We are finishing up November, the month that Catholics devote to the souls of the dead. There is a lot of misunderstanding about the teaching on purgatory. What follows are Blessed James Alberione's thoughts on the subject.
My Protestant readers will likely find this teaching contrary to their understanding of salvation--- one that teaches a binary destination at death of heaven or hell [as I understand it.] But I want to at least explain the Catholic notion. To my mind it is particularly consistent with the experience of sin and grace that we have in earthly life:
"They who leave this earth in God's grace but are not worthy to enter at once into the vision and enjoyment of God, are retained in a place of suffering, purgatory. This is a state of purification by means of which the soul concludes the total detachment of his affections from earthly things in order to ground them once and for all in God.
Purgatory is, moreover, a state of painful love. There the tepid soul, who passed out of life without that fervor needed for entrance into heaven, completes the refinement of his desires with his ardent yearning to see God.
Purgatory is both a blessed and a painful place. Why blessed? Because those souls are all saved! St. Francis de Sales says that if they were given a choice between returning to this world or remaining in that fire, they would prefer to stay there... The souls held captive there are burning with thirst for God, longing to be able to drink from the refreshing Fountain, trying with their sighs to hasten the vision of the Lord!
Do many souls go to purgatory? Our Faith has nothing to say on this subject; it is content with teaching us that purgatory exists and that the souls suffering there can be helped by us, by our suffrages, particularly by the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. But to the question as to whether many go to purgatory, we must reply like this:
The greater part of mankind is not so wicked or so obstinate in wrongdoing as to deserve hell. Most people sin out of weakness and repent as soon as they commit the sin. At least before dying, most have some sentiments of sorrow and hope. …
Yet the majority of men are not so holy that they can enter heaven at once. Some vain thoughts, some angry sentiments, some indulgence toward our body or our heart, some thoughtless words—how many miseries prevent the gates of heaven from opening wide at once!
On the other hand, we ourselves would not dare, with certain stains, to enter heaven where all is holy and perfect. The soul itself, having beheld God's infinite sanctity at the judgment, would at no cost enter heaven before being thoroughly cleansed and purged. [Purgatory] might be called a vestibule, where souls cleanse themselves and put on the wedding garment to be admitted to the real Presence of God. "