This week we had a good talk about purgatory.
I believe in purgatory for two reasons. The first is that in Heaven the souls are perfect, but at the moment of their death they were not perfect. There must be some process by which the imperfect soul becomes perfect.
The second I found easiest to explain in terms of my own family. I asked my little brother, Quiricus, to imagine that he was in the habit of throwing a tennis ball agaist the back wall of the house. My mother, Monica, warned him not to do so as there are two large windows which he could easily break. Obviously being in my family he ignored his mother (who often reminds us that she is not only all good and merciful but also all just) and continued throwing the ball. As Monica (who also informs me that she is omniscient) knew would happen, Quiricus broke a window. He came running back into the house, avoiding the miriad shards of glass strewn across the floor of the kitchen, in tears of contrition and said how sorry he was. Of course Monica, being all good and all merciful, forgave him at once. However, the window still had to be replaced, so the just thing to do was to dock Quiricus's pocket money till he'd paid for it. That, helps me understand purgatory and I think it made it plainer for Quiricus too.
I, however, do not believe in a purgatory based on temporal punishment. I can see that it can be a useful image to explain that greater sins need greater purification, but it doesn't make any sense to me. I had a latin teacher when I was little (it was that kind of school...) who described purgatory as a bath. A nice image for a nine year old, but I think that maybe Cardinal Ratzinger has greater insight into the issue than even she did.
The transforming "moment" of this encounter cannot be quantified by the measurements of earthly time. It is, indeed, not eternal but a transition, and yet trying to qualify it as of "short" or "long" duration on the basis of temporal measurements derived from physics would be naive and unproductive. The 'temporal measure' of this encounter lies in the unsoundable depths of existence, in a passing-over where we are burned ere we are transformed. To measure such "Existenzzeit", such an 'existential time,' in terms of the time of this world would be to ignore the specificity of the human spirit in its simultaneous relationship with, and differentation from, the world.
This is basically a reference to scholaticist thinking of "aeviternity", as opposed to the "time" we experience here and the "eternity" which is God's. An existential experience of the passage of being. The saints are not eternal because they were begotten and made and so there was a time when they were not existing. This does not negate the necessity of praying with the saints for those having that ultimate experience of enlightenment: I'll need all the help in heaven and earth that I can get if I ever get to see the face of God.