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Father Richard Kunst: Looking at purgatory differently can help us welcome it

I think I have addressed the subject of purgatory over the years of writing this column a few different times, probably more than any other subject. There is a reason for this: Purgatory was the primary “lightening rod” that sparked the protestant Reformation.

Martin Luther was completely right when he criticized some leaders of the church for selling indulgences to get people out of purgatory. It was a terrible abuse by some Catholic leaders at the time. Luther, unfortunately, threw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater when he took the opportunity to totally dismiss the dogma of purgatory. Abuses, no matter what they are, are never a justifiable reason to abandon church teaching, especially if it is a dogma of the faith.

Father Richard Kunst
Father Richard Kunst

Because of Luther’s response to the purgatory issue and because of the selling of indulgences, in some circles the mere mention of it can feel like saying a dirty word, and that is most unfortunate. Popular piety has not done itself any favors over the years either. There have been countless books written about the “horrors” of purgatory, and it is not uncommon to see scary portrayals of burning souls in purgatory on stained glass windows and old religious art. Dante’s “Divine Comedy” is not too helpful either, in its portrayal of this place of purification. All of this is unfortunate, because purgatory is a beautiful place, one that I earnestly hope to get to someday.

Here is a different explanation of purgatory that may help you look forward to the day you finally get there.

Catholics who do not go to confession and those who do not have it available will not understand this comparison, but I hope this will ring true for Northern Cross readers: When you go to confession, especially if you have a big sin or have not been to confession for a long time, how do you feel when you leave the confessional? Lighter, right? There is nothing quite like the feeling one gets right after confession. It is impossible to accurately describe, because it is both a tangible and a non-tangible feeling at the same time. It feels so good knowing that the weight of guilt and sin is now washed away, it is hard to leave the confessional without a smile.

Again, if you do not take advantage of this sacrament, you have no idea what I am talking about. Suffice it to say it is awesome in the truest sense of this overused word!

That is what purgatory is like! When we go to confession, our sins are forgiven; when we are in purgatory, the effects of those sins on our soul are washed away. That post-confessional feeling is a gift from God, and it gives us a faint reflection of how great purgatory is going to be. Think of purgatory like this and you will never be afraid to go there.

Another aspect of purgatory that is a mystery is the ability of those of us who are on earth to help those who are experiencing this purification. We profess as a truth that our prayers can help the souls in purgatory.

A good way to appreciate and understand this is by looking at the New Testament’s favorite image of the church. Several times in the scriptures, the church is referred to as the body of Christ, and it is said that we are all individual member of the one body. As individual members, we all play different roles with different functions, but we are all equally members.

When your foot itches, what happens? Your hand scratches it. One part of your body comes to the assistance of another body part to relieve the irritation. This is the role we play in our prayers for the souls in purgatory. Just as your hand is to your foot, so too are we as members of the body of Christ. God gives us the ability by our prayers to help the other members of the body who are in need of our prayers, whether they are still with us in this life or are in purgatory.

One of the more unfortunate aspects of modern Catholic spirituality is the abandoning of our commonly praying for the souls in purgatory. It is a rich part of our Catholic heritage and spirituality, and it is of great value. At Catholic funerals in the past, the holy cards that were distributed almost always had the prayer for the souls in purgatory. Nowadays it is more common to have a poem. We have lost something here; perhaps we can bring it back.

Father Richard Kunst is pastor of St. John the Evangelist in Duluth and St. Joseph in Gnesen and administrator of St. Michael in Duluth. Reach him at [email protected]