We recently celebrated All Souls Day, in which we prayed for all the faithful departed to be released from purgatory and brought into the presence of God in Heaven. Yet belief in purgatory has fallen on hard times in recent decades. Of course Protestants reject this doctrine, but also many (most?) Catholics manifest practical disbelief of it. After all, at most Catholic funerals the deceased is canonized, assumed already to be “looking down on us” and happy in Heaven, in spite of the likelihood that most people who die in the state of grace will face a stay in purgatory.
Why has purgatory been forgotten by Catholics? Because we minimize two things: the severity of our sins and the holiness of God. A single venial sin that’s unconfessed or any sin that’s not been recompensed bars a person from the presence of the All-Holy God. When Isaiah had his vision of God on his throne in Heaven, he immediately exclaimed, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Is 6:5). Isaiah instinctively understood that a sinful man was not worthy to stand in the presence of God. Why? Because, as he heard the angels sing, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts!” (Is 6:3). God is holy, which means He is set apart from sinful humanity.