Documentary explores forgotten teaching on purgatory

Conventual Franciscan Friar John Clote has been making Catholic films for more than 20 years. And it shows.

In partnership with Lightbridge Films, his newest, and perhaps most impressive, documentary, “Purgatory: The Forgotten Church,” was released last month. With both clarity and beauty, the film examines the Church’s teachings on life after death, and sheds light — for believers and unbelievers alike — on one of Christianity’s oldest but most mysterious doctrines.

Recently, Our Sunday Visitor spoke with Friar Clote about the film and what it teaches us about “The Forgotten Church.” Here’s what we learned. 

Our Sunday Visitor: What led you to make the documentary? 

Friar John Clote: This idea was percolating for years, but there was always another project that needed to take precedence. Then, in 2008, my mom passed away. My dad had already passed 20 years earlier. Despite the pain of losing parents with whom I was close, I also knew that our relationship hadn’t ended. There was still a connection that went beyond memories. I wanted to explore that connection from a faith perspective. This film is part of that exploration. 

OSV: In the documentary, you made the decision to start not by explaining the Church’s teachings on purgatory, but rather with the scientific evidence for the afterlife. Why? 

Friar Clote: I wanted to cast as wide a net as possible with this film, so I knew I couldn’t assume that everybody watching it would even believe in an afterlife. So, I made the starting point for the discussion a question: Does the human consciousness survive bodily death? I like the idea that science has a voice in this discussion, too. Besides, just because we’re people of faith doesn’t mean we shouldn’t include the scientific view of this. 

OSV: Why do you call purgatory “The Forgotten Church”? 

Friar Clote: Most Catholics who are over 40 or 50 grew up hearing their mothers and grandmothers tell them to offer up their small sufferings for the holy souls. It was just a standard throwaway line, but it connected you to what the Church calls “The Church Suffering” — the holy souls in purgatory. Over the years, we’ve forgotten that. One of the purposes of the film is to reinvigorate the alliance with our deceased brothers and sisters in purgatory, reminding people that just as we can pray for them, they can pray for us. 

OSV: Why is it so critical that we remember that connection? 

Friar Clote: When I was in Africa last summer, I saw a great deal of suffering. There was extreme poverty and the ever-present face of death. Yet the people there were extremely joyful. The churches were also packed. In a way, I think that was because of their suffering. It kept them grounded and focused on what mattered. I think remembering our connection to the souls in purgatory can serve a similar purpose for us. 

OSV: So, do you think it’s more difficult for men and women in the West to maintain that connection with the souls in purgatory? 

purgatory dvd

Friar Clote: Not necessarily. There’s always a natural connection because nobody is a pilgrim on this earth without enduring some degree of suffering. Suffering is out there. If we can get the suffering question right, however, if we can approach it and process it correctly, we’ll find strength, perseverance and endurance when storms hit. That’s one of the reasons I spent time in the documentary highlighting what the Fathers and Doctors of the Church said about purgatory and growing in holiness. I wanted people to understand that the Church’s teachings on purgatory are deeper than they might think. It’s not just about what happens to us after death; it’s about how we live the entirety of our lives. 

OSV: Where can people watch the film? 

Friar Clote: Right now, we’re primarily selling the documentary online, as well as through Catholic bookstores and gift shops. We’ve done three screenings in Chicago. We’ll do another big screening in Phoenix soon. Hopefully, we’ll also eventually air it on EWTN. For now, if people want to order the film or view the trailer, they can go to the website: purgatoryforgottenchurch.com. If you want to do a screening, there’s a menu for that. You can also enroll friends or family members for free in a Mass we’ll have said on Nov. 2. Again, this project isn’t just about explaining a teaching. It’s about reinvigorating the connection between the Church on earth and the Church in purgatory. And there’s no better way to do that than through the Mass.

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.