The concept of purgatory is not unique to Catholicism. Even before Jesus’s life on earth, Judaism had the same concept – a place called Gehenna where the wicked suffer to atone for their sins and purify them for entry into heaven.
In the Catholic Church, purgatory is a place (or a form of existence), where less than pure souls go through a purifying fire to make them worthy of the beatific vision in heaven.
While they do not suffer physical pain, souls in purgatory suffer from longing for God. This longing and yearning, more intense than you can imagine, purges them of their sin.
Here’s what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
Just as important is the belief that purgatory is temporary, unlike hell. That’s why there’s a purifying fire. Souls in purgatory are destined for heaven.
What You'll Learn Today
How Long Does a Soul Stay in Purgatory?
The Catholic Church doesn’t say much regarding purgatory, other than that it exists and its purpose. There’s no mention, in the Catechism nor the Bible, of how long souls stay in purgatory before going to heaven.
It’s impossible to understand the concept of time in a place that’s very different from our world. We measure our time in months and years, but that may not be the case at all in purgatory.
The only thing we know is that the existence of a person’s soul in purgatory has a beginning and an ending.
Another reason why it’s difficult to pin down the exact period of a soul’s stay in purgatory is that each person’s purification is unique. People will experience their own form, intensity and length of purification depending on their attachment to sin.
So some souls might be there for a brief moment, while others are there for ages.
The most important thing is that purgatory is temporary. If a soul’s suffering goes on forever, then it’s in hell where there’s eternal damnation.
How Do You Release a Soul in Purgatory?
You cannot release a soul in purgatory. Only God judges how long a soul spends in purgatory. Souls are released into heaven once they are purified of sin.
That said, you can relieve a soul’s torment and maybe even lessen the time they are in purgatory by praying for them.
Praying for the dead is supported by the bible in 2 Maccabees 12:43.
The church also says you can give to charity and participate in indulgences and works of penance on behalf of someone in purgatory.
Do Souls Suffer in Purgatory?
They most certainly do, but it’s not the kind of suffering we can easily imagine. The church talks about a purifying fire that cleanses the soul of sin.
But this is not a physical fire that burns – they are souls after all, not physical bodies. Many biblical scholars describe the purifying fire as a deep longing and yearning for beatific vision. Souls in purgatory undergo a dire deprivation of the face of God.
Here’s a passage from Zechariah 13:9.
What Are the Different Levels of Purgatory?
There are no levels of purgatory, as far as we know. Each soul in purgatory is purified in their own way to cleanse them of their sin.
The idea of levels in purgatory (usually 7 levels) comes from Dante’s fictional works. Dante was an Italian poet and writer.
In the Catholic Church, there’s nothing like levels of purgatory.