By FR. KENNETH DOYLE
Q. I'm confused about the Catholic teaching on purgatory, as we never really covered it in our RCIA program. I understand it to be a "stopover" of sorts, for a soul's purification on its way to heaven, but I've also been told different things as to the nature of this purification -- anything from a final confession to a burning off of sins to a witnessing of harm the person may have caused while still alive and of which they may have not previously been aware.
I've also been told that a person's purgatory time can start in the here and now, while still alive, and even that some of the suffering in this life may be to help others already in purgatory. Finally, I've been told that almost everyone will likely go to purgatory. Can you comment? (southern Indiana)
A. The Catholic Church has always believed in the existence of purgatory. That belief is defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which says: "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).
It is also reflected in the words of Jesus himself, who says in the Gospel of Matthew (12:32), that certain sins "will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come," which serves as an indication that some purging of the soul may need to occur after death.
There are indications from the earliest centuries of the Christian era that this belief was common in the church; some might remember that St. Monica, in the fourth century, asked her son St. Augustine before she died to continue to remember her soul in his Masses.
Even before the advent of Christianity, we read in the Second Book of Maccabees (12:46) that Judas Maccabeus "made atonement for the dead" that they might be freed from sin, which suggest a Jewish practice of offering prayers to cleanse the souls of the departed.
And yes, it has always been the common practice of believers who are still living to offer prayers and sacrifices for the departed. (How many times, when you were little and complained to your mother about something, did she say, "Offer it up for the souls in purgatory?")
As for the exact nature of what that purification after death may be, we just don't know. (And it might even be instantaneous.) And regarding your speculation as to what percentage will wind up in purgatory, we've never been told; but speaking personally, spiritual and moral perfection seem a long way away, so my own guess is that a lot of us will need some remediation.
Q. Do Catholic priests forget what they are told in confession? (City and state withheld)
A. Yes, we do. Part of that is due, I'm sure, to the grace of God; but another reason might be the repetitive nature of most confessions. I always try to remind myself, when I enter the confessional box, to stay alert and to remember that my role is to put the penitent in touch with God.
Rather than have confession become simply a repetition of regular faults (and that is fine), I often try to engage penitents also with regard to their spiritual life by asking them, for example, "Do you try to pray each day?" Normally, within a few minutes of leaving the confessional, I have forgotten nearly all of the sins people have confessed.
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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.