As a practicing Catholic who has gone to a Catholic grade school, Catholic high school and even a Catholic college, I know there are about 3 subjects involving the Catholic Church that will stimulate a heated discussion among any group. One of those is the idea of Purgatory.
A lot of people have trouble with the idea of Purgatory. The word Purgatory comes from the Latin word “purgare” meaning “to make clean or purify”. The Catholic Catechism defines Purgatory as a “purification so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven and is experienced by those who die in God’s grace and friendship, but are still imperfectly purified” due to the temporal (or minor) sins and imperfections of their lifetime. Catholics believe that scripture teaches that nothing unclean will enter the presence of God in heaven (Revelation Ch. 21/verse 27).
A lot of support for the concept comes from the ancient scriptural practice of praying for the dead. The Catholic Church takes the position “why pray for the dead if there is no belief in the power of prayer to afford solace to those who are excluded from the sight of God?” Praying for the dead appears as far back as the Old Testament book of Maccabees (ch.12/verse 43-46) which states “It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to PRAY for the dead, that they may be loosed from their sins.” The belief is that this is a purification of the “elect” …the people going to heaven, not a punishment for the “damned”.
There are a ton of arguments brought up against the concept of Purgatory. Some people believe Purgatory was invented by the Catholic Church as a way of making money. Catholics can and often do request “mass/services” as a memorial intention including a monetary stipend to the local parish. Another argument against it is the word Purgatory is not found anywhere in scripture. The church rebuts this by saying the words “Incarnation” and “Trinity” do not appear in the Bible either, but are doctrines accepted by many Christian churches.
The number one argument always brought up is this: “the demands of justice on the sinner was completely fulfilled by the death of Christ on the cross”. Many Fundamentalist claim there is a contradiction between believing Christ dying on the cross for our sins redeemed us and the entire belief in man having to do any kind of “final cleansing”. The Catholic argument to this is rather complex, but essentially says: yes Christ’s death on the cross did accomplish all of our salvation, but how this salvation is applied to man is through Purgatory. The church often uses Romans Ch.5, verses 3-5 that says “Sanctification involves suffering” meaning man still needs this final purification.
I saw a movie once that had an unusal interpretation of Purgatory. In the movie a man was in and out of consciousness on the operating table at the hospital. While unconscious, he got to visit a friend of his who had died years earlier. His friend had loved fishing and was very good at it. In the afterlife…This friend was fishing in a boat on a beautiful lake. When he asked his dead friend what he’d been doing since he died he said he had been fishing, but had not caught a single fish since his death! He had fished every inch of the lake but never caught a fish.
I also take a much more “mortal” view of the entire concept. I picture a huge waiting room in the sky. Kind of like the airport gate area and that feeling that you get just before you take a fun vacation. You know where you’re going and you know its going to be great, but you still need to have patience through the excitement. Your name is called and you walk up with your ticket. The cleansing is simply a through review of one’s life. You answer for everything with the final words spoken to you “peace be with you”. And your ticket is stamped and you’re gone. Maybe simplistic, maybe crazy, but in my own way it works for me.