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Linking Confession and Purgatory [Part 1]

penance%201%20copyFor 2,000 years the Catholic Church has preached the necessity of Confession and of the existence of Purgatory. I have noticed that when one thinks little of Confession, one also thinks little of Purgatory, and despite the Church’s consistent teaching upon these truths, a great many Catholics think little of both Confession and Purgatory.

In the hour long confession line recently, I discovered plenty of time to loathe how the bulk of my Examination of Conscience lists the same sins every single time. I remembered back to a Scott Hahn talk discussing Confession in which he shared how he once complained to his confessor about this very same problem, repetitive sins, and the priest asked him if he would prefer new sins? Hahn laughed and realized of all the sins he could have he’d rather keep the ones he struggles with rather than take on different, potentially more insidious sins. Wisely, the priest avoided offering the state of sinlessness as an option. Subsequently, I wondered just how far I could exit the confessional before I committed one of my usual suspect sins, because even the nearest pew afforded me too much time by distance to commit a sin in my mind. In that moment, Confession struck me as ineffective, though theologically I knew that to be untrue. And that’s when I noticed a linking of Confession and Purgatory.

What is the point of Purgatory? It is often described as a place where we are punished for our sins before we are able to go to Heaven, which I don’t find a helpful answer. To the modern mind’s understanding of sin (being a one-time action, occurring in the past) this description is misleading. There is a language barrier where sin is used as a noun and thus the hearer may only understand sin in this statement as events from the past, not recognizing the source of the sin as also sin. So let me stall the answer to the question of Purgatory for a much needed explanation on one’s soul and one’s will.

attributes of the soul

One’s soul bears three particular attributes: one’s will (often described as one’s heart), one’s memory, and one’s intellect. A person’s will may be perfectly conformed to God’s will on certain matters (such as accepting God as the Creator of the Heaven and Earth and of all things), but meanwhile may not be conformed to God’s will on other matters (such as loving they neighbor as thyself, even when that neighbor is behaving poorly). When a person sins, these sins do not come forth from the areas in which one’s will is formed to God’s will. Instead, sins are committed by the parts of one’s will which are not conformed to God’s will and these parts of our will are also sin.

When we go to confession we are forgiven for the sinful actions we have committed, and once confessed and forgiven we never need to dwell upon these sinful actions again. However, because God never, ever interferes with our will (free will), when we step out of that confessional free of the guilt of our actions, our will walks out of that confessional with us, usually with the same inclinations to sin as we walked in with. Thus, we tend to retain the ability to commit those same sins again, and nearly just as easily. And this is why our Examinations of Conscience bear the same list of sins from confession to confession.  However, let us rejoice that with each passing confession, our wills are ever so slightly strengthened, both by the increase of God’s Grace in our soul, and also by the humbling action of going to confession.

Like exercise ever so slowly strengthens our muscles, frequent confession ever so slightly strengthens our will to God’s will. And think, if you exercise as often as you go to Confession, just how strong might you be? On a related note, while in line this last time (I can have a lot of thoughts in an hour, even whilst attending children), I considered how difficult it would be for me to be able to offer a count of my offenses to the priest, like is traditionally suggested. Then I realized how if I went to Confession with greater frequency, say every week, it would be easy to offer a count, and oh how much more I would resist the temptation to sin if I were to keep count!

During this Advent season, as we prepare to honor the first coming of Christ and also prepare ourselves for the second coming of Christ, make your way to the confessional.  Your will and soul may need it just as much as mine.

In my next post I will tie this discussion in with Purgatory.

Veni, veni, Emmanuel!

Upon Jesus’s resurrection and visit to his disciples He said, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” Jn 20: 21-23

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You Did It to Me: Pray for the Living and the Dead

PrayforLivingandDeadWelcome to the series “YOU DID IT TO ME” where we will be discussing the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy. This will be a twice a month series from March to September 2015. We hope you enjoy!

One of my favorite parts of being Catholic is that I have a spiritual relationship with all of God’s children. I love that no matter where believers in Christ may be–in heaven, finishing their perfection in purgatory, or still journey here on earth–we’re all connected to one another in spirit. It’s profoundly consoling to know that when I’m struggling in this broken world, I can look to my Christian siblings to pray for me , so that I’ll obtain extra graces that will help me persevere in faith.

But this kinship isn’t a one-way relationship; I’m called to pray for others, too. Praying for both the living and the dead is actually one of the lesser-known spiritual works of mercy.


In the past, our awareness of others’ troubles was limited to those in our immediate family or town. Now, social and mass media has made us aware of people around the world who could use extra grace. It can feel overwhelming to hear about so much suffering, so how can we meet our obligation to pray for others when we’re already stretched so thin? Here are a few ways:

Keep your word. When you see a prayer request online, only respond to the ones you can realistically follow through on; don’t just hit “Like” to make yourself look pious. I find it best to pray right then for the person, as I’m likely to forget if I put it off until later. The prayer can be a simple Hail Mary or Glory Be, or even just a “Lord, have mercy on him/her.” Jesus doesn’t need long, elaborate prayers to know what those souls most need. The important thing is to ask for His help in loving charity. 

Keep a list. Some situations merit ongoing prayers, like a person battling cancer or the fight to end abortion. In these cases, keep a small notebook next to the computer to jot down prayer needs, along with a few details to help you remember what to pray for. If you use a smartphone frequently, there are plenty of free prayer list apps that will help you keep a running list of people that need long-term prayer. I use the Mobile Kneel app, and go through my list at least once a week, removing people when I know their situation has improved. 

Call on our friends in high places. Don’t forget to call on the saints to pray for those of us still on the journey. As Catholics, we’re blessed with patron saints for just about every kind of cause or suffering. I could pray for my friend’s struggling marriage–or I can ask my good friend, St. Thomas More, to pray for that union. Why? Because St. Thomas More has two things I don’t: 1) Martyrdom for defending the sanctity of marriage (why he’s the patron of difficult marriages), and 2) Spiritual perfection. And since “The prayer of a righteous person has great power” (James 5:16), I know his prayers will be even more efficacious for my friend than mine will.

Leave the details up to God. Often, people ask us to pray for very specific things: their spouse to get the job he just interviewed for…her brother to heal quickly from surgery…their house loan to get approved. I’ve come to believe that the more specific our prayer requests, the more we’re likely to see God as a vending machine instead of a loving Father who can be trusted to do what’s best for us. 

More than anything else, we should want people to get to heaven. But maybe working for that employer would just reinforce her husband’s workaholism and hurt their family…maybe a lengthier recovery would humble her brother to seek the Lord…maybe God wants them in a different neighborhood so that different people can impact their lives. Jesus himself gave us the perfect model for how to pray when he said: “Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done.” It’s okay to echo our friends’ requests in prayer, but we should always finish our prayers with the trust and humility that Jesus taught us: “Lord, please help Susan and her husband to sell their home soon. But not our will, but Yours be done.” 


Most people, including non-Catholic Christians, agree that we should pray for the living. But few Christians (including many Catholics) understand that we’re also called to pray for the dead. That’s because few Christians today understand the reality or necessity of purgatory. 

Just so we’re clear: Purgatory is NOT a second chance for unrepentant sinners…you can’t die in serious sin and get a “do-over” in purgatory. To get to purgatory in the first place, you have to die in friendship with God. Purgatory actually isn’t so much a place but a process–it’s the process of being purified of all the self-love and sinfulness that wasn’t burned out of us before we died. It’s simply how we finish the process of becoming perfect that we began here on earth. We need this purification because without being perfect ourselves, we aren’t fit to be in the presence of our all-holy God. For those who want to better understand the historical, logical, and even Scriptural roots of purgatory, I refer you to this page by Catholic Answers, as well as my article series titled Purgatory 101
Purgatory is real and so are the souls suffering there. Here are some of the ways God has given us to assist the dead so they might more quickly see Our Lord face to face:
Have a Mass offered for them. Don’t flatter the dead! Catholic families have always had Masses offered for the repose of their loved one’s souls, but this has fallen out of favor in the past 50 years. I know it’s popular to believe that every person who is even remotely associated with Christ, no matter how sinfully they lived (and perhaps died), will be transported immediately to heaven upon their last breath. But this is simply not true. We falsely flatter our departed loved ones–and play into our own laziness–if we neglect to have Masses offered for people who die.
Give alms in their honor. St. Thomas Aquinas says that almsgiving is even more efficacious in helping the holy souls in purgatory than prayer and fasting, because almsgiving possesses more completely the virtue of satisfaction. We sacrifice something and offer it as amends for the earthly effect of the sins they must still atone for in heaven. (We don’t offer satisfaction for the eternal effects of their sins; only Christ can do that. More on that here.) This is perhaps why so many great servants of God chose almsgiving as the principle means by which they assisted the dead.
Obtain an indulgence for them. Historical abuses have given indulgences a bad name, but indulgences do still exist as a treasury of graces through Holy Mother Church. Instead of obtaining an indulgence for yourself, obtain one for a holy soul in purgatory. If you’re going to confession and Mass anyway, why not get a soul out of purgatory in the process?
Offer sacrifices for them. Every work of charity may be offered to God for the dead to satisfy the atonement they owe for the temporal effects of their sins. As Jesus said, “Love covers a multitude of sins.” So whenever I’m in pain or called to do something distasteful or difficult, I offer it to God as suffrage for the holy souls. 
The next time you feel insignificant, remember: God has given you the power to open the gates of heaven for souls. This is a privilege God has given only to the living; the saints in heaven, while they can assist us with their prayers, can no longer make satisfaction for others. They can’t suffer, or offer Masses, or give alms on their behalf. Only we get to do this for our brothers and sisters in purgatory.
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“Mom, I don’t believe” Update

This is an update on my article a year ago about my then nine year old son struggling with believing in God (linked here).  The article stirred up some emotions and thoughts in several commenters both in the combox and in other discussion groups.  A portion of the commenters related to my position and were thankful for some kind of perspective, some found it insightful for guiding their own children, some felt I should have responded in a different way but granted that perhaps I didn’t share all of my response to my son in the article, some applauded my son for taking steps away from the faith they themselves found to be a myth, and one implied that I was creating a “family group where everyone is expected to be Catholic for some therapeutic reason.”  Unlike most things I have written for CS, this one struck a nerve.

It has been a year since my son bravely told me “I don’t really believe in it … God and the Bible and stuff like that”.  In that year he turned 10 and kept the theological questions coming.  He is a smart and logical boy.  I grew up a cradle Catholic and never bothered to study the faith beyond what I failed to absorb in CCD classes.  By the time he was born, I didn’t even know what Baptism was for, just that it was something to be done, which is such a shame!  However, challenged by a few family members to question and leave my Catholic faith for another Christian faith tradition, I chose to study and learn the Catholic faith first before ignorantly and blindly following those persons on their own paths.  Being ignorant of the purpose baptism is already a shame, but what a greater shame it would have been for me to leave the Catholic faith before I even knew what it taught!  Ten years later, I am genuinely thankful for these family members’ challenges because I know the Catholic faith so thoroughly I can answer most any question completely, with evidence to back up the explanation.  This skill has proven most valuable in my discussions with my son.

This week alone the boy and I had a 30 minute discussion about purgatory and indulgences (while I was exercising, no less), predicated on his desire to know if saints are sinless before they die.  Purgatory and indulgences are two of the most misunderstood Catholic doctrines both by Catholics and most especially by non-Catholics, however it is revolutionary in understanding our souls (as man is a composite of a soul and a body), our will (an attribute of our souls) and God given free-will (our ability to make choices, something that He never overrides).  Yesterday at dinner my son was adamant to know, “who started church?!”  My answer of “Jesus”, while perfectly true, wasn’t enough.  He wanted to know how the Apostles “did church” after Jesus’s ascension.  So we had a long discussion about how Jesus told us specifically how to worship Him in the future when He instituted the Eucharist, so when the Apostles gathered together, they always celebrated the Eucharist, which is exactly what we do today when we go to church.  We also talked about the Roman persecutions of Christians under the emperor Diocletian and how Christians had to “do church” in their houses as they weren’t free to build places of worship until the Roman Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity.

As my son asks more questions, and especially as his sense of logic develops, he is understanding the whole picture of Christian teaching, and this seems to be helping his faith develop.  It’s hard to believe in something nebulous, especially when the secular world offers so many answers.  However, Christianity is only nebulous when a teacher doesn’t have answers.  Christianity offers a comprehensive paradigm of truth that spans from our souls, Heavens and Hell, to our bodies and our earthly world and earthly existence.  Thus it is imperative to either be ready with the answers to our children’s questions or be ready to find out, knowing the sources or persons to seek out, as the answers exist.

"Jesus, I trust in you."
“Jesus, I trust in you.”

Just like my kids, I too, am still learning the faith, and always will be.  Just this morning at Mass we walked the church walls, looking at the stained glass windows.  There were a few Old Testament stories I didn’t recognize from the window pictures and also a few saints I need to read up on.  My son is looking forward to us learning these together.

Lastly, we have been attending daily Mass every day of the week.  The grace we receive sitting in the presence of our Eucharistic Lord (and most especially partaking of Him) is as healthy for our souls as the Vitamin D our bodies absorb from the sun.  Also, we have been reading avidly upon the lives of the saints.  Compared to these holy men and women, my example of Christian living for God pales in the shining light of their stories.  My son has been most impressed with stories of saints who led less than holy lives before converting to Christ.  He relates less (as do I) with stories of saints who were graced by God to be holy from their youth, though their stories are still amazing.

Our experience on Earth is a pilgrimage with ups and downs.  I expect that my son and other children will have doubts again.  It is my duty to them to teach them the faith as thoroughly as possible, and to guide them in keeping their souls as healthy as possible.  While under my care, I need to ensure that my children’s wills, which are perfectly free, have the ability to freely move toward God without the impediments of ignorance or lack of grace.

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Purgatory 101: Part 2

purgatory2In part one of this series, we talked about what purgatory is and why it’s logical (and biblical) that we need to be purified after death and atone for the earthly effects of our sins. In this article, we’ll learn about the experience of purgatory, which has been revealed to a few saints throughout the centuries for our spiritual benefit.

Early in my research on purgatory, I thought I was in pretty good shape. I thought, “Well, I haven’t murdered anyone or robbed any banks, so bring on the atonement!” Then I read about the saints’ visions of purgatory. And quickly realized how ignorant I was of the true horror of sin.

Yes, purgatory is painful—excruciatingly painful, by the saints’ accounts. Because in purgatory, we’ll experience two kinds of suffering: the pain of loss and the pain of sense.

The pain of loss consists in being deprived for a time of God himself. Even now, being separated from our loved ones is painful; just ask anyone who has lost a spouse, child, or parent. If earthly separation is so painful, then, we can’t imagine the torment we’ll experience in purgatory when we become fully aware of how much we love God—and know that we’re still separated from him by our own imperfections and debts.

Sensory pain in purgatory, while not formally defined by our faith, is nonetheless affirmed by Church doctors to be of the most intense kind, often related to fire. Just as the impurities of metal are burned away to reveal the pure element, our imperfections also will be burned away and our sins be expiated until we are entirely pure of heart and capable of truly experiencing God in his unveiled holiness.

We see this concept described by St. Paul in Scripture:

Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire. (1 Corinthians 3)

 Notice that St. Paul says that even souls whose “work” is weaker will still be saved, but he will be saved through “fire.” This is the fire of purgatory.

But what is purgatory really like? Saint Bede (d. 735) relates a story in his “Ecclesiastical History of the English People” about purgatory. He tells of a good Christian Englishman named Dritheim Cuningham, who died one night. The next morning, however, Cuningham sat up again and rather startled those gathered around his bed weeping. He quickly got up, went to church, and spent hours in prayer. He then divided all he owned into three parts, giving two thirds to his wife and children, and the rest to the poor as alms. He retired to a monastery and lived the rest of his (second) life as a penitent.

When asked to relate what he’d seen in death, Cuningham said an angel led him to a wide valley. The left side appeared full of flames, while the right was attacked by violent hail and snow. Both sides were full of souls who tossed themselves from one side to the other; when they could no longer endure the fire, they leaped into the cold, then back into the flames and so on.

Cuningham said he thought the place might be hell, but his guide explained that:

That vale you saw so dreadful for consuming flames and cutting cold, is the place in which the souls of those are tried and punished, who, delaying to confess and amend their crimes, at length have recourse to repentance at the point of death, and so depart this life; but nevertheless because they, even at their death, confessed and repented, they shall all be received into the kingdom of heaven at the day of judgment; but many are relieved before the day of judgment, by the prayers, alms, and fasting, of the living, and more especially by masses.

Cuningham spent the rest of his life exacting severe penances to expiate his sins and to offer as suffrage for the souls in purgatory. He would wade out into the river in winter and pray until his clothes were frozen. When someone asked how he could endure such cold, Brother Dritheim would only say, “I have seen greater cold.”

Another saint who returned from death was St. Christine the Admirable (d. 1224). During her funeral Mass, the nun astonished those in attendance by sitting up in her coffin, then flying up to the rafters of the church! A remarkable priest finished the Mass, then made her come down.

St. Christine reported that she had been to hell and then to purgatory, where she’d recognized many souls. She was then offered the choice of going to heaven or returning to earth to expiate sins on behalf of the souls in purgatory. She chose the unselfish course (of course).

After her return, St. Christine renounced all comforts of life. Not content with extreme poverty, she threw herself into burning furnaces but would emerge with no sign of harm. In winter, she plunged into the frozen river and remained there praying for weeks. Sometimes she was carried downstream to a mill, and would be beaten round its wheel without breaking her bones, as it did to everyone else. She ran into thickets with long, sharp thorns until she was covered with blood, but would emerge with no wounds. St. Christine suffered these penances for 42 years and the miracles associated with her converted countless sinners.

Finally, there’s the Venerable Stanislaus Chocosca of Poland. In 1598, while praying for the souls in purgatory, he saw a soul near him enveloped in flames. She asked him to help alleviate her suffering, at which point Stanislaus asked if the fire was more painful than that of earth. “Ah,” the suffering soul replied, “all the fires of earth compared to that of purgatory are like a refreshing breeze.”

Even more shocking is that souls have reported to saints that they experienced severe expiation even for venial sins, such as saying something unkind or ignoring an inspiration of grace. Often the sins were things most of us would rarely even recognize as sinful, such as being scrupulous or having too great an attachment to one’s family over God.

Hearing that even our slightest faults must be painfully expiated in purgatory may scare the hell out of you (ha!) and God certainly does wish such examples to incite a holy fear of sin in us. But we must temper our fear with the knowledge that though we may suffer terribly to purify our souls and atone for our sins, we will do so with complete peace, because in purgatory we are free of all attachment to sin. As such, our wills will be completely in accord with God’s will. We will actually desire the pains of purgatory, because our strongest desire will be to be perfect so we can be with God for eternity.

Not only will we suffer peacefully, but we will even do so with a deep joy. St. Catherine of Genoa (d. 1510) was a German mystic. In her Treatise on Purgatory, she says once a person dies, its sins are revealed to it only once. Then the soul never thinks of them again because she is consumed only with thoughts of God. During this momentary view of self, the soul perceives the consequences of her sin, or “malignant legacies,” as St. Catherine calls them. These imperfections are the chief impediment to being with God that must be burned away in purgatory.

According to St. Catherine, when God creates our souls, he makes us with a certain beatific instinct towards himself. Original and actual sin draw our souls away from God and the further we depart from the beatific vision, the more malignant our soul becomes. Conversely, as our soul is purified and approaches the perfect state in which we were created, the more we will be drawn to God and desires only to do his will.

St. Catherine said that we will desire God so strongly in purgatory that even if we could choose between going to heaven with minor perfections or suffering the most fearful pain in purgatory, we would always choose purgatory. We would rather plunge ourselves into a thousand hells than stand before Divine Majesty with even the slightest fault, she says.

This truth is beautifully illustrated in a revelation to St. Gertrude the Great (d. 1302).  The saint saw the spirit of a religious who had died in great holiness. The soul stood before Jesus, but she kept her eyes down as if ashamed, and showed by some gesture a desire to be away from Christ.

Gertrude was astonished and asked Jesus why he didn’t receive the soul with love. Our Lord then beckoned the soul, but she moved further away with profound humility. Amazed, Gertrude asked the religious why she avoided Jesus. The soul said she stayed away because she was not yet perfectly cleansed of the stains of her sins. “Even if He were to grant me in this state a free entrance into Heaven, I would not accept it; for all resplendent as I look to your eyes, I know that I am not yet a fit spouse for my Lord.”

Once in purgatory, we will see it for what it is: a final, merciful opportunity to become perfect so we can be in full union with our perfect God. And because we will truly desire God above all, we will be supremely grateful for our suffering and experience a profound joy even in the midst of our pain.

Next time: How we can avoid purgatory and help the suffering souls in purgatory, too.

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Purgatory 101: Part 1

This is the first in a three-part series on purgatory. This article discusses the purpose of purgatory and addresses some common objections to it. Next time, we’ll learn about the experience of purgatory through the visions of the saints. Our last article will include ways to help the suffering souls in purgatory, as well as how to minimize our own need for this after-death purification. 

purgatory_carracciWhenever I talk about purgatory around Catholics, I find people hold some very strange ideas about it. Most (erroneously) think it’s a second chance for hardened sinners. Others that it’s a sort of limbo, in which souls not “good enough” for heaven but not deserving of hell hang out until Christ gets around to figuring out what to do with them at the end of time. More than one person has told me it’s one of those “archaic” ideas the Church got rid of during Vatican II, along with veils and sexual ethics.

But the doctrine of purgatory, or the final purification, has been the faith of God’s people since before Christ. The Jews believed in purification after death long before Jesus, as evidenced by the Old Testament (2 Macc. 12:41-45) and other early Jewish works. The writings of Church fathers, as well as Scripture (1 Corinthians 3:11-15; Matthew 5:25-26, 12:31-32), also show that the earliest Christians believed in purgatory, too. And contrary to popular belief, the Church still teaches as true that we will be purified after death.

So we believe in it, but what exactly is purgatory? First, let’s confirm what it isn’t–purgatory is NOT a second chance for unrepentant sinners. It’s not really a place at all, but a process—the process by which we who die in friendship with God are purified of all our imperfections (CCC 1030-1031). It’s the process, too, by which we make amends for our sins, even our forgiven sins, that aren’t adequately expiated during our lifetime (CCC 1475).

That we need to be purified after death isn’t really so difficult to understand. Few people die completely and absolutely perfect when they leave this world. Most die still hanging onto prejudices, pride, and a regrettable amount of self love. God gives us many opportunities in this life to learn to love selflessly, to embrace humility over pride, to put the needs of others above our own as Christ always did, but we don’t always avail ourselves of those spiritual opportunities.

So we die, and we still are not perfect, and the fact is that until you are perfect, you are not capable of experiencing the full glory of our all-holy God. The overwhelming holiness of God is something I think escapes most modern-day believers, but it consumed the thoughts of ancient Jews, who believed God’s holiness was so overwhelming that no living (and thus, sinful) person could be exposed to it without dying. In Isaiah 6, the prophet is only able to stand before God after he is purified of his sin by an angel. “Without holiness, no one will see the Lord,” we’re told in Hebrews 12:14 and numerous other places in Scripture.

God desires to actually purify us of all sin, to make us perfectly loving people. That process of becoming purified, of becoming holier and thus, closer to God, is called sanctification in this life and it’s the whole point of being Catholic. So we die as God’s friend, yet we’re still not perfect. And in his mercy, God gives us one last opportunity to prepare ourselves for heaven. As C.S. Lewis, in his Letters to Malcolm, put it,

“Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, ‘It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy.’?

Should we not reply, ‘With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleansed first.’

‘It may hurt, you know’—

“Even so, sir.’”

Purgatory simply finishes the process of sanctification we begin here on earth. As another Catholic sista put it so beautifully in her own article on purgatory: “I would indeed be prideful to think I can just march into heaven immediately upon death and expect to be seated at the wedding feast of the Lamb without so much as washing my hands.”

But getting “cleaned up” spiritually isn’t the only thing purgatory accomplishes; we also expiate our sins. Expiation is just a fancy word that means we make amends for our offenses…we fulfill justice. Why is this necessary? As the Catechism explains, sin has a double effect. First, it offends God and interferes in our relationship with him. If the sin is serious enough, it completely severs our relationship with him and casts out divine life from our soul. That’s why we call such sins mortal sins, because they bring death to the soul.

But lesser sins, or venial sins, still offend God and harm our relationship with Him. Often, those sins also harm others, too, and even if God forgives us the guilt of our sin, there are still consequences not wiped away by absolution. And we must make amends for those consequences.

Most people (even Catholics) tend to balk at the idea that God requires us to atone even for forgiven sins. This undercuts Christ’s redemptive sacrifice on the cross, some say. God is too merciful to require us to atone for sins after death, others say. But neither is true.

Certainly when it comes to the eternal effects of our sins, only Christ can make amends or reparation, as I explain in my article, Why the Cross. Only Jesus was able to make infinite amends for our sins that offend an infinite God. As Scott Hahn said, “Christ paid a debt he didn’t owe because we owed a debt we couldn’t pay.”

But that Christ paid the eternal penalty for our sins doesn’t mean we can’t make amends or reparation for the temporal (read: temporary, earthly) effects of our sins. If you steal a car, you can return it. If you damage someone’s reputation, you can publicly correct the slander. You destroy property, you can repay the owner. In most cases, you can make at least partial amends (or “expiation”) for what you’ve done.

Even non-Catholic Christians realize that, while Jesus paid the price for our sins before God, he did not relieve our obligation to make amends. They acknowledge that if you steal a car, you have to give it back; repenting doesn’t mean you get to keep the car! Expiation despite forgiveness is why Jesus commended Zacchaeus for paying back the money he stole, though his theft was forgiven (Luke 19:1–10).

What of the accusation that expiation goes against God’s loving and merciful nature? I appeal to you parents for this one. Imagine that your son, after being told not to play baseball in the house, does so anyway and breaks a window. He comes to you contrite and seeks forgiveness. As his merciful and loving parent, you forgive him and your relationship is restored. But wouldn’t you also still require him to pay for the broken window? Maybe he’ll have to mow lawns for a few Saturdays or clean out the garage or sacrifice his allowance to repair the glass. If you want to change your child’s heart…to teach him obedience, respect for your authority, and the value of things, then the loving thing to do is to make him pay for the window.

God, who revealed himself to us as our Father, is the perfect parent and we are his imperfect children. If good earthly parents expect their kids to make amends for their mistakes—for the good of the child’s soul—why is it “unloving” and “unmerciful” of our heavenly Father to have that same expectation of us? Expiation of sin is, in fact, a natural and logical part of our loving relationship with God the Father.

Next time: What can we learn from the saints who have seen purgatory by a special vision of God?