: 7; 7: 25). But in him the priesthood is presented in a new
and definitive form. He enters the heavenly shrine once and for
all, to intercede with God on our behalf (cf. Heb 9: 23-26, especially,
v. 24). He is both priest and "victim of expiation" for
the sins of the whole world (cf. 1 Jn 2: 2). Jesus, as the great
intercessor who atones for us, will fully reveal himself at the
end of our life when he will express himself with the offer of mercy,
but also with the inevitable judgment for those who refuse the Father's
love and forgiveness.
In following the Gospel exhortation to be perfect like the heavenly
Father (cf. Mt 5: 48) during our earthly life, we are called to
grow in love, to be sound and flawless before God the Father "at
the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints" (1 Thes 3:
12f.). Moreover, we are invited to "cleanse ourselves from
every defilement of body and spirit" (2 Cor 7: 1; cf. 1 Jn
3: 3), because the encounter with God requires absolute purity.
Every trace of attachment to evil must be eliminated, every imperfection
of the soul corrected. Purification must be complete, and indeed
this is precisely what is meant by the Church's teaching on purgatory.
The term does not indicate a place, but a condition of existence.
Those who, after death, exist in a state of purification, are already
in the love of Christ who removes from them the remnants of imperfection
(cf. Ecumenical Council of Florence, Decretum pro Graecis:
DS 1304; Ecumenical Council of Trent, Decretum de iustificatione:
DS 1580; Decretum de purgatorio: DS 1820).
The state of purification is not a prolungation of the earthly condition,
almost as if after death one were given another possibility to change
one's destiny. The Church's teaching in this regard is unequivocal
and was reaffirmed by the Second Vatican Council which teaches:
"Since we know neither the day nor the hour, we should follow
the advice of the Lord and watch constantly so that, when the single
course of our earthly life is completed (cf. Heb 9: 27), we may
merit to enter with him into the marriage feast and be numbered
among the blessed, and not, like the wicked and slothful servants,
be ordered to depart into the eternal fire, into the outer darkness
where "men will weep and gnashtheir teeth' (Mt 22: 13 and 25:
30)" (Lumen gentium, n. 48).
Just as in their earthly life believers are united in the one Mystical
Body, so after death those who live in a state of purification experience
the same ecclesial solidarity which works through prayer, prayers
for suffrage and love for their other brothers and sisters in the
faith. Purification is lived in the essential bond created between
those who live in this world and those who enjoy eternal beatitude.