By FATHER KENNETH DOYLE
Q. As I understand purgatory, it is a place where a cleansing is done, even if we have received the sacrament of anointing of the sick and/or made a good confession and had our sins absolved before death.
My question is this: On the day Jesus was crucified, he told the good thief, "Today you will be with me in paradise;" so are we to assume that no cleansing in purgatory was required for him? And if that's the case, why not? (Philadelphia)
A. Your understanding of purgatory is correct. It has been a clear and consistent belief of the church, as stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, "All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven" (No. 1030).
What we don't know, of course, is just what this transitional state consists of. How long it lasts, whether it might even be instantaneous and what it feels like are questions beyond our reckoning so long as we are still on this side of eternity.
What needs to be factored in, too -- and some might be unaware of this -- is a prayer called the "Apostolic Pardon." This prayer of blessing is customarily administered by a priest when someone is close to death and follows the anointing of the sick and, if possible, the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist as viaticum, bread for the journey.
In this prayer, the priest says, "Through the holy mysteries of our redemption, may almighty God release you from all punishments in this life and in the life to come. May he open to you the gates of paradise and welcome you to everlasting joy."
And even if a priest is unavailable, the church provides in the Handbook of Indulgences that a dying person who is rightly disposed and has prayed regularly during life may be granted this same plenary indulgence (No. 28).
So to me, it's quite reasonable that Jesus could have absolved the repentant thief of both sin and of punishment. If a priest can do it, why not Christ?
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Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at firstname.lastname@example.org and 30 Columbia Circle Dr., Albany, New York 12203.