Upon starting work as an apologist, I had to dig even deeper into the subject, and I discovered that over the course of time it has been understood in different ways.
One of my early helps in understanding the doctrine was the thought of St. Catherine of Genoa, whose thought on the subject as presented in the Treatise on Purgatory and the Dialogues Between the Body and the Soul have proved increasingly influential over time. In particular, elements of it have played a role in the thought of Joseph Ratzinger (back before he was pope) and in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
I was therefore delighted when I read Pope Benedict’s general audience on St. Catherine of Genoa, in which he touches on her contribution to this subject.
He begins by noting that, although she did have a profound mystical experience connected with her conversion, she did not have revelations about the souls in purgatory. He states:
It is important to note that Catherine, in her mystical experience, never received specific revelations on purgatory or on the souls being purified there. Yet, in the writings inspired by our Saint, purgatory is a central element and the description of it has characteristics that were original in her time [General Audience, Jan. 12, 2011].
One of the original things about St. Catherine’s thought on purgatory concerned the way it tended to be envisioned as a place:
The first original passage concerns the “place” of the purification of souls. In her day it was depicted mainly using images linked to space: a certain space was conceived of in which purgatory was supposed to be located.
Catherine, however, did not see purgatory as a scene in the bowels of the earth: for her it is not an exterior but rather an interior fire. This is purgatory: an inner fire.
She also understood the fire of purgatory differently than some other:
The Saint speaks of the Soul’s journey of purification on the way to full communion with God, starting from her own experience of profound sorrow for the sins committed, in comparison with God’s infinite love (cf. Vita Mirabile, 171v).
We heard of the moment of conversion when Catherine suddenly became aware of God’s goodness, of the infinite distance of her own life from this goodness and of a burning fire within her. And this is the fire that purifies, the interior fire of purgatory. Here too is an original feature in comparison with the thought of her time.
In fact, she does not start with the afterlife in order to recount the torments of purgatory — as was the custom in her time and perhaps still is today — and then to point out the way to purification or conversion. Rather our Saint begins with the inner experience of her own life on the way to Eternity.
“The soul”, Catherine says, “presents itself to God still bound to the desires and suffering that derive from sin and this makes it impossible for it to enjoy the beatific vision of God”. Catherine asserts that God is so pure and holy that a soul stained by sin cannot be in the presence of the divine majesty (cf. Vita Mirabile, 177r).
Pope Benedict then makes an observation that goes straight to the heart:
We too feel how distant we are, how full we are of so many things that we cannot see God. The soul is aware of the immense love and perfect justice of God and consequently suffers for having failed to respond in a correct and perfect way to this love; and love for God itself becomes a flame, love itself cleanses it from the residue of sin.
Pope Benedict has more to say about St. Catherine’s teaching on purgatory, and on her life in general, but I’ll let you read that for yourself.
In summary, he says:
With her life St Catherine teaches us that the more we love God and enter into intimacy with him in prayer the more he makes himself known to us, setting our hearts on fire with his love.
I’ve been working on a special mailing for the Secret Information Club where I “interview” John Paul II on the subject of purgatory. In the interview, I pose questions, and the answers are taken from his writing. Current Secret Club members will get it automatically.
Purgatory is a controversial subject that Catholics are often attacked over, so if you’d like to receive the special interview with John Paul II on purgatory, just sign up for the Secret Information Club by the end of Friday, June 29th, and you’ll have it in your inbox on Saturday morning.
You should sign up using this handy sign up form:
If you have any difficulty, just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.