Purgatory and the holy souls

by Fr Thomas Crean

“…As regards those who are truly penitent and die in charity before they have made satisfaction by worthy fruits of repentance for their misdeeds and omissions, their souls are purged by purgatorial or purifying punishments; and the sacrifices of the Mass, the prayers, the almsgiving and other devout works offered on their behalf… help to lessen these penalties.” (Council of Lyons, 1274)

What is the basis for our belief in purgatory? 

The possibility of a purification for souls after death is suggested even by natural reason,[1] but it is taught implicitly, at least, by scripture and explicitly by the Church Fathers from the earliest times. It is assumed by the practice of praying for the dead in the Old and New Testaments. St Paul speaks of those who will be saved “as by fire”[2] and St Peter tells us: 

“Christ also died once for sins, the just for the unjust, being put to death indeed in the flesh but enlivened in the spirit, in which also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who had formerly been incredulous when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah.”[3] 

Our Lord Himself refers to those who will not go out from prison till they have paid the last penny.[4] 

What is purgatory for? 

For the expiation of our sins. Sin, especially mortal sin, leaves behind a debt of punishment. Our sins offend the goodness of God. Divine justice requires that they be expiated. When we fall into sin after baptism, we must ourselves take part in this process of expiation, by uniting voluntary and involuntary sufferings to the passion of Christ. Because many of us don’t fully expiate our sins before death, purgatory is made necessary since “nothing defiled shall enter heaven”.[5] Purgatory does not increase our love for God. If we do not learn to love God in life, we cannot learn to after death. Our degree of charity when we die remains for all eternity. Here we can gain merit from good acts done in state of grace, but souls in purgatory can’t merit an increase in grace. 

This is one reason why it is foolish to think “I’ll do the minimum to get into purgatory” rather than try to expiate past sins now. 

Who goes there? 

Those who die truly penitent and in the charity of God, but before they have fully made satisfaction for misdeeds and omissions. They have genuine faith, not just a vague belief in God but real belief in His revealed truth, especially the Incarnation and the Trinity and repent of their past sins as contrary to God’s will. Someone who never thinks about God and is not sorry for sins cannot expect to enter purgatory. 

What is purgatory like? How is the debt paid? 

For us, there are three main ways sins can be expiated (though always in reliance on God’s grace): prayer, penitential works such as fasting, and works of mercy. In purgatory only prayer – communication with God – is possible. So we can suppose that the essence of purgatory lies in a soul’s relationship with God which provides the purifying pains that expiate sins. In his poem The Dream of Gerontius, Blessed John Henry Newman has the guardian angel explain the suffering of souls in purgatory in two ways. 

Firstly, the departed soul experiences a desire for God, whom in His incarnate form, it will glimpse at the particular judgement. A disembodied soul grasps more clearly that it was made for God and all happiness lies in seeing Him. Each moment the vision of God is delayed is excruciating. 

Secondly, it will suffer by its vision of itself: “For though now sinless, thou wilt feel that thou hast sinned as never thou didst feel.” A soul in purgatory is sinless, but sees the ugliness of its unexpiated sins, how they caused Christ to die on its behalf, how they deprived God of the glory owed to Him, how its example caused others to sin, especially those who were under its authority on earth; and the pain it feels at this vision serves to expiate its sins. 

St Thomas Aquinas says that in addition to these pains the soul will suffer by way of material elements, that is, by “fire”. He considers this a fitting recompense for a soul’s having preferred the material world to its Creator. He believes that material elements will cause the soul to experience purgatory as a confinement, corresponding to scripture’s use of the word “prison”. Many saints have received apparitions of the holy souls in the midst of flames. Newman doesn’t deny this but suggests that the burning desire for God and the burning sorrow for having offended Him, will be the soul’s “veriest, sharpest purgatory”. 

St Catherine of Genoa (1447-1510) – the “doctor of purgatory” – insists that the souls are there willingly. As well as saying, “God sends a soul to purgatory”, we might equally say that God allows the soul to hide itself from His face out of mercy, as well as out of justice, until it is ready. Despite their inconceivable desire for heaven, they don’t want to leave purgatory a moment before they are ready, not just because of the pain it would cause but because they would not be worthy of Him. 

What is the relationship between the holy souls and the rest of the Church? 

There is an exchange of spiritual goods between the different parts of the mystical body of Christ. We pray and do penance for the holy souls and it is increasingly common to ask for their prayers. It’s disputed whether the suffering souls are able to pray for us but the Church has never discouraged it. There’s no reason why God shouldn’t reveal to them the fact that someone here has asked for their prayers, and as their charity cannot fail, if they know that their prayers have been requested, they will certainly pray. We can suppose that they will pray in particular for those who have helped them, for example, those who have Mass offered for them, or brought a priest to them when they were ill. Think of the gratitude of those souls who were in danger of dying in a state of mortal sin, if they hadn’t received the sacraments on their death-bed. 

Many souls may be like the paralytic in the Gospel who was lying on the edge of the pool for 38 years, waiting for someone to carry him into the water. We help them greatly by having Mass said, but also by attending a Mass, making the stations, fasting and forgiving wrongs done to us. 

How long must souls spend in purgatory? 

Obviously, the duration of purgatory depends on the individual soul. It would seem to rely on two things; first, the love of the soul, secondly, the quantity of sin that it has to expiate. (This is not necessarily in inverse proportion. For example, someone who converted late in life might die with a greater love for God than another person and yet have more sins to expiate.) The more love a soul has, the more piercing their desire for God, so the quicker sins are expiated. Of course, the greater the quantity of sin, the longer the soul must wait. These factors determine the length for each, except to the degree that God allows the living to intervene on their behalf. 

It is said that in Fatima, when Lucia asked about a villager who had died, Amelia (aged between 18-20), Our Lady replied: “She will be in purgatory until the end of the world”. Such souls need not be those of the greatest sinners; it might be that in life their desire for heaven was very weak, and where love was weak the debt owed to divine justice reduces very slowly – like trying to strip paint not with a blow-torch but with a candle. 

Do the holy souls ever appear to the living to ask for their prayers? 

Yes, though rare, there are examples of this happening. Padre Pio said: “I see so many souls from purgatory that they no longer frighten me”. St Gregory the Great says explicitly that “the souls of the departed sometimes appear to the living and beg that Mass should be offered for them.” In his book Dialogues he gives a number of examples.[6]

Every year a plenary indulgence can be received on each of the first eight days of the month of November and applied to a particular departed soul, known or unknown.* Conditions for obtaining the indulgence are: 1) visit a cemetery and pray for the dead; 2) on All Souls’ Day visit a church or an oratory and recite an Our Father and the Creed. You must be in the state of grace, have a complete detachment from sin, even venial sin (otherwise, the indulgence becomes partial, not plenary); go to confession; receive Holy Communion; and pray for the intentions of the Holy Father. (One confession around the time the indulgence is sought is sufficient for the whole period but a separate reception of Communion and separate prayers for the intentions of the Holy Father are required for each plenary indulgence.) 

Finally, however much they have to suffer, the holy souls are God’s friends and His love sustains them. God promised us through Isaiah: 

“When thou shalt pass through the waters, I will be with thee, and the rivers shall not cover thee; when thou shalt walk in the fire, thou shalt not be burnt, and the flames shall not consume thee.”[7] 

* Of course, there are many other ways to obtain a plenary indulgence throughout the year. 


  1. Plato writes in Gorgias: “Immediately on separation from the body, the souls come before their judge to be attentively examined. Does he see a soul disfigured by sin? He will send it heaped with ignominy to the dungeon where it will suffer the just punishment of its crimes. But there are some who profit by the pains which they endure: there are they whose faults are of such a nature that they can be expiated”. 
  2. 1 Corinthians 3:15. 
  3. 1 Peter 3:18-20. 
  4. Matthew 5:26. 
  5. Apocalypse 21:27. 
  6. Gregory the Great, Dialogues, Book 4, ch. 55. 
  7. Isaiah 43:2.