Purgatory Explained, Part 1, Chapter 22

Saint Robert BellarmineArticle

Duration of Purgatory – Opinions of the Doctors – Bellarmine – Calculations of Father Mumford

Faith does not teach us the precise duration of the pains of Purgatory. We know in general that they are measured by Divine Justice, and that for each one they are proportioned to the number and gravity of the faults which he has not yet expiated. God may, however, without prejudice to His Justice, abridge these sufferings by augmenting their intensity; the Church Militant also may obtain their remission by the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and other suffrages offered for the departed.

According to the common opinion of the doctors, the expiatory pains are of long duration. “There is no doubt,” says Bellarmine (De Gemitu, lib. 2, c. 9), “that the pains of Purgatory are not limited to ten and twenty years, and that they last in some cases entire centuries. But allowing it to be true that their duration did not exceed ten or twenty years, can we account it as nothing to have to endure for ten or twenty years the most excruciating sufferings without the least alleviation? If a man was assured that he should suffer some violent pain in his feet, or his head, or teeth for the space of twenty years, and that without ever sleeping or taking the least repose, would he not a thousand times rather die than live in such a state? And if the choice were given to him between a life thus miserable and the loss of all his temporal goods, would he hesitate to make the sacrifice of his fortune to be delivered from such a torment? Shall we then find any difficulty in embracing labor and penance to free ourselves from the sufferings of Purgatory? Shall we fear to practice the most painful exercises: vigils, fasts, almsgiving, long prayers, and especially contrition, accompanied with sighs and tears?”

These words comprise the whole doctrine of the saints and theologians.

Father Mumford of the Company of Jesus, in his Treatise on Charity towards the Departed, bases the long duration of Purgatory on a calculation of probability, which we shall give in substance. He goes out on the principle that, according to the words of the Holy Ghost, The just man falls seven times a day (Prov . 24:16), that is to say, that even those who apply themselves most perfectly to the service of God, notwithstanding their good will, commit a great number of faults in the infinitely pure eyes of God. We have but to enter into our own conscience, and there analyze before God our thoughts, our words, and works, to be convinced of this sad effect of human misery, Oh! how easy it is to lack respect in prayer, to prefer our ease to the accomplishment of duty, to sin by vanity, by impatience, by sensuality, by uncharitable thoughts and words, by want of conformity to the will of God! The day is long; is it very difficult for even a virtuous person to commit, I do not say seven, but twenty or thirty of this kind of faults and imperfections?

Let us take a moderate estimate, and suppose that you commit about ten faults a day; at the end of 365 days you will have the sum of 3,650 faults. Let us diminish, and, to facilitate the calculation, place it at 3,000 per year. At the end of ten years this will amount to 30,000, and at the end of twenty years to 60,000. Suppose that of these 60,000 faults you have expiated one half by penance and good works, there will still remain 30,000 to be atoned for.

Let us continue our hypothesis: You die after these twenty years of virtuous life, and appear before God with a debt of 30,000 faults, which you must discharge in Purgatory. How much time will you need to accomplish this expiation? Suppose, on an average, each fault requires one hour of Purgatory. This measure is very moderate, if we judge by the revelations of the saints; but at any rate this will give you a Purgatory of 30,000 hours. Now do you know how many years these 30,000 hours represent? Three years, three months, and fifteen days. Thus a good Christian who watches over himself, who applies himself to penance and good works, finds himself liable to three years, three months, and fifteen days of Purgatory.

The preceding calculation is based on an estimate which is lenient in the extreme. Now, if you extend the duration of the pain, and, instead of an hour, you take a day for the expiation of a fault; if, instead of having nothing but venial sins, you bring before God a debt resulting from mortal sins, more or less numerous, which you formerly committed; if you assign, on the average, as Saint Frances of Rome says, seven years for the expiation of one mortal sin, remitted as to the guilt, who does not see that we arrive at an appalling duration and that the expiation may easily be prolonged for many years, and even for centuries?

Years and centuries of torments! Oh! if we only thought of it, with what care should we not avoid the least faults! with what fervor should we not practice penance to make satisfaction in this world!

MLA Citation