One controversial teaching of the Church is the doctrine of purgatory. Purgatory is the state in which a soul which has been redeemed by Christ and assured of a place in heaven is purified of the harm done to itself by its sin. Purgatory is the state in which, after having been judged, as Jesus put it, “you will never get out till you have paid the last penny” (Matthew 5:25-26).
The soul in purgatory is saved by the redeeming sacrifice of Jesus from the guilt and estrangement from God which its sins justly deserve. But, while the soul is redeemed from guilt, it is still imperfect, impure and unclean.
But nothing unclean shall enter [heaven] . . ..Revelation 21:27
The souls of the redeemed in purgatory still need to be sanctified and made perfect. Purgatory is the state where the damage to one’s soul or character from one’s sin (e.g., being a sensuous or an angry person) are cleansed away (i.e., purged as by fire) as they were meant to be by penances during one’s life.
(T)he work of each will come to light, for the Day will disclose it. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire (itself) will test the quality of each one’s work. If the work stands that someone built upon the foundation, that person will receive a wage. But if someone’s work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire.1 Corinthians 3:13-15
The prayers and sufferings of Christians in the Body of Christ can help heal the spiritual hurt that others suffer.
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church.Colossians 1:24
Paul is not saying that Jesus did not suffer enough on the cross. Instead, he is saying that the Church, the body of Christ, needs to suffer the afflictions which purify it through Christ’s total suffering. Paul is able to make up for the sufferings that other members of the body of Christ still need to endure. He rejoices in what he suffers for the sake of others.
Our ability in this life to help make up for the sufferings lacking in the Body of Christ applies even to those souls who are suffering the purification of purgatory. The Scripture that most clearly attests to this continuous tradition of the Church is just as controversial as the tradition itself, for it is contained in one of the books of the Greek Old Testament that was rejected by Martin Luther and Protestants in the 16th century. Judas Maccabeus, upon discovering that his slain soldiers had been wearing forbidden amulets of idols, “prayed that their sin might be fully blotted out” and had a sacrifice offered in Jerusalem on their behalf.
In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection of the dead in view; for if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore, he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.2 Maccabees 12:43-45
Only Christ’s sacrifice atones for the guilt of a person’s sin and restores that person to God’s grace and life; only through Christ is anyone saved. But through our prayers, sacrifices and sufferings, we can make atonement for the harmful effects other people’s sins have had on them and on the world. We can do this for others in this life, as Paul did, or we can make up for the afflictions they lack as they are purified after death in purgatory.
For more on the Catholic teaching on purgatory, see All Souls Day and Why There Is Purgatory (and Indulgences)