Purgatory is more a process of cleansing and preparation to enjoy the eternal banquet than a place of suffering. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: "All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven" (#1030). The Catechism then continues: "The Church gives the name purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent" (#1031).
Purgatory is linked to the idea of temporal punishment due to sin. Any sin continues to have negative consequences even after it is confessed and forgiven. If I murdered someone and was truly sorry before God, I could be forgiven, but my sorrow would not bring that person back to life. Sin has a life of its own, and that is one of life's hardest lessons. Once I commit a sin, it is no longer under my control. Unconfessed venial sins are cleansed in purgatory, which is not a scaled-down version of hell.
I could die having lived a good life but still having a moral blind spot or two. For example, if I couldn't stand people from Australia (not true!), I would need some purification before I would be ready for the eternal banquet where someone might greet me with "G'day, mate!" The Church does not understand purgatory as an opportunity to repent of mortal sins. Hell is still possible, though only God knows how many people may be there.
Father Leonard Foley, O.F.M., former editor of this publication, chose to end his classic book, Believing in Jesus: A Popular Overview of the Catholic Faith, with this Postscript: "A discussion of purgatory may seem a wry way to end a book on our life in Christ. But, as we saw, purgatory rests on a big if. There must be a period or process of purification if we need to be purified. It is possible that some persons are completely purified in this life. "So the present is purgatory too—adjective and noun. Being saved is being cleansed, liberated, raised up to the life of Jesus daily. Purification is the daily dying to whatever is selfish, untrue, un-Christlike, and daily being raised by him to a deeper sharing in his own life.
"We are called to be like persons in purgatory in one crucial way: We are trying to learn to say the last words of the Bible as they say them, with bursting desire. To say them with no lingering strains of selfishness, with no lack of trust, with our whole heart and soul, mind and strength: Come, Lord Jesus! (Revelation 22:20)."
St. Anthony Messenger, May 2010, Pg 49.