What is Purgatory?
Perhaps one of the least understood doctrines in Catholicism is that of Purgatory. It has been variously described as "an invention of the Catholic Church," "a place where punishment is exacted to atone for your sins," or "a kind of Hell-lite for those whose sins are not really all that bad." All of these are far from the mark and betray a lack of understanding of a truly beautiful doctrine that manifests God's love for us.
So what then is Purgatory? Let's think for a minute about what happens at death. The Bible clearly states, "Just as it is appointed that human beings die once, and after this the judgment." [Heb 9:27] At the judgment, it is determined if our eternal destiny will be eternal bliss in union with God or eternal damnation and separation from God. Suppose we are so fortunate that we have lived our lives for God and He judges us worthy to spend eternity with Him in glory. There still remains a problem: the Bible also says, "But nothing unclean shall enter it, nor any one who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb's book of life." [Rev 21:27] Why should this be so? Because the glory of God cannot in justice tolerate imperfection.
So what is to be done with the individual who is destined for heaven but does not possess that perfection required to enter the presence of the Almighty. Here again the love of God for His hapless creature is made manifest. St. Paul tells us:
"Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw -- each man's work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire." [1 Cor 3:12-15]
Notice in this passage, we are talking about subjecting the man to "fire" and "suffering loss." Yet we know we are not referring to the damned because St. Paul says, "he himself will be saved, but only as through fire!" So what is happening here?
Let me give you an analogy. Let's supposed you are all dressed up to attend a wedding banquet. You are in the wedding party so you will be at the head table with the bride and groom. On the way to the banquet, you carelessly allow your attire to become splashed with mud. You arrive at the banquet in a sorry state. Now the groom, who loves you, could say, "Come on up the table and be seated." You would go; but you would be covered with shame for your appearance. Suppose, however, the groom would say, "Over here is a washroom, clean your garments and we will wait for you." You would jump at the opportunity; because, even though it may be hard work to clean up, when you were done you would proceed to the head table clean and receive the admiration of all.
So it is with purgatory. The Lord permits us to purge away or cleanse ourselves of all residual self-love so as to present ourselves to Him unblemished and "perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." [Matt 5:48] The mechanism we use to become clean is the fiery Love of God Himself.
One final note: In purgatory, our brothers and sisters in Christ on earth and in heaven can make intercession for us. In essence, they are coming into the washroom and helping us to wash out our attire. They do it because they love us. While we are here on earth, the Church encourages us, in the Church Militant, to pray for those in the Church Suffering so that they will soon join the Church Triumphant in heaven.