One of the best parts of my time as a seminarian-intern at Immaculate Heart of Mary parish in Watervliet in 2008-09 was the chance to participate in the RCIA process with the catechumens and candidates.

RCIA, or the Rite of Christian Intiation of Adults, prepares those choosing to join the Catholic Church: candidates, from other Christian denominations, and catechumens, from non-Christian faiths or no religious background.

In our weekly adult education sessions, all of us - cradle Catholics and new candidates alike - learned new things about our faith.

We said again and again how fruitful it would be for every Catholic to go through the RCIA process and have a change to process lessons as adults that many of us learned as youngsters in Catholic schools or CCD programs, before we could appreciate the real value of what we were learning.

Our ancient faith contains so much, it's hard to know and understand it all.

Topics often come up in seminary classes that are familiar but somewhat foggy. I may vaguely remember my grandmother talking about them or have distant memories of Sunday School lessons, but I falter on the specifics.

Purgatory is a topic that falls into this category.

During the general intercessions at daily Mass this summer, one parishioner prayed every day for "All the holy souls in purgatory." Since second grade, I could tell you that purgatory is one of the three places where we could end up when we die - and I don't know any Catholic who hasn't prayed for their deceased loved ones.

But it wasn't until I studied about purgatory as an adult in the seminary that it started to make sense to me beyond my childhood concept of it being an unpleasant place I probably had to visit, but would certainly want to depart ASAP.

Pope Benedict XVI talked about purgatory publicly during his Jan. 12 general audience at the Vatican this year. He shattered the common misconception that purgatory is a place were we go: It's not a place at all, but a process that we will undergo to purify and prepare us to encounter the inconceivable source of love, light and life that is God in heaven.

Seeing God face-to-face requires us to drop anything that would be contrary to perfect love. Since we all have habits and attitudes that are opposed to God's perfection, we need to "scrub ourselves clean," before we can handle heaven.

Purgatory might better be called by its other name, "purgation" - which reminds us that, according to the mystic visions of St. Catherine of Genoa, it is a sort of "inner fire" which burns in us. This is not to cause us pain, but to melt away our impurities.

This perspective was new to most of us seminarians, despite the face that it is contained in the "Catechism of the Catholic Church" and that we had all spent our lives believing in purgatory - just not understanding it very well.

This fuller understanding has implications for what we are doing when we pray for those in purgatory. If it's not a place, we're not praying for them to be permitted to leave a location. And if it's not a prison sentence, we're not asking God to let our loved ones out early.

As my theological anthropology professor put it, if purgatory is purification process, we certainly don't want God to "go easy on us."

We need God to fully purify us; to go all the way and not leaven any of the crusted-on, hardened sin that keeps us from being ready to be in eternal union with the God who made us, loves us and saved us.

Even better, the Pope says, St. Catherine's vision indicates that we don't have to wait until we die to begin purgation. Our sincere love for God and desire to be converted to the Gospel way of life "itself becomes a flame; love itself cleanses [the soul] from the residue of sin."

The news about purgatory is good: God not only wants to be united with us in eternity, but is going to help prepare us for it.

Just like at those RCIA meetings, seminary demonstrates to me every day the power of adult education to uplift, encourage and build faith. My deep appreciation goes out to you, the faithful of the Diocese of Albany, whose financial sacrifices are educating me and whose investment will one day, God willing, bring me home as another priest to serve God through you.

(Scott VanDerveer is a seminarian studying for the priesthood for the Diocese)

This is part of The Evangelist's ongoing series of reports from diocesan seminarians on their studies, work and development. To read previous installments, go to and search for "seminarian diary."