How Do You Pin Down the Concept of Purgatory?

Heaven Can Wait surveys the impact of an otherworldly state on the earthly condition.

What happens to a belief in a doctrine once those who teach that try to sidle past it, in hopes of moving on? For purgatory, the Catholic concept has always been elusive to pin down. Diane Walsh Pasulka excavates its concrete aspects. In this short but well-documented work, she reveal practitioners’ views of the afterlife, of their attitudes towards the dead, and of their interpretations of Catholic history. The chapters treat the evolution of the purgatorial dimensions, over many centuries.

Pasulka examines devotional and popular culture as they intersect to inculcate and elaborate this puzzling notion. For, since it was first formulated in the Middle Ages from vague suggestions found in Scripture, to meet the demand for a transitional stage of cleansing a sinful soul before it could enter Heaven, purgatory presented a problem: how to align earthly time within a waiting-room into the eternal after the specified duration of a soul’s sentence has been carried out challenged the Church?

First, Catholicism long defined purgatory as “a physical place of real, not symbolic, suffering”. Second, it has been clarified in the post-Vatican II era as a condition, rather than a tangible state or site, of purification. Its position in the afterlife has been occluded. Growing up, I heard my family often urge us to “offer it up for the Poor Souls”. This notion captured the expectation one’s own sacrifices on Earth were transferred to the faithful departed. Over the past half-century, this concept has faded for the majority of Catholics now. Those who aim for an afterlife expect they’ll make it into Heaven, with little or no preliminary cleansing from sin.

A few Catholics try to remind others of the poor souls, who seem to have been placed there by a harsher, more judgmental, more sin-concerned Church than the one that has replaced it with cheerier assurances of divine love and God’s forgiveness. Pasulka investigates those today who revive apostolates aimed at succoring souls needing earthly assistance. She precedes this section with a detailed look at the one place where medieval Christians asserted an underground cave entering purgatory existed, Lough Derg in Ireland.

As a religious studies professor, Pasulka places the concrete manifestation of purgatory within what Pope Benedict elaborated in 2005 as a “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture”. Purgatory, facing nearly the same fate as the now-discarded otherworld of limbo, languishes.

The Vatican, stressing a “hermeneutic of renewal” as it reforms what it deems outmoded teaching and ritual, leaves those still believing in purgatory in a neglected niche. The bulk of this book explores these niches, as they were made real for believers in the past. These existed outside the official dogma dispensed by medieval and early-modern Rome. Whether purgatory was a literal fire or not, whether its punishments had to take place after death or during life, and the nature of the punishments as physical, mental, or spiritual were all left, in Pasulka’s narrative, open to conjecture. Pilgrims to Lough Derg flocked to a place where they could endure fasting, kneel on rough rocks, and cleanse themselves of their sins.

She diligently collates archival data and scholarship on this place. However, the experiences of the thousands who still make the “stations” on this small island in Donegal today gain far less attention. The narrative favors scrutiny of previous Lough Derg events, whereas the subtitle or her book promises a focus on “devotional and popular culture”. Her narrower perspective, dominated by Lough Derg’s history, does not provide the reader with enough instances of how purgatory’s physicality has emerged in the material practices of many Catholics, not only in Ireland but beyond, over the centuries. Instead, most of this book places Lough Derg within sectarian debates, within the Church, documented in periodicals between 1830 and 1920. These also influenced Protestant opponents.

An engaging look at the Museum of Purgatory in Rome, purporting to display proof of those who have received messages or encounters from the Poor Souls, prefaces the chapter about those desiring to revive attention to the plight of those left languishing. Pasulka summarizes a recent attempt to figure out how many of the departed need prayers. “The Mission to Empty Purgatory” uses calculations to tally how many remain in that purging place, and how many prayers are needed for their release. She adds: “The calculation also takes into consideration the number of future souls who will be in purgatory and publishes the number of prayers needed to account for the current birth rate.”

Here, the tone lightens. Pasulka speaks of those she interviews, and of her own uncanny brush with the inexplicable connected to her research. If more of this study could have been given over to contemporary attitudes towards purgatory, as it recedes from many memories, the narrative would have increased its relevance for today’s audience. Some typographic errors remain. The scope of this welcome view of a concept many Catholics once knew well and many non-Catholics once derided is narrower than the title promises.

Perhaps other academics or theologians will return to this subject, which reminds us of how many or how few Catholics nowadays counter the “anti-materialist bias” of the Church as they insist on the reality of relics, imagery, rituals, concrete structures, and empirical evidence to support their traditional beliefs in purgatory and the connection it has with life on Earth.

RATING 6 / 10