Question: When a person dies, if he has been baptized and is in the state of grace, will his soul go directly to Heaven, or will it first go to Purgatory? How and when will a soul in Purgatory get to Heaven? How does praying for the souls in Purgatory help them? How long? How many prayers does it take for a specific soul to be taken to Heaven? (D.C.)
Question: How can there be fire or any other physical punishment in Purgatory if the souls there are without bodies? (A.H.)
Question: Why do we never hear about praying for the souls in hell? Shouldn't we pray for them, at least out of charity? (S.B.)
An important source of Catholic teaching on the fate of the dead is found in the letter of Benedict XII, entitled "Benedictus Deus."
In the usual providence of God the souls of all the faithful who died after receiving the holy baptism of Christ ... provided that they had no need of purification at the time of their death, [or] after they have been purified after death ... all these souls soon after their death and, in the case of those needing it, after the purification We have mentioned, have been, are, and will be in heaven, in the kingdom of heaven and the celestial paradise with Christ, joined to the company of the holy angels... even before these souls take up their bodies again and the general judgment..... they ... see the divine essence....
A Christian may require "purification" either because he died in the state of relatively minor sin, or because justice requires punishment for the sins already forgiven. We speak of "the temporal punishment due to sin," which remains even after a good and sincere Sacramental Confession. Such punishment may be remitted in whole or in part by performing penance, doing good works, or obtaining an indulgence. We know that purification is possible after death, as the Scriptures speak of "pray[ing] for the dead that they may be loosed from sins," and record our Lord's words about certain sins "which shall not be forgiven neither in this world, nor in the world to come," implying that some sins are forgiven in the next world. The place of this purification or purgation is, of course, called "Purgatory."
The purification of Purgatory is twofold. In the case of venial sinners, the purification might be thought of as primarily an "attitude adjustment," in that sin is a turning away from the will of God. The soul is allowed to see the necessity of conforming to God's will and the damage that is done by turning away. Ultimately, the will of the holy soul becomes one with the will of God. There is also the purification from the temporal punishment due to sin.
It is very likely that in Purgatory there is no passage of time as we understand it. At least in the earthly sense, time requires the material dimensions which don't exist in the realm of pure spirit. Therefore, at least from the perspective of its inhabitants, we cannot speak of spending a certain number of years in Purgatory.
God hears the prayers of His people. Those on Earth, the "Church Militant," and those in Heaven, the "Church Triumphant," can beg His clemency on behalf of those in Purgatory, the "Church Suffering." In granting indulgences, the Catholic Church offers to God the super-abundant merits of our Lord, our Lady, and all the saints in lieu of the punishment due to sin. She can forgive the sins of the living directly, for they are within Her jurisdiction on Earth -- but She offers them for the dead only by way of sufferage, leaving it in hands of God to determine the degree to which they will be applied for the suffering souls. Thus, a plenary indulgence gained for a living person wipes out all of that person's temporal punishment due to sin, but the same indulgence gained for one departed is of underermined benefit. For this reason, we continue to offer Masses and gain indulgences for our departed loved ones as frequently as possible. Apart from canonization, we have no sure way of knowing when someone has been liberated from Purgatory.
The nature of the Punishment in Purgatory is not known with precision. It cannot be physical in nature as the dead will not be reunited with their bodies until the Day of Judgement, when Purgatory will cease ot exist. But pain and the power of correction are just as real when experienced by the will and the intellect as when undergone by the body. The anguish of remorse is felt without lashes across the back or the burning of the flesh. Private revelations concerning Purgatory often describe the punishments as though they were physical, but such descriptions are the result of human limitations in understanding non-bodily pain. The one revealing knows the inability of man to understand. The one receiving the revelation fills in what he cannot understand from his earthly experiences. And, of course, not all private revelations are genuine.
To say the least, Purgatory will not be a pleasant experience, even though the souls there know infallibly that one day they will begin eternity in Heaven. It is not to be desired, it being much better to avoid sin and expiate punishment under the more favorable circumstances of this earthly life.
Prayer for someone in hell would serve no purpose. The punishment of hell is perpetual, and not subject to mitigation through our efforts. Likewise, prayer for those in heaven can do nothing for them, for their eternal beatitude is already under way.
According to the general decree of God, the souls of those who die in actual mortal sin go down into hell soon after their death, and there suffer the pains of hell.
"[Christ] will come at the end of the world; He will judge the living and the dead; and He will reward all, both the lost and the elect, according to their works, whether good or bad; the wicked, a perpetual punishment with the devil; the good, eternal glory with Christ."
While we know that some souls are condemned to hell, in the practical order of things we have no way of knowing just which ones. There is, in fact, no one that we can name and state with certainty that he is in hell. It is reasonable, then, to pray even for those whom we know to have lived a very evil life and who seem not to have repented before death. We have no right and lack the ability to judge the dispositions of others. One could therefore pray for the repose of the soul of Judas Iscariot or Josef Stalin.
In the same way, one who appeared to live a very holy life may or may not be in heaven. Apart from one who has been canonized, we have no means of knowing. Appearances can be deceiving, so even for the very holy, we should still pray to God.
Prayer is not wasted. If a particular person is unable to benefit from our prayers, we may be sure that God will distribute their benefits where they will do the most good. If we inadvertently pray for someone already in heaven, it is reasonable to assume that our prayers will also redound to our own good, for those in heaven are saints of God and will intercede for us before His throne.
We do have an obligation to pray for the dead. Our prayers may not be helpful in some cases, but that is no reason to stop praying, or to exclude particular persons from them.
On the Day of Judgment, all men will appear with their bodies before the tribunal of Christ to render an account of their personal deeds, that "each one may receive what he has won through the body, whether good or evil" (II Cor. 5:10).