Question: I have heard several priests say that purgatory will end when the world ends. That seems counter to the teaching that we all must reach a state of perfection before we encounter the beatific vision. Certainly that would include those who will die at the Second Coming or end of the world. Where in the Bible can we find that the end of purgatory is synonymous with the end of the world?
— Jim Flynn. via email
Answer: The relationship of the process of purgation to time is mysterious. Is there time in purgatory? Is time experienced in the same way we experience time in this life? How does time here relate to time there? While it would seem that time does exist in purgatory, since change is underway for those being purified, it does not follow that God absolutely requires time to accomplish things. He can accomplish things in an instant.
St. Paul, speaking of the Last Judgment (not our individual judgment) speaks to a rather instantaneous purification and transformation at the moment: “We shall not all fall asleep, but we will all be changed, in an instant, in the blink of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed” (1 Cor 15:51-52).
While the context of this passage is the rising of the body in the broader context of the full person, being changed in an instant conforms to Christian anthropology that resists dualistic notions that separate soul and body. The point is that “we” (who are body and soul) will be changed.
Thus, while purification from the effects of sin surely is needed before entering heaven and the presence of God, it is reasonable to conclude that God may complete this process quickly, as if in an instant at the Last Judgement. As to the exact details, we ought humbly to leave them to God and accept that there are some things that are not for us definitively to know.
Question: I work in the medical community, and it can be challenging for some of our staff to provide pain management when the patient, especially if it is a priest or religious, refuse it because they want to “offer it up.” How do I explain redemptive suffering to my co-workers?
— Anne Kizer, South Bend, Indiana
Answer: Perhaps it is best to start with a medical perspective. Treatments and medicines usually have side effects. One of the side effects of pain medicines is that a person is sleepy and unavailable to interact with people they love. This reduces the quality of life for those who would prefer some pain to have the advantage of being more alert to interact, express love and say farewell. Most medical providers can understand this and not scoff at it.
This scenario is analogous to those who prefer some pain to be spiritually available to God and themselves as they prepare for death. Death is an important time for us, spiritually, emotionally, intellectually and relationally. This sort of approach may initially work better than presenting a full theology of suffering. The cross remains an absurdity to many unbelievers (see 1 Cor 1:23).
Thus it may be better to begin at the human and medical level and build trust and understanding for our religious perspective. At its heart, redemptive suffering is about healing. Even the most secular of people know the insight “no pain, no gain.” Yes, even pain can bring benefits to us and to others. While spiritual, this insight is also medical. Start there.
Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.