BEFORE THE CROSS | Purgatory is a chance for us to edit the book of our life

Before the Cross - Archbishop Robert J. Carlson's Column

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Imagine that our life is like a book. When we die, Jesus hands us the book and reads it to us. When He's done reading, He hands us the book and says: "Would you like to edit any parts of that? I'd be glad to help."

What if we had the chance — not to change the past, but to make things better?

That's an image of purgatory. Like all images, it's imperfect. But I suspect there are few of us who wouldn't jump at the chance to repair some of the damage our sins have caused to ourselves and to others.

In the Catholic Church, November is the month to remember the dead. It's a good time to think about purgatory. A lot of people struggle with the doctrine of purgatory, because they misunderstand what it is. Let me respond to two of the most common objections to the doctrine of purgatory, to help us understand it and even embrace it.


People often remark that we're never going to be perfect. But that's not what the faith teaches us. In Leviticus 19:1-2, God tells us to be holy for He is holy. In Matthew 5:48, Jesus tells us to be perfect as His heavenly Father is perfect. In Revelation 21:27, we learn that nothing unclean will enter heaven. These Scriptural teachings are summarized in paragraphs 1023 and 1030 of the "Catechism of the Catholic Church." Those who die in God's grace and friendship and perfectly purified enter immediately into heaven. Those who die in God's grace and friendship but still imperfectly purified will enter heaven, but only after undergoing purification.

That doesn't mean God won't love us until we're perfect. In fact, the truth is quite the opposite: God loves us as we are and loves us into something better. Have no doubt about this: He is immensely pleased with every effort we make. But He won't be fully satisfied until we are like Him (see 1 John 3:2).


Many people fear the pain of purgatory, imagining it as a temporary version of hell. But the Catechism is absolutely clear that the purification of purgatory "is entirely different from the punishment of the damned" (CCC 1031).

How, then, are we to think of the pain of purgatory — what's a better image? Think of the pain of admitting you were wrong. Think of the pain of apologizing when you know you've hurt someone and you can't undo the hurt. That's the kind of pain we're talking about. It's not a kind of vengeance inflicted by God with whips and fires. The pain of purgatory is a natural consequence of our sins (CCC 1472).

There are many images that we might use for this process of becoming perfect, and the pain it involves. I encourage you to come up with your own. But let me return to the image of the book, because three features of it are applicable to any good notion of purgatory.

• Editing the book is nothing to be afraid of. Instead, it's actually something to which we might look forward.

• Reading and editing the book will be painful. But it will also be a time of joy, as we repair the damage our sins caused.

• How long will the reading and editing take? The deepest response is: Who cares? Time flies when you're doing something you love, and doing it for the sake of love. It will take as long as it takes. No doubt that will be shorter for some and longer for others. But there's only one door out of purgatory. Heaven awaits when the editing is done. As a result, we'll be more interested in doing it right than in how long it takes. 


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 cleansed first?" "It may hurt, you know." "Even so, sir."

(C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, chapter 20) 

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