Many Catholics do not consider the existence of Purgatory. This is due mainly to a poor understanding of this doctrine. It is thought that after death one goes either directly to Heaven or Hell. Those who do understand Purgatory believe that it is very difficult if not impossible to avoid it. Fortunately, Our Lord has provided the means to bypass Purgatory and go straight to Heaven.
The reason why Purgatory exists is that in order to go to Heaven, we must be perfectly free of sin since “nothing unclean will enter it” (Revelation 21:27). Every sin that is committed leaves a stain of sin that remains even after we repent and receive forgiveness from it. The first and most important way to avoid Purgatory is to deal with its primary cause, that is, sin. It is sin that stains our souls and this stain must be removed before we can enter Heaven.
There are two types of sin, venial and mortal. They are mentioned in 1 John 5:17, “all wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not deadly”. The sins that are not deadly are venial. They are minor offenses against God that do not destroy the relationship with Him but can lead to related mortal sins if they continue without repentance. Many people do not consider the consequences of minor (venial) sins. After all, a small lie or distasteful joke won’t prevent you from entering Heaven, right? Even venial sins stain the soul. These stains will keep us in Purgatory until they are fully expiated because “you will not get out until you have paid the last penny” (Matthew 5:25). There are also degrees of venial sins. A sin that occurs due to habit is worse than one that happens due to a moment of weakness. The other sin, mortal, destroys the relationship with God and will lead to eternal separation from Him unless an act of contrition occurs.
Three requirements must be met for a sin to be mortal. The sin must be of a serious nature, the individual needs to be knowledgeable that the sin is serious, and the individual must have the free will to commit the sin. If venial sins cause us to spend some time in Purgatory, mortal sins require a much greater purgatorial expiation. Why is this so severe? Considering that a single mortal sin can cause one to lose their salvation, this would be understandable why a great penance is needed. When sins occurs, it needs to be forgiven. We can confess our sins directly to Jesus or we can confess our sins to Jesus through a priest. Why go to a priest to confess sin? After all, why not save yourself the embarrassment and confess to God privately? Jesus gave priests the authority to forgive sins, “if you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you retain anyone’s sins, they are retained” (John 20:23).
In addition to having our sins forgiven by confessing to a priest, the priest can advise us how to avoid committing the same sin again in the future. You would not get this sort of guidance through private confession to God. Once sin is forgiven, the stain of that sin remains on the soul. This stain needs to be removed in order to go to Heaven. We can purify our souls while on earth through penance, or we can do it painfully in Purgatory. When sin is confessed to a priest, a penance is given appropriate to the magnitude of the sin. This is another reason why frequent confession is beneficial. The act of penance leads to an indulgence. This is what actually removes the punishment due to sin.
An indulgence can either be partial (only part of the punishment is removed) or plenary (all of the punishment is removed). The majority of indulgences are partial since plenary ones are difficult to obtain. This is because they require the Sacrament of Reconciliation (or confession to a priest), Holy Communion needs to be received, and a prayer for the Pope’s intention (this can be an Our Father and a Hail Mary). No sin can be committed during this process or the indulgence will become partial.
A very good way to avoid Purgatory is to help those who are imprisoned there. The Holy Souls are aware of who prays for them and what role they played in lessening their time in Purgatory. Once they are released into Heaven, they pray constantly for the salvation of their greatest friends who helped them. Your time in Purgatory can be lessened if not eliminated by dedicating yourself to free the suffering saints.
One great thing that can be done for them is to offer the indulgences from all of your prayers with the Heroic Act of Charity. The final sacrament one receives, the Sacrament of Extreme Unction, can eliminate all of the time spent in Purgatory. The best thing that one can do with this sacrament is to offer it to the Holy Souls. Such a great deed would no doubt be repaid in a much greater way than if used for one’s personal needs.