After we die, we will immediately come before Jesus for our particular judgement. All of the good and all of the evil will be laid out on the table and our fate will be determined: the glory of Heaven or the fires of Hell. If it be Heaven, please God let it be so, the next step will be to assess our level of perfection; for in order to come face-to-face before God, there can be no evil, not even a spec. For some, the saints, they have attained this level of perfection by the end of their lives and can proceed straight to Heaven. For others, they will need to undergo a final process of purification first so that they can then enter into Heaven. At the end of the particular judgement, the length and degree of purification is set, with each process unique to the individual soul and it’s needs.
Left to themselves, these souls will undergo the full process of purification with everything that it entails. Reflecting on this purification, one saint wrote that because of the intensity and precision one day in purgatory is more painful than a lifetime of suffering on earth. Of course, this is mitigated to some degree by the joy of knowing that Heaven is just around the corner. But the incredible thing is that these souls need not be left to themselves. By joining them in prayer we can shorten and lighten their process of purification. This is why it is so important to pray for the dead, because we can speed their journey through purgatory to their greatest longing, which is to be in Heaven with God.
Praying for the dead is one of the great acts of charity. Sure, no one really notices. Sure, we won’t receive great compliments or thanks in this life. But we can be sure, when we pass on from this life having prayed for the dead that a crowd of the most grateful souls will be waiting on the other side. By our prayers we helped them get to God quicker, and when someone is that close, every day, every hour, every minute and second feels like an eternity.
For more information on Purgatory, check out the following items:
Compendium to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
210. What is purgatory?
Purgatory is the state of those who die in God’s friendship, assured of their eternal salvation, but who still have need of purification to enter into the happiness of heaven.
211. How can we help the souls being purified in purgatory?
Because of the communion of saints, the faithful who are still pilgrims on earth are able to help the souls in purgatory by offering prayers in suffrage for them, especially the Eucharistic sacrifice. They also help them by almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance.
Cardinal Arinze’s Explanation of Purgatory
Pope Benedict’s Reflection of Purgatory and St. Catherine of Genoa