Perceptions Of Purgatory



I have written only some days ago about the different perceptions in traditionally Catholic, and mixed countries, of the probability of salvation.

Today I would like to spend some words on the different views about Purgatory. Those of my generation were taught (at school, at the Catechism, and from our grandmothers) to abandon every illusion that Purgatory would be a pleasant walk in the park. “Painful” and “long” were the adjectives you would hear more often linked to it, and even as a child you knew this was something to be taken seriously. Therefore, one can safely say that the same people who were equipped with a sane optimism about their and their beloved ones’ salvation were also those with a very sobering expectation concerning the consequences of human behaviour and of their innate sinfulness. I remember here, in a rather personal matter, my grandmother already in bed with cancer assuring me, a little child, she was ill of cancer because of her sins and she hoped to land in…. purgatory after death. We are talking here (without giving too many personal details) of one of those pious women, tutte casa e chiesa (all home and church)  you think are not produced anymore (except they are I think, only in much smaller numbers). I do not remember my grandmother asking me to pray for her after her death, but I think it’s fair to say the thought must have been there, and my mother teaching me the “eternal rest” the very day my grandmother died and asking me to say it every day before I go to sleep could, I reflect now, perhaps have been in compliance with my grandmother’s asking (and I know my mother prays for her every day to this day herself).

In all this, you see the working of a traditional Catholic society, in which people took salvation extremely seriously but with a fundamental optimism, worked on their salvation until the very end without gloom and without presumption, with fear and trembling but also with childish abandonment, and knew death would not mean the end of the hard work.

What would a person in the same situation today think, I wonder. If they should happen to talk about death with their small nephews, they will probably never mention Purgatory and I doubt they would mention death at all. If they do, Grandma will probably said to be going to play with the angels, utterly destroying decades of devoted daily prayers for her. As the “promotion to heaven” is considered a given by her daughters, these would not even think of asking their children to pray for the dead, or to pray for the deceased themselves. If a permanence in Purgatory in envisaged, this will be something very short, mainly a formality. Masses for the dead will, obviously, not be needed. God will certainly be nice and not cause sufferance, surely? Rex tremendae majestatis is not even in their vocabulary, let alone in their hearts.

So here we have the modern conception of purgatory: no prayers for the dead, no devotions, no Mass attendance, no need to even be properly instructed, and we all go straight to Paradise – bar the few who will have to make a short pit stop in Purgatory and, probably, Hitler and Stalin – because we are nice people, very inclusive, and always so nice with everyone. 

I’ll stick with my Grandmother, thank you very much.


Posted on January 27, 2013, in Catholicism and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. At my local Church in Peckham, when I lived there, the Priest asked us, on All Souls, to “remember our loved ones who have died, in a very special way”. Huh!

  2. I think this is a very interesting post. That makes me sound like a liberal, doesn’t it? Usually on religious questions that are matters of public dispute I have very definite convictions that I am pretty sure are correct. On this topic it seems to me I am mushy enough to get a column in the National nonCatholic Reporter.

    First, I find the view espoused here, that hell is fairly easy to avoid for a Cathoilic, and that Purgatory is serious, very attractive. This seems right.

    Now instead of presenting a logical argument I am going to talk about the subject. Like I said, I am acting like a liberal here. I just I hope I keep this comment short, so I don’t take on every characteristic of a liberal.

    First, what if God told me that he would put me in purgatory right now, if I asked for it? Well, I hope I would respond by saying “what do You want me to do?” And then do whatever He said. But, assuming I got no hints, I’d like to pick purgatory. Suffering from now to the end of time seems like a good deal compared to running even a very, very small risk of dying in mortal sin and winding up in hell. I think that if I woke up in what I was certain was purgatory my first reaction would be relief, even if my second reaction was an experience of serious pain. Now there’s no logical reason to think that if purgatory is much better than hell, that means it’s not that bad, but still, it rattles around in my head. How bad can any place be if you’re glad to get there?

    My second observation is no more logical than the first. When someone dies a lingering death, it seems that priests are frequently with the person absolving sin and providing plenary indulgences. I feel guilty about being flip about this, but as far as I can tell that when you’re seriously sick in the hospital, plenary indulgences are freely available. Like maybe more than once a day. A person who recieves a plenary indulgence and then goes into a coma seems guaranteed to avoid purgatory. Again, no logical reason to believe that purgatory is not that bad because some people avoid it so easily, but still it leaves that impression on me.

    FInally, I know that it must be important to pray for the poor souls, because the Church so consistently teaches that. I pray for the poor souls, the people I know and the people I never met. It may be that what I should do on this topic is read, think and pray, rather than just talk from my ignorance, as if I were a liberal, which I assure you, I am not.

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