Q: My middle-aged daughter recently told me that there is no purgatory, that the Catholic Church made that up. Also, another daughter committed suicide in her 20s. I miss her very much. Only one of our other five children goes to Mass regularly.
A: I am sorry to learn of your daughter’s suicide. God alone knows the whole situation and judges accordingly.
The Catholic Church’s teaching about purgatory evolved over time, based primarily on two facts: 1) Christians have long prayed for deceased persons, and 2) a sin that has been confessed and forgiven still has lingering negative effects. For example, a murderer’s confession, absolution, and penance will not restore a murdered person to life.
The Catholic Church has used the expression “temporal punishment due to sin.” To give a less dramatic example: if I met you for the first time on Tuesday, told a lie about you on Thursday, and confessed that as a sin on Saturday, the lie would have some negative lingering effects. I could try to offset those by telling the truth about you to all the people to whom I told the lie. I could ask them to do the same. There is, however, no guarantee that all of them will do that. Even if they did, your reputation has suffered in the meantime, and my lie may have encouraged other people to tell lies.
Purgatory is only for people going to heaven eventually. What if, at the moment of death, those people got a glimpse of the heavenly banquet but objected to sitting next to or across from someone with a nose ring or a tattoo? Would that new person be ready to be in God’s presence?
Purgatory is a time of cleansing, of allowing God’s values to permeate the nooks and crannies of a person’s life where God’s ways had not yet been fully accepted.
Your middle-aged daughter is now largely responsible for her own faith journey. You can explain what you believe, but there is no guarantee that she will accept that. People often speak of “time” spent in purgatory, but we must avoid imposing such language upon God.