Explaining Purgatory to Children

All Saints All Souls Rosary Saints

By Colleen Pressprich

November is the month that we as Catholics set aside to pray for the dead. More specifically, we are praying for the souls in Purgatory. It’s a word that most, if not all, Catholics are familiar with, but one that some might be hard-pressed to explain, especially to children.

Here’s some information that might help you to teach your children about this very important doctrine:

What does the Church say?

When a person dies, their body is buried, but their soul goes to one of three destinations: Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory. Heaven is eternal glory, Hell is eternal damnation, but Purgatory is a temporary state instead of a final destination.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that Purgatory is “purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven,” and is experienced by those “who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified” (CCC 1030).

In other words, what the Catechism is saying is that not everyone who dies does so in a state that they are immediately ready to enter Heaven. We have, all of us, sinned over the course of our lives, and so even though we may have gone to confession and received forgiveness, we still bear the residue of that sin on our soul. Often likened to a refining fire, Purgatory is where that residue is removed.

Furthermore, the Church tells us that souls in Purgatory are not able to pray for themselves. This means when someone dies, it is incredibly important to pray for their soul. We, the Church here on earth, can offer up our prayers to speed up their Purgatory time.

Okay, so how do we explain this to kids?

When I explain this to my kids, I use a metaphor that they can understand: I ask them what would happen if they snuck into the freezer and ate an entire container of ice cream even though they weren’t supposed to. They usually respond that Mom would get mad (spoiler alert: that is accurate!). They then tell me that they would apologize, and I say that I would forgive them.

But then I ask them how would they feel after eating so much? At least one of them usually realizes that they would have a stomachache if they ate that much ice cream. And so, I ask if my forgiving them would make the stomachache go away, which of course it wouldn’t. The stomachache is a natural consequence of a poor choice – just like Purgatory time is the natural consequence of sin. We can’t make it go away simply by asking for forgiveness. It takes time.

So what do we do next?

This part is easy: We pray. There are so many ways that we can pray for the souls in Purgatory. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Stop at a cemetery during the month of November and let your kids each choose a headstone. Read the name inscribed and say a prayer for that person.
  • Have a Mass said in honor of family members who have passed away at your local parish. Make sure to be in attendance and make it a special occasion to remember them – maybe go out to breakfast after and share your favorite memories.
  • Say the rosary for the souls of the departed at your parish.
  • Say a Hail Mary each time you drive past a cemetery.
  • Write the names of the recently deceased in your family in your parish’s Book of the Names of the Dead: Each parish has one, and each year it is displayed in the Church during the month of November.

Purgatory can be a difficult concept to understand for children, so as always, explaining it in an age-appropriate way and offering a “tangible” way to participate (i.e. through prayer!) can help to make this topic one that your Domestic Church can embrace and live out.





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  • Olga Hernandez on

    Thank you so much you reflexion and ideas about purgatory are very helpful, because this topic is hard to explain to the littles, may my Lord bless you.

  • Christina on

    Thanks for these ideas!

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