EVERYTHING material has an end. But where does the human soul go after the body decays? Will it ascend immediately to heaven, fall to hell, or reroute to a cleansing place called purgatory?

Except for saints, a majority of the faithful departed—often guilty of committing sins—are thought to pass first through a “place of purification of souls” where the living can aid with prayers. This doctrine of purgatory was based on references in the Bible, like when Jesus spoke of forgiveness in the afterlife (Mt 12:32; Mk 3:29), when St. Paul prayed for the dead Onesiphorus (2 Tm 1:16-18), and when Judas Maccabeus offered sacrifice for his slain comrades (2 Macc 12:38-45).

According to Fr. Jose Francisco Syquia, the director of the Archdiocese of Manila Office of Exorcism, purgatory is both a state and a place of atonement for the soul’s sins.

“Purgatory is both a state and place where souls are purged of all kinds of attachments to sin, because no one can see God without being pure,” Syquia told the Varsitarian. “Purgatory prepares souls to be one with the Lord and shows His Divine Mercy at work.”

Church doctors agree that after death, each sin committed by the redeemed soul, although forgiven, has a corresponding consequence in purgatory. No definite description exists of how long the souls suffer from cleansing of their earthly sins.

But there were accounts from saints, as collected in the book, Purgatory, Explained by the Lives and Legends of the Saints (Tan, 1983) by French theologian Fr. Francois Xavier Schouppe, S.J. Some saints who had visions of purgatory saw souls throw themselves into purgatory after they felt impure when they realized God’s presence.

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St. Frances of Rome described purgatory as having three parts, with the lowest being near the border of hell, filled with a sea of bright flame. The intermediate part is further divided into three: first, a chamber of ice; second, a chamber of boiling oil; and third, a cauldron of molten metal. The highest part, although not described, is the temporary place for souls who are about to ascend to heaven.

Fr. Paul O’Sullivan, O.P., a priest who has written many books about the Catholic faith for the past 50 years, collected explanations from Sts. Thomas Aquinas and Augustine about the cleansing effect of the “fire” in purgatory in his book, Read me or Rue it: How to avoid Purgatory (Tan, 1991).

Comparing the fire of purgatory with the fire on earth, O’Sullivan quoted St. Thomas Aquinas as saying that the slightest contact with the fire in purgatory is more penetrating and dreadful than anything on earth. Nevertheless, St. Augustine said that the fire in purgatory was designed to cleanse the souls, not to condemn them, referring to the Biblical passage in 1 Cor. 3:13-15 where souls can be saved in their judgment day “only as passing through fire.”

According to Syquia, the fire in purgatory is unlike the fire on earth, as it burns the soul, but does not consume or devour it. Souls have also appeared to saints in flames, the fire burning anything physical it comes into contact with. These souls asked for prayers from the living.

“Our prayers for the souls are important because souls in purgatory cannot gain merit for themselves anymore, nor can they do penance for their sins,” Syquia said. “But we, the living, can represent them to God by praying for them, as they can also pray for us.”

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With frequent offering of prayers for the dead, St. Teresa of Avila also spoke of ghosts from purgatory who thanked her for her prayers, that they can now rest in peace in heaven. Aquinas also mentioned that it is in purgatory from where most restless spirits come to ask for prayers.

Purgatory across religions

Contrary to popular opinion, Catholics are not the only ones who believe in a cleansing place after death. Ancient Egyptians, Persians, Indians, Greeks, and Roman Stoics spoke of temporal punishment, a middle place of fire.

“Modern and old religions—that believe in reincarnation, or the extinction of all desires, or the cessation of the cycle of birth and death, or absorption into God—evidently believe in some kind of purgatory,” Fr. Guillermo Tejon, O.P., editor of Life Today Magazine, wrote in “Purgatory: Myth or Reality?”

Tejon said that Muslims also believe in a purgatory through what they call a “temporary hell.” Several passages in the Koran talk about “men on the heights,” who are trapped between the garden (heaven) and the fire (hell). They interpret the “men on the heights” as the souls that are neither ready to enter the garden nor deserving of the eternal fire.

A medical research on near-death experiences by Dr. Raymond Moody in his book, Life After Life (Harper, 1975), also reports of a “realm of bewildered spirits” where the dead seemed trapped and wanted to communicate with living relatives for help to move on to a complete union with God.

Even though many saints and doctors of the Church believe that pain in purgatory is inflicted through fire, Middle Ages poet Dante Alighieri provides a different purgatory scene in his famous work, the Divine Comedy.

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According to Dante’s narration, purgatory is on a mountain in an island on the far side of the world. Before climbing the mountain, there is a “holding area” where excommunicated and unrepentant people wait before they can enter purgatory. Dante then climbs the seven terraces of the mountain while experiencing punishments intended to eradicate the seven deadly sins.

To avoid purgatory, O’Sullivan suggested that people dedicate all their acts to God in accordance with the Ten Commandments. He said that eliminating vices, avoiding sins, praying for the dead, being forgiving, doing small acts of charity, visiting the Blessed Sacrament, and frequenting the Sacraments can help.

“We can also avoid purgatory by growing in holiness of life, just like the saints,” Syquia said. “Above all, we must ask God’s grace to be just like a saint.”

Since purgatory makes the soul free from stains of sin or superfluity, it should not be thought of as a hellish place, but as a worthy passage to endure before knocking blissfully on heaven’s door. Nathaniel R. Melican

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