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Purgatory: The Book, the Movie, and the Teaching

While 79% of regular Mass-goers believe in Purgatory, only 57% of those who rarely attend Mass have an understanding that Purgatory is real.


Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, “It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy.” Should we not reply, “With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d’ rather be cleaned first.” “It may hurt, you know.” “Even so, sir.” — C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm

On July 15, results of a new poll predicting the outcome of the upcoming midterm elections were released by EWTN News and RealClearPolitics. This poll, the first in a series, examined likely Catholic voters’ opinions on abortion policy, education, gender ideology, vandalism of churches and pro-life clinics, and protests at the homes of Supreme Court justices.

Not surprisingly, there was a variance among Catholic voters which aligned with their political views, but also with their participation in the sacramental life of the Church. And this divergence applied not only across the political spectrum but also in Catholics’ understanding of the truths which their Church has consistently taught.

This was illustrated well in the statistics regarding belief in Hell and Purgatory: The poll showed that only 72% of self-identified Catholics who attended church rarely (maybe once or twice a year) believe in the existence of Hell. Slightly more (74%) of Catholics who attend Mass monthly believe in the possibility of eternal damnation; and 84% of weekly churchgoers understand the reality of Hell. About Purgatory, church attendance played an even larger role – with 79% of regular Mass-goers believing in Purgatory, while only 57% of those who rarely attend Mass have an understanding that Purgatory is, in fact, a real place which is clearly described in the Scriptures and in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The statistics are deeply troubling. They suggest that in the average Catholic parish, one in every five people in the pew doesn’t understand Church teaching on what happens to our souls after we die. That lack of understanding could have grave implications for those who think that we’re all going to heaven anyway, so let’s party.

What’s the truth about Purgatory? I’ve found some interesting perspectives recently: In my mailbox, where I received a copy of Michael Norton’s first novel, A Hiker’s Guide to Purgatory, published by Ignatius Press; on TV, after friends recommended that I watch the 2020 Polish film Purgatory, which is currently available through Prime Video; and on my bookshelf, in the pages of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Purgatory: The Book

First, I have to remind the reader that Norton’s A Hiker’s Guide to Purgatory is a novel, a reimagination of our destiny after death, not a treatise about the author’s personal beliefs.

From the first paragraph, I was captivated by Norton’s engaging prose. The noted author and speaker Peter Kreeft agrees; he said of the book, “There’s nothing like this book! It’s both a narrative ‘page turner’ that hooks us, and also a theologically orthodox picture of Purgatory as positive, even happy, as Heaven’s training camp rather than Hell’s slightly cooler suburbs.” I’m still reading, but it’s one enjoyable ride!

In A Hiker’s Guide, Norton imagines a 77-year-old attorney, Dan Geary, in the middle of a rolling, polychrome landscape. The greens are bold and bright. Birds sing in the distance. Tall grasses surge like a sea before the wind. The purification Geary expected in Purgatory was a journey saturated with faith, hope, and love – and with overwhelming beauty.

Purgatory: The Movie

Brought to the screen in 2020 by Polish director Michael Konrat, Purgatory: The Secret Revelation of St. Padre Pio and Fulla Horak explores the mystery of what happens when we die. “Purgatory,” the English-language narrator, Catholic radio talk show host and editor Drew Mariani, explains, “is a waiting room, a vestibule, a place you pass through to reach something sacred.”

Produced in Polish with English-language subtitles, the film integrates what we know with what might be, what we imagine our experience after death could be. At times, it seemed the narrator did not really believe what he was saying; it seemed like a PBS documentary, viewing the Catholic faith with curiosity but without conviction. “In many religions,” the narrator explained without personal commitment, “life is not temporary or passing in character; but rather, it is unending and outside the restrictions of time.”

The story is told, in part, through the messages of Polish mystic Fulla Horak, who was born in 1909 and attended school in Ukraine. Fulla experienced visits from many saints, including St. Padre Pio but also St. John Bosco, St. Joan of Arc, and Madeleine Sophie Barat, the French saint who founded the Society of the Sacred Heart. Fulla Horak wrote Swieta Pani (Holy Lady), where she described her mystical experiences in some detail. In Purgatory, Fulla reported, souls experience both immense joy and great suffering.

An important part of Fulla Horak’s message is that the souls in purgatory, our loved ones who have gone before us, are like beggars – waiting for someone to give them alms, to offer our prayers on their behalf. Our despair and sorrow at the death of a loved one cannot help them in any way; rather, the only means of support for our deceased family and friends is prayer and good deeds offered for the soul.

Purgatory as the Church teaches and explains

The Catechism of the Catholic Church<>/i> (III 1030-1032) teaches that all who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.

This final purification of the elect – which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned – is called “Purgatory.” The term was used in the Council of Flore>nce, which met from 1438 to 1445, and again in the Council of Trent, which convened three times between 1545 and 1563. >Canon 30 from the Council of Trent’s Decree on Justification (Sixth Session, 1547) comments on the necessity of Purgatory:

30. If anyone says that after the grace of justification has been received the guilt is so remitted and the debt of eternal punishment so blotted out for any repentant sinner, that no debt of temporal punishment remains to be paid, either in this world or in the other, in purgatory, before access can be opened to the kingdom of heaven, anathema sit [“let him be anathema” or excommunicated].

St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 3:15, spoke of the cleansing fire of Purgatory. That idea is repeated in Peter 1:7, where Peter explains:

so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.

Making reference to these scriptures, the Catechism speaks of a cleansing fire:

As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come.

Finally, the Catechism calls upon believers to pray for the dead, as encouraged by the Scriptural account of the atonement of Judas Maccabeus and the account of Job’s purification by his father’s sacrifice. “From the beginning,” the Catechism explains,

the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead.

There may be different visions of Purgatory, but one thing is certain: In the eyes of the Church, Purgatory is real, and those who are blessed will welcome its presence after they die.

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About Kathy Schiffer 19 Articles
Kathy Schiffer is a Catholic blogger. In addition to her blog Seasons of Grace, her articles have appeared in the National Catholic Register, Aleteia, Zenit, the Michigan Catholic, Legatus Magazine, and other Catholic publications. She’s worked for Catholic and other Christian ministries since 1988, as radio producer, director of special events and media relations coordinator. Kathy and her husband, Deacon Jerry Schiffer, have three adult children.


  1. In the eyes of God, purgatory is false.

    Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment. Hebrews 9:27


      • Nowhere in the Bible is the Holy Trinity mentioned by name if I recall correctly. But both the Trinity and Purgatory are understood through Sacred scripture and Tradition. Maccabees comes to mind and I know there are other scripture references to Purgatory.
        Goodness, I’m just a homeschooling mother and grandma with way less education than someone who’s been through seminary and I know that.
        I’d recommend you and Brian pick up a copy of the Baltimore Catechism and look up Purgatory in the index. My Bible has it in the index also. God bless!

  2. We are taught that we must learn and observe the Greatest Commandment, and to live on every Word of God. “Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Mt. 5.19-20. Your righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, thus you have to learn and observe the Greatest Commandment, and you have to live on (study) every Word of God, in order to attain the blessings that are given to God’s children. That is a stumbling block for a large number of Christians.

  3. It is important for us to know how God views the matter. We are deserving of hell or purgatory and yet, our sanctification process here on earth!

    Jeremiah 29:11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.

    2 Peter 1:4 By which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.

    Isaiah 41:10 Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

    John 3:16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

    2 Corinthians 1:20 For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory.

    Romans 8:28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.

    1 John 1:9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

    Psalm 37:4 Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.

    Isaiah 43:2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.

    There are subtle nuances in scripture that give us understanding and peace of mind. Perhaps someone would care to explore them!

    For us to be wise unto salvation gives us peace and makes us into more useful servants for His kingdom.

  4. The Garden of Eden was on Earth. Christ is the second Adam. Sin is the separation from God, Who is holy and sanctified. In order to be restored to the life that mankind had before the Fall, we must seek to know God, become holy, and sanctified. The entrance to the kingdom of heaven is through those means. According to the degree that you accomplish those things, you will receive your reward.

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