Fr. Kenneth Doyle
Fr. Kenneth Doyle
Q. My mother passed away some time ago, and I wonder whether she is now in “God’s eternal embrace.” How can I be sure?

She was a good mother and she dearly loved the church, but we have been taught that everyone has some imperfections and, upon death, must be sent to purgatory before they can enjoy heaven. I would rest more easily if I knew that my mother were not suffering any longer. (Forest, Virginia)

A. The church does not teach that everyone who dies must necessarily pass through purgatory before reaching heaven.

As a matter of fact, the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” says specifically that the punishment due for venial sins can be meted out “either here on earth, or after death” (No. 1472). It goes on to say that “fervent charity can attain the complete purification of the sinner in such a way that no punishment would remain.”

Even for those who must undergo some punishment after death — which, I would think, includes most of us — we have no idea as to just what purgatory involves or how long it lasts. (It could even be instantaneous.)

So even though you cannot have infallible certitude that your mother is already in heaven, she may well be. Jesus said in Matthew’s Gospel, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (7:21); since your mother, in your words, was a good mother and loved the church dearly, she obviously tried to do what the Lord asked of her.

But I would play it safe and keep praying for her nonetheless; praying for the dead is a sacred and long-held practice that even predates the church — in the Old Testament (2 Mc 12:46) Judas Maccabeus “made atonement for the dead” that they might be delivered from their sin.

The writer is based in Albany, N.Y. Questions for him can be submitted at, or emailed directly to