Understanding hell and purgatory

Question: What are the Church’s teachings on whether hell and purgatory are real places or are just “figurative” ways of speaking? I heard a permanent deacon and his wife recently joking about this matter and they seemed to suggest that hell and purgatory are not real, but “figurative.” 

— Agnes G. White, Hoffman, Ill.

Answer: Words like “figurative” — as well as similar words such as “symbolic” and “metaphorical” — are tricky words that have many meanings and uses. It may be that the deacon and his wife were suggesting that Catholic doctrine does not require us to believe that hell and purgatory have real flames. The “fires” of hell and purgatory serve to help us realize that hell and purgatory are conditions of purification (purgatory) and damnation (hell), but not literal flames. 

Catholic doctrine does not hold that hell and purgatory are places in a geographical sense, but rather conditions of being, just as heaven is a condition of being. But there is no ambiguity in Catholic teaching about the reality of purgatory and hell. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states regarding purgatory: “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” (No. 1030). It continues: “The Church gives the name purgatory to this final purification of the elect. ... The Church formulated her doctrine of faith especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire [1 Cor 3:15; 1 Pet 1:7]” (No. 1031). 

Likewise, the Catechism states on hell: “The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, ‘eternal fire’” (No. 1035). The same article states: “The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom man alone can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.” The suffering of hell is not a physical one so much as a spiritual one, what the Catechism refers to as the “state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God” (No. 1033). For more on this, I would refer you to the Catechism, Nos. 1030-1037. 

The new Missal 

Question: What is the best way to prepare for the new Missal, which will be used at the beginning of the coming Advent? 

— John Asson, Murray, Utah

Answer: The first piece of advice I give people is: Don’t panic! I fear that the introduction of the revised Missal is being overly hyped by some organizations and publications and is leading people to expect a revolution in the Church’s liturgical life. No such revolution will materialize, and most changes in the new translation have to do with the prayers of the priest, not of the people. 

Every parish should be undertaking some forms of preparation of the people for the new Missal, either at the announcement period at the end of Mass or by offering special adult education sessions. The best way to prepare is to continue to participate in the Mass as it is, attend any explanatory parish sessions and reflect on what the priest says about the revised Missal. 

Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to mfmannion@osv.com. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.