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The Roman Catholic church dogma only states that:
Purgatory exists for temporary purging of sin.
Punishment and prayers by people on earth will help those in Purgatory.
On 1999-JUL-28, Pope John Paul II described Hell to be “More than a physical place, hell is the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy.” By extension, Purgatory may be more of a state of being than an actual place.
There is no official dogma about the precise nature of the punishment(s) in Purgatory. However, various Church authorities have taught that the inhabitants in Purgatory are systematically tortured with fire. Orthodox churches also believe that Purgatory exists; however they do not specify a method by which pain is inflicted. 1
Passages in the Bible describe many additional forms of torture used on the inhabitants of Hell for all eternity without hope of mercy or relief: worms, unbearable heat, unbearable thirst, etc. However, St. Thomas Aquinas taught that only one form of torture is used in Purgatory “to cleanse us from the remains of sin…the pain of fire only is ascribed to Purgatory.” 2
Some have puzzled whether Hell and Purgatory are actually in the same location. St. Thomas Aquinas quotes Gregory the Great as quoting St. Augustine who wrote: “Even as in the same fire gold glistens and straw smokes, so in the same fire the sinner burns and the elect is cleansed.” St. Augustine apparently believed that the same fire that tortures the sinful in Hell also is used to purify the saved in Purgatory. Some believe that this implies that Purgatory and Hell are either adjacent or in the same location. Aquinas wrote that there are probably two Purgatory locations: one is inside the earth and is close hell so that they can share the same fire. The other location is above the earth, between us and God. 2 Aquinas appears to be wrong: Space exploration has not yet uncovered any sign of Purgatory above the earth. Deep holes drilled into the earth have not discovered Purgatory either, although there have been some interesting Christian urban legends to the contrary.
Some have inquired whether the pain that people experience in Purgatory is greater than the pain that we experience in life. Some reasoned that it is not greater because punishment is a result of sin; since we do not accumulate more sins in Purgatory, then the punishment will not be greater than that which we have been used to experiencing. But St. Thomas Aquinas quotes St. Augustine as saying that “This fire of Purgatory will be more severe than any pain that can be felt, seen or conceived in this world.” Aquinas agrees with St. Augustine. There will be two types of pain in Purgatory. They feel a keen sense of loss because they will not be in the presence of God while they remain in Purgatory. They will also feel the “punishment by corporeal fire.” The former is an overwhelming pain because the souls there will deeply long to be with God. The thermally induced pain would also be severe because it would be inflicted on the soul itself – there are no bodies in Purgatory. “Therefore it follows that the pain of Purgatory, both of loss and of sense, surpasses all the pains of this life.” 3 The Catholic Encyclopedia mentions that St. Bonaventure thought: “that this punishment by fire is more severe than any punishment which comes to men in this life.”
Many unofficial beliefs have arisen among individual Catholics: One source quotes Holy Mary as saying that there are many levels in Purgatory. Living Christians can pray on behalf of individuals in Purgatory in order to give the latter temporary relief from pain. Those in the lowest level of Purgatory can only receive respite from their torture through the prayers of the living on NOV-2. The greatest number of souls leave Purgatory on Christmas day. 4
One writer comments:
“Do penance, or you will burn long years in Purgatory, is a fact that there is no getting away from…Which of us does not tremble when he thinks of those who have been burnt to death in a slow fire? What fear would not be ours if we had to face a similar death? Yet their suffering was of relatively short duration. The incomparably fiercer fire of Purgatory, which we may have to face, may last 20, or 50 or 100 years!” 5
Another source lists a Prayer of St. Gertrude the Great, which M. Cardinal Pahiarca allegedly said (at Lisbon, Portugal, on 1936-MAR-4) would release 1000 souls from Purgatory each time it is recited:
“Eternal Father, I offer they the most precious blood of thy Devine [sic] Son, Jesus, in union with the Masses said throughout the world today, for all the Holy Souls in Purgatory, for sinners everywhere, for sinners in the Universal Church, those in my own home and with in my family. Amen.”6
It is not beyond the realm of possibility for a person to repeat this prayer 1000 times a day, and thus release 1 million souls from Purgatory. A three person team, working for an entire year could release over one billion souls!