I have told this story a few different times, so bear with me if you have heard it before. A while ago, I was called to visit someone in the hospital. I did not know the person beforehand, so we spent some time getting to know one another. One subject that came up (as it often does in hospital visits) is life after death. When I mentioned the subject of purgatory, the patient said, "I thought the Church didn't teach that anymore". Surprised at this comment, I asked where he had heard that. For the sake of propriety, I will only say I was saddened by his answer.
Purgatory; I have written about it many times before (and not just because I am a former protestant), but it bears repeating because this doctrine touches so many areas of our faith. Purgatory is a favorite doctrine to hate among our protestant brethren, and it is an often misunderstood doctrine among Catholics. Yet, the Church still teaches it (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 1031), and we are supposed to believe it. It was the subject of my homily just this morning for All Souls Day Mass.
We are not, however, just supposed to "tolerate" the doctrine of purgatory. We are supposed to take comfort in it. Let me make a comparison. There are many things that people have to tolerate in this life: chemotherapy, root canal surgery, and Lima beans (maybe that last one is just me). Do we, though, tolerate being healed? Do we tolerate being loved? Do we tolerate receiving a wanted gift? Of course not, because those things bring us joy. Likewise, the process of purgatory is designed to bring us joy; the joy of eternal blessings that come after the process is finished.
The process of purgation is what purgatory is all about. It is not a place (contrary to common representations) so much as an event or an experience. The purging of our unhealed sins is something that God provides for our good. It is comparable to a host providing soap so that the guests can wash their hands before a meal. After all, he wants us to be with Him, and that can only happen if our sins are properly "purged" from us. Either we purge them here in this life, or they will need to be purged after if we wish to spend eternity with our Lord. Those who are able to purge themselves of their sins in this life will not need purgatory, certainly, but there is only one Virgin Mary; the rest of us need at least some purging.
Imagine with me for just a moment what it would be like if there were no purgatory. There are only two options with this speculation. The first option is, the faithful departed (who still need some sins to be purged) "go to Heaven" and are told by the angels, "come right in, there's no need to purge the rest of those sins because dying gives you a free ticket to eternal bliss" (i.e. you never had to repent of the other sins either since they all just get "ignored/erased" once you died, which also means that God is not concerned much about justice).
The second option is, the faithful departed (who still need some sins to be purged) "go to Heaven" and are told by the angels, "sorry bud, I know you were devout in your faith and tried to repent of all your sins, but God never came up with a means after you die to help you to deal with those sins that you had a harder time with, so you're condemned to Hell for all eternity". Quite a fairly pitiful view of things, is it not?
The first option is basically the protestant view of Heaven, and the second option is no one's view (that I know of). The second is, however, the only other possibility if purgatory is not a reality. What a blessing it is to know that God loves us enough to make sure that we have a means to overcome those sins that we were not able to rid from our souls in this life. What a blessing to know that if we remain faithful to Him, and are consistent in our efforts to repent of our sins and grow in our love for God and neighbor, that God is gracious enough to reward us with His mercy. What a blessing Purgatory is. You do not want to be caught dead without it!