At the moment of death, a person’s eternal fate is sealed. There is no longer anything a person can do for himself after that point, and there are only three possible places a person can go, two of which are eternal.
The first possible place is Hell. All those who die “in actual mortal sin, or in original sin alone, go down straightaway to hell to be punished, but with unequal pains.” (Council of Florence, Session 6, July 6th, 1439) Once in hell, there is no chance for salvation or of improving one’s condition; it is a permanent and eternal state of separation from God, and may include other punishments depending on one's sins. As Dante imagined was written above hell’s entrance, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
The second possibility is Heaven. All those who die “in Christ”, that is, in union with his Body the Church through the Holy Spirit and with sanctifying grace, spend the rest of eternity with God in heaven. Those who die in a fully purified state enter heaven immediately after death.
The third possibility is Purgatory. While both hell and heaven are permanent states, purgatory is temporary and is only for those who die in Christ but are not yet fully purified from attachment to sin. The Catechism explains: “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.” (CCC 1030) If you are in purgatory, you will eventually make it to heaven, but you will have to suffer a painful, purifying punishment first.
“Surpasses the Greatest Pain of this Life”
Yes, purgatory is a place of punishment. If you are in purgatory, you have been saved from the punishment of eternal damnation, but you haven’t escaped temporal punishment, which you will have to suffer before you can enter heaven. The Catechism explains this important distinction:
Scripture says that “nothing impure will ever enter [heaven].” (Revelation 21.27) Most of us, even if we die in a state of grace, are simply not ready for heaven at the end of our lives. In purgatory, we suffer the temporal punishment for sins we have committed, preparing our souls for the Beatific Vision in heaven.
What is this punishment like? The Catechism speaks of a “cleansing fire”, citing St. Gregory the Great and Scripture (e.g. 1 Corinthians 3.12-15). The great St. Thomas Aquinas describes what he thinks the punishments of purgatory are like: “In Purgatory there will be a twofold pain; one will be the pain of loss, namely the delay of the divine vision, and the pain of sense, namely punishment by corporeal fire. With regard to both the least pain of Purgatory surpasses the greatest pain of this life.” (ST Suppl. IIIae.2.1) He also quotes St. Augustine, who thinks similarly: “This fire of Purgatory will be more severe than any pain that can be felt, seen or conceived in this world.”
How to Avoid Purgatory – and Help Those Who Are Already There
Can we avoid it? Yes, and the best way is to cooperate with God’s grace to do good and avoid sin in the first place. Otherwise, there are two ways one could free themselves of temporal punishment in this life.
The first is through penance. The priests assign penance during Confession, but you can also do penance on your own. Traditionally, the three kinds of penance are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. In other words, you can choose to purify yourself of the attachment to sin through penance in this life, which would ultimately be much easier than enduring the forced punishment of purgatory.
The second way is to fulfill some task or requirement to receive what’s called an “indulgence,” or a remission of temporal punishment by the Church. By virtue of the power of binding and loosing (Matthew 16.19, 18.18), the Church is able to open to the faithful “the treasury of the merits of Christ and the saints to obtain from the Father of mercies the remission of the temporal punishments due for their sins.” (CCC 1478) There are countless ways to obtain an indulgence.
But here’s why this is important for All Souls Day: since we are all a part of the same communion of the saints in the Holy Spirit, the same Body of Christ, the faithful here on earth are able to do penance and obtain indulgences on behalf of those in purgatory. All it takes is doing those things with the intention of doing them for a person in purgatory.
Remember, those in purgatory are unable to do anything for themselves; that opportunity ends with death. Without our help, they will still make it heaven, but the process may be long and painful for them. We can help them get out of the purifying fire and into heaven quicker – if we so choose.
Today is the great feast and celebration of the Solemnity of All Saints; ask them for their prayers! But tomorrow is the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, All Souls Day. Please pray for the holy souls in purgatory – you might need it yourself someday.