What Is Purgatory? How Long Is Purgatory?

What is purgatory?

The concept of purgatory is one of the most frequently questioned Catholic teachings, by middle school students and adults alike. In my wrestling match with the Church, purgatory was one of the hardest won battles. I associated purgatory with images of fire and brimstone. Suffering in purgatory seemed a lot like earning God’s grace that was meant to be freely given because of Christ’s sacrificial death. Either Jesus paid the price for my sins and I’d go to heaven, or He didn’t and I’d go to hell, but there could be no in between.


Though purgatory, like many spiritual concepts, is still somewhat of a mystery, I now understand that a final purification before entering heaven is a sign of God’s mercy, not of His judgment. As St. John Henry Cardinal Newman (an Anglican convert to Catholicism) once said “Even supposing a man of unholy life were suffered to enter heaven, he would not be happy there; so that it would be no mercy to permit him to enter…” 


Imagine that you’ve been invited to a formal dinner party that falls on the same evening as a 5K you’ve signed up to run. The friend who invited you tells you to come to the party immediately after your run and assures you that you’ll be welcome to the party as you are, but you would much rather go home to shower and change clothes first. Through the gift of the Sacrament of Confession, we are forgiven by and reconciled with the God who always loves us. However, the natural consequences of our sin remain. 


Purgatory is often described as a cleansing fire, a place for the Lord to more deeply heal our souls and “refine them like gold and like silver” (Malachi 3:3). God exists outside of time, and thus eternal life (including purgatory) does also. How long is purgatory? As long as it takes for our souls to be purified. Though we may experience pain or discomfort, the taste of heaven will remind us that any time spent in purgatory is well worth the sacrifice. 


What can help us spend less time in purgatory? Living a holy life on earth! Go to confession regularly. Catholics are required to go to confession at least once a year. Going once a month is recommended, and many saints went weekly or even daily! Ask for the prayers of holy people, both on earth and in heaven. Befriend the saints and ask them to pray for you, especially in moments of temptation.


One of the primary scriptural proofs for the existence of purgatory is found in 2 Maccabees 12, which contains a description of the practice of praying for the dead that existed at the time. “The Jews offered atonement and prayer for their deceased brethren, who had clearly violated Mosaic Law. Such a practice presupposes purgatory since those in heaven wouldn’t need any help, and those in hell are beyond it” (USCCB). Like these faithful Jews, we have the opportunity to pray for those who have died and are being purified in purgatory.


In summary, there are three things Catholics believe about purgatory:

  1. A place of purification exists.
  2. Purification can be painful or uncomfortable.
  3. The prayers of those still on earth can assist with the pain or discomfort of those in purification.

(Catechism of the Catholic Church 1030-1032)


Today, take a moment to plan a time to examine your conscience and make a good confession. Then, say a quick prayer for the souls in purgatory. They will be great intercessors for you when they’re in heaven! 


Jocelyn Johnson

Youth & Young Adult Minister