Is Purgatory Painful?

Q. Is purgatory painful?

A. Purgatory is the process after death through which someone who dies in friendship with God is purged of the consequences of sin. We don’t have many details of this process in Scripture. But texts that have traditionally been interpreted as allusions to purgatory certainly make it sound as if it’s painful. For example: “If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Corinthians 3:15).

The Fathers and Doctors of the Church who have written about purgatory seem to be largely in agreement that it is extremely painful. St. Augustine said that purgatorial pain is more severe than anything we could possibly suffer in this life. Pope St. Gregory the Great and St. Bonaventure agreed. St. Thomas Aquinas also spoke of the pain of purgatory.

The common conclusion that purgatory involves suffering should not surprise us. God uses adversity in this life to purify us. Purgatory is simply a continuation of that painful trial, presumably more intense and “concentrated.”

Nevertheless, we should take consolation in the teaching of the Italian mystic St. Catherine of Genoa (1447–1510), in her “Treatise on Purgatory.” She insisted that the souls in purgatory, though they suffer terribly, are more focused on God than they are on their own sufferings. Despite the pain, then, they also have marvelous joy.

Consider this analogy: The pains of a mother in labor can be excruciating. Yet along with the pain, the mother has the joy of knowing that her new child is about to enter the world. In a similar way, we can think of purgatory as the soul’s “birth canal” into the new life of heaven. While the process is painful, joy arises from the confidence that the soul is being prepared for eternal happiness and glory with God.