Rorate Caeli

Benedict XVI on Purgatory

Old news by now, but worth discussing.

Catherine's thought on purgatory, for which she is particularly known, is condensed in the last two parts of the book mentioned at the beginning: "Treatise on Purgatory" and "Dialogues on the Soul and Body." It is important to observe that, in her mystical experience, Catherine never had specific revelations on purgatory or on souls that are being purified there. However, in the writings inspired by our saint purgatory is a central element, and the way of describing it has original characteristics in relation to her era. 

The first original feature refers to the "place" of the purification of souls. In her time [purgatory] was presented primarily with recourse to images connected to space: There was thought of a certain space where purgatory would be found. For Catherine, instead, purgatory is not represented as an element of the landscape of the core of the earth; it is a fire that is not exterior but interior. This is purgatory, an interior fire.

The saint speaks of the soul's journey of purification to full communion with God, based on her own experience of profound sorrow for the sins committed, in contrast to the infinite love of God (cf. Vita Mirabile, 171v). We have heard about the moment of her conversion, when Catherine suddenly felt God's goodness, the infinite distance of her life from this goodness and a burning fire within her. And this is the fire that purifies, it is the interior fire of purgatory. Here also there is an original feature in relation to the thought of the era. She does not begin, in fact, from the beyond to narrate the torments of purgatory -- as was usual at that time and perhaps also today -- and then indicate the path for purification or conversion. Instead our saint begins from her own interior experience of her life on the path to eternity. The soul, says Catherine, appears before God still bound to the desires and the sorrow that derive from sin, and this makes it impossible for it to enjoy the Beatific Vision of God. Catherine affirms that God is so pure and holy that the soul with stains of sin cannot be in the presence of the Divine Majesty (cf. Vita Mirabile, 177r). And we also realize how far we are, how full we are of so many things, so that we cannot see God. The soul is conscious of the immense love and perfect justice of God and, in consequence, suffers for not having responded correctly and perfectly to that love, and that is why the love itself of God becomes a flame. Love itself purifies it from its dross of sin.

Theological and mystical sources typical of the era can be found in Catherine's work. Particularly there is an image from Dionysius the Areopagite: that of the golden thread that unites the human heart with God himself. When God has purified man, he ties him with a very fine thread of gold, which is his love, and attracts him to himself with such strong affection that man remains as "overcome and conquered and altogether outside himself." Thus the human heart is invaded by the love of God, which becomes the only guide, the sole motor of his existence (cf. Vita Mirabile, 246rv). This situation of elevation to God and of abandonment to his will, expressed in the image of the thread, is used by Catherine to express the action of the divine light on souls in purgatory, light that purifies them and elevates them to the splendors of the shining rays of God (cf. Vita Mirabile, 179r).

Dear friends, the saints, in their experience of union with God, reach such profound "knowledge" of the divine mysteries, in which love and knowledge are fused, that they are of help to theologians themselves in their task of study, of "intelligentia fidei," of "intelligentia" of the mysteries of the faith, of real deepening in the mysteries, for example, of what purgatory is.


  1. Anonymous6:35 PM

    Did the pre-VII Church got anything right? - doddering fools! What did we ever do before the enlightened ones came along to set the Church straight?

    "Purgatory is a process not a place" there nothing, as our dearly beloved Pope St. Pius X wrote one hundred years ago, that the modernists cannot lay their hands on to change?

    I have been waiting for someone to post this. Guess it got pushed aside by the beatification and Assisi III news.


  2. Anonymous7:33 PM

    I find it all very intersting what most Catholics believe, if anything at all, about Purgatory these days.

    I've heard everything about how wonderful it is, about how only bad people go there and most of us are "saved," I've even heard that we're now living in Purgatory on Earth and next up is Heaven for sure.

    We need more teaching like this from the Holy Father. Well done.

  3. Anonymous7:58 PM

    But what, of any substance, did Pope Benedict actually *say* about purgatory, except to negate, if not actually deny, the common doctrine that Purgatory is localised in a place. Merely to state that Purgatory is a "state" of being, is an incomplete teaching which favours error. The soul, even if spiritual, is still "localised", at least in a certain sense, since she is not infinite, as is God.

    Consequently, it is at least erroneous, if not worse, to claim that Purgatory is not localised anywhere. Where it is located could potentially be argued, but not that it is located somewhere. The common teaching of the Church is too clear on this.

    The alternative is that the soul in purgation just sort of floats around somewhere without any real context to its existence. The final conclusion would be that Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell, ostensibly not being "places", overlap with each other. The heresies which would arise from such thinking should be manifest.

  4. Tom the Milkman9:40 PM

    "I find it all very interesting what most Catholics believe, if anything at all, about Purgatory these days."

    Indeed. And not only interesting, but consoling to hear a Pope in the modern age speak at all of Purgatory. I don't believe I've heard Purgatory MENTIONED by a priest inside a novus ordo Catholic church since before VC2 - literally! As though the doctrine had never existed!

    Whatever else, Purgatory IS a process - the process of purification. Our Holy Father strikes me as at his best when guiding with his considerable understanding of theology to illumine aspects of the Faith. In this instance, this poor sinner would have difficulty insinuating Modernism into the teaching of the Holy Father.

  5. Isn't the Pope just refering to the teaching of at lest two pre-Vatican II saints, St. Catherian and St. Thomas Aquinas? Why do some have to make this a "Vatican II" problem? It's nothing of the sort. The Council of Trent said nothing of Purgatory being a place; nor have the other councils settled this question. Let the discussion continue.

  6. Purgatory isn't currently a place, right? Or if it is, there are no people physically located there, since until the general resurrection, souls "in Purgatory" have no material qualities, I'd think. (Should go look for an answer in St. Thomas.)

  7. "For Catherine, instead, purgatory is not represented as an element of the landscape of the core of the earth; it is a fire that is not exterior but interior. This is purgatory, an interior fire."

    Papal bashers now must include St. Catherine in the Post-V2 modernist crowd.

    The malice in such misinterpretations is manifest.

  8. Anonymous12:43 AM

    It has to be a place, like heaven is a place and hell is a place. Our souls are real. In fact more real than our material bodies, as c.s. lewis once noted. Anything that tends to suggest that our souls are some sort of wispy vapor has no real theological basis or basis in revelation.

  9. Place, like time implies material extension. SJH hits the nail on the head.

    One is constantly amazed at the arrogance of those who think they can run the Church better than the Pope. At least Luther had the guts to do what his heart told him - openly leave, and set up a sect...

  10. No, "place" does NOT necessarily imply material extension.

    Also, despite the false headlines of ZENIT and Catholic News Service, the Holy Father never denied that purgatory is a place, nor said it is a process "rather than" a place, or a process, "not" a place. He did deny that the old, false opinion that it was a geographical location on or inside of the earth, but he didn't say anything at all on the question of "where" purgatory is. Purgatory need not have a location within the confines of the material universe in order for it to be a "place."

    Consider heaven by analogy. Is heaven a "place"? The glorified bodies of Our Lord and Our Lady, and all the holy angels and all the holy souls of the saints, are in heaven. Do angels have material bodies? Do the saints have their resurrection bodies? And yet they exist in a "place" called heaven, which we know is not within the confines of the material creation, but is somewhere, somehow, "beyond." If one were to say, "Heaven is not a place, but is the perfected spiritual relationship of God with His children," one would be uttering a falsehood . . . and also would have to explain where the bodies of Jesus and the Blessed Virgin are, if they are not in a place, that is, if they are nowhere at all.

    Anyway, the Pope's point wasn't to discuss the question of "where" purgatory is -- as if that abstruse question were even important -- but to explain WHAT purgatory essentially is. More important than the where is the what, and the who. It's a matter of emphasis.

  11. Brian3:53 AM

    In his Treatise on the Resurrection in the Summa, St. Thomas Aquinas writes at length about Heaven and Hell as places. With regard to Purgatory, he writes:

    Since a place is assigned to souls in keeping with their reward or punishment, as soon as a soul is set free from the body, it is either plunged into hell or soars into heaven, unless it is held back by some debt, for which its flight must be delayed until the soul is first of all cleansed (i.e., Purgatory). This truth is attested by the manifest authority of the canonical Scriptures and the doctrine of the Holy Fathers; therefore the contrary must be judged heretical.

    Heretical is a strong word.

  12. With regards to the "place" vs. "process" discussion, I think it's a false dichotomy. Our intellects as they stand are incapable of fully understanding the mystery of life after death, so we must refer to some extent to analogical ways of thinking in order to come to a greater understanding of these issues.

    It's like how physicists speak about light. There are two models for describing it: light as a wave, and light as a particle. There's no contradiction in teaching that light is a wave and a particle, because light is actually something else altogether, but the only way physicists can describe certain behaviors and characteristics of light is to model those behaviors and characteristics after waves in some instances, and after particles in other instances.

    I tend to think that conceiving of purgatory as a "place" reveals certain fundamental truths about how it relates to creation, to our souls, to its purpose in our salvation. But I think the same is also true of conceiving of purgatory as a "process". There is no contradiction, because both fall short of what purgatory is, although they both reveal underlying principles important to our mortal understanding.

  13. oremusrob11:55 AM

    Honest question for folks, because I must confess that I have never really understood the purgation issue here.

    It seems logical that Purgatory must be some kind of 'place' by definition.

    Wouldn't it be true that a soul must be 'somewhere' at all times, even if it is a 'someplace' that is outside the natural, material realm?

    If a soul is undergoing purgation, then don't we know beyond dispute or doubt that that soul cannot be still on material Earth, cannot be in heaven, and cannot be in hell?

    So if the soul is in none of those 'places', and it is undergoing purgation, if Purgatory is not a place in some sense, then where is the soul during purgation? Mustn't it be somewhere, in a place, however non-material, when it is undergoing purgation?

    Perhaps I'm really missing something here, so I genuinely ask for input. I don't see how purgatory does not entail being some kind of 'place' by definition.

  14. Xavier Rynne2:33 PM

    No Oremus you are not missing anything. It has to be a place and the pope was not saying it wasn't. He was merely commenting that the older notions (a la Dante) that it is inside the earth are not necessarily to be taken literally. As Jordanes says, this does not mean the pope was saying purgatory isn't a place. The basis for all reality is God, and God is pure spirit, as our souls are. It follows logically therefore that our souls are more substantive and "real" than our transient, temporal bodies. One good way to think of it is when we see Jacob Marley passing through Scrooge's door, it's not because Marley's soul is insubsantial - - it is because the material door is insubstantial. The soul is inconceivably solid compared to the material body, at least that was the opinion of C.S. Lewis. One with which I wholeheartedly agree.

  15. oremusrob3:42 PM

    Thanks, Xavier R.

  16. Anonymous5:17 PM

    Jordanes, I got my info from Catholic News Service last week. Here is the quote: "Unlike most Catholics of her day, he said, she was convinced purgatory was not a place, but a process."

    I sincerely thank you for the correction and am grateful for it.


  17. The folks at Catholic News Service are often theologically clueless and tone deaf, and in my opinion don't know the Faith that well -- so they're often botching stories like these. Pope Benedict's comments were nuanced -- and as for St. Catherine, how ignorant do you have to be to think it plausible that she of all people would have ever denied that purgatory is a place, or that if she had done so, she wouldn't have been censured by the Church or worse? No, when it comes to these kinds of stories, never trust CNS (or even ZENIT) -- always go to the actual text of the pope's remarks and ignore the CNS spin.

  18. Xavier Rynne6:00 PM

    I agree.

    The notion of purgatory as some kind of Zen like "process" of improvement is still very much in vogue from the silly season following Vatican II. It is a corollary to the related modern denial that hell is a real place. Jesus said it is a real place. Mary herself at Fatima stated that it is a real place, even if we do not know where it is. And as Jordanes, we don't really need to know where it is, only the means to avoid both.

  19. Anonymous7:37 PM


    " for St. Catherine, how ignorant do you have to be to think it plausible that she of all people would have ever denied that purgatory is a place, or that if she had done so, she wouldn't have been censured by the Church or worse? "

    As ignorant as me?

    Thanks for the tip about CNS and Zenith. I will avoid both in the future.


  20. Anonymous8:15 PM

    Xavier Rynne

    Is that really you? My! You sure have changed your tune since the days of VII!!!


  21. Xavier Rynne8:55 PM

    I should say also that I agree with SJgmore's points also. It is surely a process and a place and outside of time, we don't exactly what reality looks like. But it's a mistake to think that the term "place" has no meaning in that souls retain their individuality and ultimately their bodies after the general resurrection.

  22. Anonymous5:42 AM

    I think Xavier hit on something when he referenced "out of time." I think that our temporal idea of place is concretely tied to time, "I am here now."

    How a non-corporeal entity, e.g., a soul undergoing purgation, experiences a process that is atemporal, should not be EASILY described by our limited vocabulary.

    The totality of the truth does exist within the Church, it has not necessarily been totally revealed at this moment.

  23. Xavier Rynne5:49 PM

    Well said. No one knows where it is, not the pope, not the bishops. Not even the saints know where it is. But to suggest it is some kind of airy fairy non-reality is false.

  24. Alfred12:27 PM

    I agree that the CNS people do not really know much about what is actually being said.
    Yes, purgatory has to be a place, even though neither Benedict XVI nor St Catherine of Genoa expressly said so.
    The time is what causes confusion. Scripture suggests it will take place in the age to come when Jesus comes again with the Saints to rule with righteousness and justice; when the lion will eat straw like the ox and the wolf lie down with the lamb. This Judgement Day of 1000 years will be enough for those who fail Purgatory to die as children at the age of 100 [Is 65:20-25].


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