Purgatory is a concept in Roman Catholic doctrine. It is a place where the soul is purified or purged of venial sin. According to Catholic scripture and catechism, souls spend time in purgatory after they die before being able to enter Heaven. Roman Catholic dogma is not specific on the amount of time spent there or if it has a physical location as well as a spiritual one.
The idea of Purgatory is rooted in Catholic doctrine that no individual is free of sin. Even the soul of a righteous individual cannot be considered entirely clean to the commission of small, or venial, sins over his or her lifetime. Catholics believe that it is not possible to go before God if an individual is unclean. Therefore, Catholics who need remaining purification before coming before God must spend time in Purgatory.
Venial sins are not as severe as mortal sins, although repeated venial sinning can lead to mortal sins. A venial sin is defined as a slight break with God's law. Usually venial sins are thoughtless, rather than deliberately malicious. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that God is capable of forgiving venial sinners. This means that those who have committed venial sins can still find grace.
Purgatory is mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, which dictate a period of reflection for the soul which is necessary after death. Even the Elect, which are individuals chosen to go to Heaven, must go through this purification process. It is suggested that doing penance and prayer while on Earth may reduce the amount of time spent there.
Many religions believe that prayers for the dead help souls transition more quickly through temporary locations such as Purgatory. In the Catholic church, a period of mourning and prayer for the dead is an important part of the funeral process. It is believed that people in Purgatory are helped by the prayers of the people they knew and loved in life.
Although not specifically mentioned in the Bible, some think that it is implied that Purgatory contains a cleansing fire which is designed to burn away impurities of the soul. It should not be confused with Hell, which is eternal and has a myriad of punishments for sinners. This fire encourages the separation of the soul from the demands of the body. According to Thomas Aquinas, the pain felt during cleansing will be a “punishment by corporal fire” which will test the limits of the soul.