A Catholic’s Guide to the Afterlife, by Julia LaFond

Everyone gets Purgatory wrong.

Most people have a pretty good idea of Heaven and Hell, since those are more or less constant across the many denominations of Christianity. Purgatory, however, is by and large a Catholic doctrine, which means it’s not as well known outside the Catholic Church. Therefore, the basic concept of a temporary place of spiritual purification is less well-known than all sorts of misconceptions, ranging from “it’s Limbo” to “it’s part of Hell.” Then, those misrepresentations end up in books, movies, and TV shows, which end up influencing other books, movies, and TV shows, and the cycle repeats to the chorus of the Catholic audience members’ heavy sighs. So, in the interest of not having to sit through so much sighing whenever the topic of Purgatory gets brought up, here’s a handy Catholic guide to the afterlife.

Now, I know what everyone wants to hear about first: what Heaven and Hell are really like. Though actually, if we’re being completely honest, probably just Hell: there’s a reason most people only read Dante’s Inferno and not Purgatorio or Paradiso (sorry for the spoilers if you didn’t know Inferno is only the first act of the Divine Comedy). As your self-appointed guide, I’d be remiss to skip over who goes where—which means first we have to talk about how Catholics define sin.

There are reams of theological discourse about the complexities and nature of sin. For the purposes of this introductory guide, however, sin is when you push God away by doing A Bad Thing, whether that’s murder, adultery, or dishonoring your father and your mother.

While a lot of Christian denominations are content to leave it at that, Catholicism further subdivides sin into two types: mortal and venial. Mortal sins are also called the death of the soul, which is a rather fancy way of saying you’re going to Hell (barring your sins being forgiven, but we’ll get into that later). Venial sins, in contrast, aren’t enough to warrant eternal damnation. The three factors that determine whether a sin is mortal or venial are gravity (i.e. severity), knowledge, and willingness.

Severity is difficult to quantify, but it’s basically the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor; it’s one thing if you go around murdering people, but you’re probably not going to Hell over that one time you stuck your tongue out at your older sibling.

Disclaimer: The example provided is intended as a hypothetical situation for the purposes of contextualizing the concept of severity with regards to sin. Determining the severity of real sins depends on a host of context, and therefore there are conceivable situations in which taunting a family member could constitute a mortal sin. The author accepts no liability for any readers who end up facing eternal damnation due to sticking their tongue out at their older sibling.

But even if a sin isn’t severe enough to constitute “grave matter” (another fancy way to say you’re going to Hell), it might not be a mortal sin if you didn’t act with full knowledge of its wrongness. In other words, if you somehow, some way, through no fault of your own, don’t understand that killing people is wrong, then any murders you commit don’t rise to the level of a mortal sin. Alternately, if you know killing people is wrong, but don’t know your actions will result in someone’s death, it’s not a mortal sin (and unlike the first example, might work as a legal defense). In either case, willful ignorance doesn’t count. No blindfolding yourself before firing a pistol into the general direction of your wealthy uncle’s mansion—not only is it a sin, it’s also a flagrant violation of gun safety.

On to the third and final factor: willingness. If you don’t commit a sin willingly, it can’t be mortal. Examples include coercion (someone’s going to kill you if you don’t rob that bank for them), lacking the capacity to control or predict the outcome of your own actions (see also the legal ability to consent), or having impaired capacity (one example that’s successfully been used as a murder defense is sleepwalking). Much like knowledge, there’s no gaming the system on this one: Telling someone to twist your arm isn’t going to cut it. If you deliberately put yourself in a position where you’ll be coerced or impaired, especially in the hopes of doing something you normally wouldn’t, you’re still responsible for your actions.

In short, mortal sin is when you willingly do something you know to be evil.

Now we have enough context to discuss where you’ll end up when you die. As mentioned before, if you die in a state of mortal sin, you’re going to Hell—or more accurately, if you die without repenting for your sins. Forgiving sins was a big part of Jesus’s mission, after all, and that includes mortal sins. The specifics of what does and doesn’t count as repentance can get complicated, so suffice to say Catholics normally pursue repentance through the sacrament of penance (also known as confession). It’s also why the sacrament alternately known as last rites, extreme unction, or anointing of the sick is so important to administer to the dying; it provides one last opportunity to repent and be forgiven. It’s also possible, albeit riskier, to have your sins forgiven through an act of perfect contrition. The CliffsNotes version is that perfect contrition is having sorrow for what you did wrong and wanting to atone. Contrast with imperfect contrition, which is being sorry for your sins because the consequences are finally catching up with you (for instance, because you’re afraid you’re about to go to Hell).

If someone commits one or more mortal sins and dies unrepentant, they’re going to Hell, cut off from God’s presence because that’s what they chose in life. Conversely, someone who dies without any sins they need to repent of or atone for gets to immediately join God in Heaven. But what about everyone else?

That’s where Purgatory comes in.

Purgatory, broadly speaking, is a place for spiritual purification. If you die in a state of venial sin, or if you still need to atone for your sins, this is your first stop. Just to be clear, the second stop is Heaven. In some ways, Purgatory is a little like airport security: most people have to wait in line, take off their shoes, and go through the metal detector, but someone who did the TSA PreCheck can waltz past all that. Purgatory is also like airport security in that both are decidedly unpleasant (as is generally the case with facing the consequences of your actions).

Speaking of prechecks, that brings us to a topic history buffs saw coming a mile away: indulgences. Indulgences remit the divine punishment required to atone for sins that have already been forgiven. The two main categories are plenary and partial. Plenary indulgences cover the entirety of punishment, while partial indulgences, as the name indicates, cover only part of it. In other words, it’s the difference between skipping Purgatory and having a shorter stay (assuming you don’t go and run up the timer by committing more sins afterward). Indulgences are frequently attached to a prescribed devotion (for instance the First Saturday devotion, which is why Penance is always so crowded on the first Saturday of any given month). In the case of plenary indulgences, penitents generally need to receive the sacrament of the Eucharist as well as confession. Going to confession is technically optional for partial indulgences, but note that indulgences, once again, only affect the punishment for forgiven sins.

For those who aren’t history buffs, the reason this is anything more than a footnote is because of systemic corruption: Once upon a time, certain members of the clergy decided to go into the business of providing indulgences to wealthy patrons. Aside from being a little sin called simony, aka the selling of the sacred, there were also claims circulating that indulgences guarantee a spot in Heaven (not true) or pre-emptively ensure the forgiveness of sins yet to be committed (also not true). This particular time was the time of Martin Luther. Suffice to say it’s not a coincidence that indulgences remain an exclusively Catholic practice.

Back to Purgatory. There’s one more way it differs from Heaven and Hell: it exists within time. Heaven and Hell are both eternal, meaning they exist beyond the confines of time. In Purgatory, time has just as much meaning as it does here on Earth—yet another way it’s like airport security. Which is why Catholics pray for the souls of the dead: Praying for people in Purgatory helps them get to Heaven sooner. Aside from just prayers, Catholics also often offer up their suffering. Depending on context, this can either be a form of sacrifice akin to giving up something for Lent, or it can be a form of uniting one’s suffering with the agony Christ endured on the cross. If you ever hear a Catholic make a comment along the lines of, “I’m getting a lot of souls out of Purgatory,” it is both a case of the latter and an indication they’re not having a particularly fun time.

This is around when the class clown asks why souls in Purgatory don’t just pray their way into Heaven. Answer: They can’t pray for themselves for exactly that reason. Some Catholics believe they can’t pray at all during their time of punishment, but others argue they’re able to pray for the living like souls in Heaven can. Because yes, everyone in Heaven can pray very easily, what with being eternally in God’s presence. This is incidentally why Catholics request the prayers of saints (anyone residing in Heaven, including Mary, the mother of Jesus): God clearly likes these people, so getting them to act as your go-between when you need to ask God a favor is what’s known as a pro gamer move. Though often phrased as “praying to” saints, this is distinct from worship, as it’s not that much different from asking friends or family or celebrities to pray for you aside from the part where saints are dead (For the record, this doesn’t count as necromancy, though now that I’ve typed it out I understand where the confusion is coming from).

So most Catholics pray for the souls in Purgatory and pray to the saints for their intercession, but the tricky part is determining the eternal whereabouts of someone who died. In the absence of clear evidence otherwise, a good rule of thumb is to assume they went to Purgatory and therefore to pray for them. After all, if you pray for them and they’re already in Heaven, the prayers are either credited back to you or applied to someone else in need, depending on who you ask (gonna be honest, I’m not 100% sure if that’s how it works if they went to Hell, but at the very least it can’t make anything worse). If they’re still in Purgatory and you don’t pray for them, congratulations, you just ignored the suffering of someone you (presumably) hold dear.

An exception to this rule is for anyone who’s been canonized a saint. Early in Church history this was a relatively informal process, and was based either on martyrdom or on public acclaim (i.e. everyone agrees this person must have gone to Heaven). Eventually, it was codified into a considerably longer and more bureaucratic process. First, there’s a thorough investigation into the candidate for sainthood; if this shows they were virtuous in life and death, the Pope will formally declare them “venerable”—a fancy way of saying “good role model, but we’re not positive they’re a saint.” The next step, beatification, is similar, but generally requires them to have either been martyred or performed a miracle (the Pope can waive this requirement). If they’re beatified, it means they’ve been declared “blessed,” but it’s still not a 100% sure bet they’re in Heaven. The final step, formal canonization, usually requires a second miracle before the Pope will formally declare them a saint.

There are plenty of saints who haven’t been canonized, which is why Catholics observe the feast of All Saints Day: a holy day that honors all the unknown saints celebrated annually on November 1. The day after is All Souls Day, which honors all the souls in Purgatory. Yes, that’s right after Halloween, and no, that is not a coincidence. But gosh darnit, I’m a tour guide, not a historian, so if you want more details you’ll have to do an internet search.

One last thing about Purgatory, but I’m going to warn you right now that it’s another open question. Some Catholics—remember, this isn’t official doctrine – think souls in Purgatory can manifest as ghosts. Usually, this will be for one of three reasons: to atone for their sins; to offer warning, comfort, or guidance to the living; or to ask for prayers. That’s an inclusive “or,” by the way. Anyone doing the former two would absolutely ask for prayers while they’re at it. This, can lead to a fun interpretation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet: though the eponymous prince’s father makes allusions to being in Purgatory, the fact that he doesn’t ask for prayers, but does ask for vengeance, makes it seem like he’s more likely hailing from Hell. Or that he’s a demon masquerading as Hamlet’s father, which is another Catholic explanation for ghosts and also the reason not even the ones who do believe in ghosts go looking for them. The third explanation is, you know, the all-too-common case of natural phenomena being mistaken for a haunting, but that’s boring, so nobody likes it when you bring that up. The long and short of it is that if you end up in Purgatory, nobody knows for sure if you could end up becoming a ghost for a while. Just something to think about on a dark and spooky night…

Thanks for coming this far, but we’ve reached the end of our tour. To recap the most common misconceptions: Purgatory isn’t part of Hell. It’s also not Limbo. Limbo was the temporary waiting-place for people born before Christ who were good enough for Heaven, but couldn’t be let in until Christ died for everyone’s sins. Finally, it’s not a permanent destination for people who were too good for Hell, but not good enough for Heaven: it’s a place where they can become good enough for Heaven.

So if you die and end up in Purgatory, don’t worry: you’ll get to Heaven.


After graduating from a Catholic homeschool, Julia LaFond went to college at NCSU and then completed her master’s in geoscience at Penn State. She’s had short stories published via The Librarian Reshelved (Air & Nothingness Press), The Future’s So Bright (Water Dragon Publishing), and Alternative Holidays (B Cubed Press). In her spare time, Julia enjoys reading and gaming. Website: https://jklafondwriter.wordpress.com/

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