The Church Penitent: 10 Interesting Facts about Dante’s Purgatorio

by Shelli M. Tomacruz

Growing up, I was bombarded with ideas about Purgatory. Many sent shivers up my spine. When I finally read Dante’s Divine Comedy, the book that fueled the imaginations of many about the afterlife, I learned many interesting things, among them the following:

1. Purgatory is an actual place. Dante believed that Mt. Purgatorio is in the South Pole.

2. Giant angels welcome the dead souls. The souls are transported by boat, propelled forward only by the breeze of a giant angel’s wings.

3. St. Peter greets them. Dante did not think St. Peter greeted souls in Heaven (there are no gates there), but in Purgatory, where he unlocks the gates with the two keys of discernment and absolution.

4. St. Peter and the soul analyze life. St Peter stays with the soul for an analysis of how well life was lived. The soul feels remorse for sins committed.

5. The souls want to be remembered. Time spent in Purgatory is the time to reflect on life, to remember everyone left behind.

6. The souls want to be prayed for. Time in Purgatory goes more swiftly when the souls are remembered and prayed for.

7. The souls pray for each other. In the Communion of Saints, all souls pay for each other: the church militant (Earth) prays for the church penitent (Purgatory), who prays for the church triumphant (Heaven), who prays for the church militant. All souls constantly pray for each other.

8. They sing songs and tell stories. The souls are singing, praying, and telling stories. They rejoice when a soul leaves for Heaven.

9. The souls embrace their suffering. It is not the case that souls spending their time in Purgatory contemplating sins are suffering but actually they are not. The soul embraces the cleansing process and longs to be purged and go to Heaven.

10. The most interesting fact of Dante’s Purgatory is that no one keeps a soul there. There is no prescribed amount of time a soul has to stay. It is the soul’s desire alone to be purged and cleansed of sin and ascend to Heaven. The soul cannot proceed to Heaven impure, so the soul stays until he/she feels worthy of facing God in Paradiso.

The Divine Comedy is a fictional masterpiece that provides a whimsical and poetic, if somewhat theologically loose vision of Purgatory, but it is a useful metaphor to contrast it to the other states of the Communion of Saints. Purgatory teaches more about the living than the dead. It is about a community of souls who help and pray and lighten the burden each carries.

As published in the November 13 issue of the Parish Bulletin.