Some people scoff at or even are offended by the Catholic teaching of purgatory. But it was St. Catherine of Sienna who once said that, next to the happiness of heaven, there is no happiness that we can experience that is greater than that of purgatory.
Most of us, when we leave this life, are carrying with us things that we can’t take to heaven. I’m referring not only to our sins and bad habits, but also to all of those other things that darken our hearts – the disappointments, regrets, sorrows, heartaches, worries, fears, etc. We can’t take these things to heaven with us. It wouldn’t be heaven if we could.
Purgatory is the process by which our Lord lifts from us all of these burdens. His purifying grace brings to us a deep cleansing that once and for all removes any stains so that, no longer weighed down or held back by anything, we rise up to enter with unsullied joy and shame-free into the promised glory.
One of the players on the World Series champion Kansas City Royals offered me a good illustration. After the game he was being interviewed by a reporter. He spoke about how the team had lost the World Series the year before. His team had been ninety-feet away from tying the final game, with a runner on third base, but they couldn’t bring him home.
After that loss he said that he had felt like somebody had punched him in the gut. A week later he thought the feeling would go away, but it didn’t. Even months later he could not escape the inner ache. But that night, holding that World Series trophy in his hand, he was able to say, “At last, now that pain is finally gone.” There can be no doubt that he will remember that year and that series as one of the happiest and healing processes of his life.
That’s the joy of purgatory. Purgatory isn’t a punishment or some arbitrary holding tank. It’s a process that we begin even now as we draw closer and closer to Jesus and He purges us or lifts from our lives every last little pang and sting. I imagine people sitting in heaven and watching instant replays of their purgatory experience – delighting over and over again in those moments of ultimate and lasting victory.
We are to cheer on and pray for our loved ones who have died. Even if they are in heaven, as St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us, no prayer is ever wasted. Our prayers then are able to help them better to pray for us. When it comes to God, it’s always win-win.