To begin with, purgatory exists for two reasons: one, to punish sins for which reparation has not been done on earth. For example, if a person stole money and was not able to pay it back, that sum would have to be “repaired” before the soul enters heaven. All sin must be settled, in the course of justice. If a person was a bad example at parties, flirting or drinking too much, even if that person confessed those sins, because the damage is done, reparation cannot be made. Therefore, purgatory is a time for suffering to make up for those consequences of sins. There is something called the “effects of sin” also called the “matter of sin.” The effects of sins remain in the person—weakened conscience, weakened ability to deal with the passions, and so on. These imperfections must be gone before the person enters heaven, as only the perfect enter heaven. All dispositions which lead one to sin, all tendencies, must be rooted out and few people do this in their lifetime. All venial sins unconfessed before death also cause the suffering of purgatory, as one must be cleansed, therefore, for the effects of sin, the tendencies, the disposition, and the venial sins.
Forgiven mortal sins need reparation, and that is done in purgatory, if those sins were confessed and absolved. In addition, each person has a predominant fault, that fault which causes most of the sin in his life. This root fault rests in self-love and created disordered desires, “cupiditas,” which leads to rebellion in one’s soul. Rebellion towards God is called “superb.”
Unless one allows God to take one through the dark night of the senses and the dark night of the spirit, where such spiritual infirmities and flaws are rooted out, one must go to purgatory.
Those in purgatory rejoice, embrace this suffering, this satispassion, because they increase in the love of God as they are purified. However, they cannot gain merit. The ability to gain merit for heaven ends with death. However, their love and virtue increase as they are cleansed of all flaws. One of the great sadnesses of those in purgatory, and for those in hell, an eternal gnawing, is the realisation of how high they would have been in the levels of holiness in heaven but for ignoring grace. This suffering turns to gratitude in purgatory as the souls see more clearly the mercy of God, as they now see the justice of God.
Second is the consideration of time in purgatory. Two types of time must be defined in order to understand the real time in purgatory. It is not like our time. There has been confusion about this in the past, as people think that when they make an indulgence which merits 30 days, that means 30 days off of purgatory—not so. It means that the prayer is equal to a physical penance which should last 30 days, as in the old times, when priests would give a 30 day pilgrimage as a penance, or 30 days without meat. The indulgence takes the place and is equal by the merit of the Church to those physical punishments.
Purgation takes time, so the time in purgatory is not short, unless one has made the Five First Saturdays, for example, or gained other purgatorial indulgences, such as the Divine Mercy indulgence. However, those indulgences take away the punishment due to sin, but not the effects of sin or the evil dispositions. Thus, one needs purgation, either in this world or the next. Apparently, St. Theresa of Lisieux was told by God that of all the persons she knew who has died In the convent, over all the years she lived there, only three had gone straight to heaven.
Theologians in Catholic teaching shows one that there are two types of time regarding purgatory. The first is “eviternity,” which means eternal duration or eternal existence. It is not the same as “eternal time,” which is the experience in heaven or hell. Eviternity is an in-between concept, between time as we know it by minutes, hours, days and years, and eternal time, both of which we understand. Eviternity has a beginning, so it is not eternal. Garrigou-Lagrange calls it “the perpetual present,” and we can understand that—a present moment which lasts a long, long time.
Discontinuous time is the time experienced by true mystics in ecstasy and the angels. Such persons can have a thought which lasts hours, but is only one spiritual instant. Both eviternity and discontinuous time are what the soul in purgatory experiences. All of us live in continuous time. God and the saints in heaven live in eternal time. The souls in purgatory live in eviternity and discontinuous time.
However, one can judge how long a soul may be in purgatory in terms of earthly time. I read one author which stated that the ordinary Catholic will experience purgatory for 40 years. If a person has held a high office, states Garrioug-Lagrange, referring to private revelations, that soul could be in purgatory for three or four centuries. One time, I asked God to release through my prayers, the forgotten soul who had been in purgatory the longest. A face and body came into my mind, that of a Conquistador of the 16th century. If this discernment was true, I was praying for a man who died as long ago as the 1500s—500 years ago! I did not doubt that some people, especially those who had death-bed conversions from lives of serious sin could be in purgatory for a very long time.
Sort of makes you long for the good old days when a dying penitent sinner heard "Today you shall be with Me in Paradise." And then there are those who insist that what Lutherans teach of the atonement and of justification is an invention foisted upon Scripture. Hmmmmm. Very interesting.