The notion of Purgatory is something which seems to have gone out of fashion among many Catholics. We are taught, rightly, that Jesus died for our sins and paid the penalty for them. We receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation in order to receive absolution for our sins. So we ask, what is the need for Purgatory?
Let’s consider an analogy here. An alcoholic first has to admit that he is an alcoholic and seek help. The proven way of avoiding serious health issues and even death is for the alcoholic to avoid alcohol altogether, but often the temptation is too strong and certainly it is unlikely that he will achieve success unaided. But having made the decision, one way to reduce the body’s craving for alcohol is to attend a rehabilitation clinic. This is a place where no alcohol is available and the alcoholic has to ‘dry out’. The body will go through pain but this will pass, the organs will start to recover and the individual will build up the strength to resist the urges to drink alcohol in the future.
So it is with our soul. Ever since Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden, our human nature was tainted with a propensity to sin (original sin). Like the alcoholic, we have to admit we are sinners, we need help and support so we have the Sacrament of Reconciliation, where our sins are forgiven, but we return to the world where temptations abound and where all too often we fall back into the same old sinful habits.
At death, our soul leaves the body but in order to achieve holiness it needs to undergo purification so that it can be ‘dried out’ and shake off the propensity to sin. The ‘place’ where this occurs, is called Purgatory. The time spent in Purgatory is not a time of punishment, it is a time of purification through the mercy of God freely imparted to prepare us for eternity with Him in heaven.
The alcoholic, of course, has to return to the world where alcohol will always be available and resist the temptation every hour of every day. Sinners on the other hand, once purified in Purgatory, go on to live for eternity in Heaven where only perfection exists.
For more information, see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 1031.