This is a good question for reflection as we enter the month of November, which is traditionally a month for Catholics to remember and pray for those who have gone before us. The brief answer to this question is: Yes.
I remember debating this question with a Protestant friend some years back. I asked my friend: “Can a soul enter heaven with any attachment to sin?” He responded, “Of course not!” I asked him further: “Then what happens to the soul of a man who has confessed a living faith in Jesus but is still fighting his attachment to sin until he dies?” My friend answered: “That would all get burned up before the ‘Judgment Seat’ of God.” I smiled and told him that I think we might agree on more than he thought.
I believe my friend was referring to St. Paul in his letter to the Corinthians: “The fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation 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 through fire” (1 Corinthians 3:14-15). We Catholics believe that St. Paul is speaking about purgatory here — a period of purification before one’s entrance into everlasting life. If we die in a state of grace, it is likely that we will still struggle with some attachment to sin. The Lord mercifully gives us the opportunity to allow our hearts to be further purified after death so we can be ready to receive His love most fully in everlasting life.
Moreover, the Church’s teaching on purgatory preserves a living relationship between us who are still here (the Church Militant) and those who stand in need of our prayers in purgatory (the Church Suffering). In his catechism series, Venerable Fulton Sheen observed that we sometimes suffer regret when loved ones die before we’ve had the chance to say goodbye or to make amends when we have wronged them. It is a bitter sorrow to think that our loved ones might not have known how much we loved them before we lost them. For Sheen, though, purgatory eases this pain:
“Purgatory enables the hearts of those who are left behind to break the barriers of time and death; to convert unspoken words into prayers, unburned incense into sacrifice, unoffered flowers into alms, and undone acts of kindness into help for eternal life. Purgatory causes the bowed head to give way to a bent knee, a moment of silence becomes a moment of prayer, and the fading wreath gives way to the abiding offering of the sacrifice of that great Hero of heroes, Who is Christ” (Fulton Sheen, “Purgatory”).
Yes, the Church’s teaching on purgatory is true. Thank God! Not only are we given the opportunity to further set things right when we have been called home, but our Lord gives us who remain the chance to show our deceased loved ones just how much we love them. This month, we pray especially for those who have gone before us, those who are preparing in purgatory to enter eternal life.
Father Conor Sullivan is currently in residence at Immacolata Parish as he works for the Archdiocese of St. Louis, the Vocations Office and Kenrick-Glennon Seminary as a provisionally licensed psychologist.