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.

— The Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition. 

This final purification is named purgatory, a cleansing; it is different from hell which is the punishment of the damned (cf., Councils of Florence and of Trent). Tradition, in referring to quotations from the Testaments, speaks of a cleansing fire. “As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will he pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. . . . We understand that certain other offenses can be forgiven in the age to come.” — St. Gregory the Great, PL 77, 396.

This teaching had already been mentioned as an old scriptural prayer. “Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin. (2 Mc 12:46)

The Church has always remembered and prayed for its deceased, particularly in the Eucharistic Sacrifice. This was intended to purify them and bring them into the Godhead’s vision.

Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice, why should we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation. Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them. — St. John Chrysostom, Hom in Cor 41:5; cf., Job 1:5. 

Theologians have pointed to a state that temporarily exists, until the time of the parousia, between heaven and hell. Those who have died in God’s grace, but have not sufficiently repented by prayer and/or good works, can be cleansed and gotten ready for heaven.

Sin, repented of, would not exclude from heaven, but it leaves behind an aftermath, a burden of damages or of “satisfaction” to be worked off in acts of penance: self-denial and self-punishment, charity to the poor, prayer. — Eamon Duffy, The Tablet, “Grant Them Eternal Rest.” 

Purgatory is the answer to this situation. It also explains the Church’s custom of praying for the dead. Since purgatory is the place where sin was rectified, it was likened to hell more than to heaven. But this became an uneasy thought for others. The greatest vision of this afterlife came with the Middle Ages. It was Dante who broke out from the gloom and presented purgatory in the context of the Gospel. Purgatory was not a place of despair for Dante. Rather, it was “a mountain of hope that stretches up toward the light.” These sufferings are not intended to punish but rather to heal. Green is purgatory’s color: It is a sign of renewal and hope (cf., Eamon Duffy).

The reformers got rid of all that separated the living from the dead. They felt that the Catholic understanding of penance was wrong. The saints, they believed, could not pray for us and we could not pray for them. The dead then were cut off from the mutual love and support that was Church.

The Catholic Church with charity and wisdom, always prayed at every grave, for saint or sinner, “Lord, have mercy.” The Church expressed a faith in the good God who brings goodness out of evil and who loves the unlovely. Death leaves behind damaged relationships, misunderstandings unresolved and loves unspoken.

Purgatory’s essential belief is that those who die, weak in faith, imperfect in love, can still find healing at the hands of a loving Redeemer. The Reformation, in its refusal to name the dead, unknowingly endorsed death as alienation.

In the face of sin, we strengthen our faith and hope in the good God who brings us all into existence. He loves each one of us and desires to redeem us all. Traditionally Catholicism always felt at ease with death. Today the Church finds it more difficult to affirm life and at the same time to recognize death as coming to all of us. Part of our pilgrimage to the parousia is that death is what each of us must meet. Most Catholics frequently say: “Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.”

Pope John Paul II, never denied the importance of death.

Reflection on death is, in fact, beneficial because it relativizes all the secondary realities that we have unfortunately absolutized, namely riches, success and power.

The Church must challenge “death-denial” by helping people who do not know how to deal with fear and pain.  

Father Duggan, who died March 7, 2007, was a graduate of the Jesuit School of Theology in the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, Calif., and the Pontifical Marianum Research Institute at the University of Dayton.