Pope Explains Purgatory With Saint's Experience

Notes How Holiness Brings Knowledge of Faith’s Mysteries

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VATICAN CITY, JAN. 12, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Saints acquire such knowledge of God that they are a valuable aid to theologians in understanding the mysteries of the faith, says Benedict XVI, offering as an example the insights on purgatory gleaned by St. Catherine of Genoa.

The Pope spoke of the 16th-century saint today during the general audience in Paul VI Hall. Catherine (1447-1510), a married woman outstanding for her service to the sick, came to an understanding of purgatory through her own experience of sorrow for sin.

She was married at 16 and spent the first 10 years of her married life far from God in a way that left her “a feeling of profound emptiness and bitterness in her heart,” the Holy Father explained. But then, in 1473, she was given a “clear vision of her miseries and defects, and at the same time of the goodness of God.” 

“She was wounded in her heart by the knowledge of herself, of the life she led and of the goodness of God,” he said. “Born from this experience was the decision that oriented her whole life, which expressed in words was: ‘No more world, no more sin.'” 

Her conversion experience on that day in 1473 became the orientation for Catherine’s whole life, and the inspiration for her understanding of purgatory. 

The Pope emphasized that Catherine “never had specific revelations on purgatory or on souls that are being purified there;” nevertheless the theme was a central element in her writings, and her “way of describing [purgatory] has original characteristics in relation to her era.” 

Interior fire 

The first of these original features refers to understanding purgatory as an “interior fire,” rather than a physical place. 

“In her time [purgatory] was presented primarily with recourse to images connected to space,” the Pontiff said, “There was thought of a certain space where purgatory would be found. For Catherine, instead, purgatory is not represented as an element of the landscape of the core of the earth; it is a fire that is not exterior but interior. This is purgatory, an interior fire. The saint speaks of the soul’s journey of purification to full communion with God, based on her own experience of profound sorrow for the sins committed, in contrast to the infinite love of God.”

Hence, her understanding of purgatory was related to her own experience of God’s goodness, and “the infinite distance of her life from this goodness and a burning fire within her,” he noted. “And this is the fire that purifies, it is the interior fire of purgatory.”

This is another innovation for St. Catherine, the Pope said: “[O]ur saint begins from her own interior experience of her life on the path to eternity. The soul, says Catherine, appears before God still bound to the desires and the sorrow that derive from sin, and this makes it impossible for it to enjoy the Beatific Vision of God. Catherine affirms that God is so pure and holy that the soul with stains of sin cannot be in the presence of the Divine Majesty. And we also realize how far we are, how full we are of so many things, so that we cannot see God. The soul is conscious of the immense love and perfect justice of God and, in consequence, suffers for not having responded correctly and perfectly to that love, and that is why the love itself of God becomes a flame. Love itself purifies it from its dross of sin.” 

Benedict XVI also pointed out that Catherine’s profound mysticism never separated her from service to neighbor. 

“Dear friends,” he said, “we must not forget that the more we love God and are constant in prayer, the more we will truly love those who are around us, those who are close to us, because we will be able to see in every person the face of the Lord, who loves without limits or distinctions. Mysticism does not create distances with others; it does not create an abstract life, but brings one closer to others because one begins to see and act with the eyes, with the heart of God.” 

The Pope concluded by emphasizing the lessons to be drawn from St. Catherine: “With her life, St. Catherine teaches us that the more we love God and enter into intimacy with him in prayer, the more he lets himself be known and enkindles our heart with his love. Writing on purgatory, the saint reminds us of a fundamental truth of the faith that becomes for us an invitation to pray for the deceased so that they can attain the blessed vision of God in the communion of saints. 

“Moreover, the humble, faithful and generous service that the saint gave during her whole life in the hospital of Pammatone is a luminous example of charity for all and a special encouragement for women who give an essential contribution to society and to the Church with their precious work, enriched by their sensitivity and by the care of the poorest and neediest.” 

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Full text: www.zenit.org/article-31434?l=english

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