I am actually asked this far more than you think. I know that it is an odd thing to those outside the Catholic faith so I will do my best explain it to you. As a Catholic I believe in Heaven, Hell, as well as Purgatory.
Purgatory actually has two purposes. First it is a temporal punishment for sin, and secondly the cleansing from the attachment to sin. It purifies our soul before its entrance into heaven. Truthfully this is one of the most misunderstood Catholic doctrines.
What It Isn’t
This is not some sort of spiritual jail or a hell with parole. We don’t teach that every single person even goes to purgatory. In fact, the Church teaches that many people are purified (or purged, hence purgatory) in this life. the best example of that is an innocent person who suffers from a disease or persecution (even poverty) is considered to be living through their purgatory now. Se when they die they will most likely go straight to heaven.
Let’s face it most of us don’t live exceptionally good and holy lives so we aren’t just going to skate right into heaven. Therefore the Church believes that most of us will (not including those mentioned above) will need some purification. Not that we are bad but we just aren’t ready for heaven in a sense.
Why Not Go Straight to Heaven
Catholicism teaches us that Jesus’ death gives everyone the possibility of heaven, while his mercy gives us forgiveness. However his justice demands that good be rewarded and evil punished whether in this life or the next. So if one person has spent their entire lives devoted to God, lived as holy, and selfless and good as possible while another indulges in a life full of selfishness, greed, and comfort they both don’t get walk through the pearly gates side by side.
As a Catholic I confess my sins and ask for forgiveness. However I know when I die I will go to purgatory in order to purge myself from the attachment of my sins. It is away to prepare me for my journey to heaven. Like a place of reflection in a sense. For Catholic Purgatory is not Hell.
How Long DO You Stay?
Growing up I heard so many different numbers but the truth is no one knows. According to Stephen Greenblatt’s Hamlet in Purgatory, a Spanish theologian in the late Middle Ages argued the average Christian spends 1000 to 2000 years in purgatory. I believe that god decides how long you are in there for. It could be as short as a couple of hours. It’s not like we can ask someone.
I also believe that you will stay as long as you need and there isn’t anyway to reduce that time. At least in my opinion, because remember purgatory is to help you let go of your attachment to the sins your committed. Not for forgiveness as you have already been forgiven when you confess your sin.
It’s Not Perfect
As you can see it’s not perfect. I’m sure there are plenty who will argue that seeking forgiveness for sin should be enough. I believe that we will take what we want from it. For me, I know that it will be a place and chance for me to prepare for the next part of my journey. That I will be able to cast off the sins of this life finally (including guilt and hurt) and move into heaven with a clean slate.
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I know that Purgatory is a touchy subject for many. A lot of people don’t understand it and even some who do understand don’t like to talk about it. I think it is necessary to discuss, especially when asked so that others can understand my faith a little better.