Thursday, 13 June 2013
Forgotten in Purgatory
Father Ignatius was in the back garden pruning the rose bushes whilst one of his parishioners was cleaning the pond and checking that the goldfish were in good health.
It was more to start a conversation than anything else when the parishioner asked: “Father … is it a sin to fear death?”
“That’s a strange question …” replied the priest, “what brought that on?”
“Well … it’s not so much death that I’m concerned about,” said the man, hesitating a little, “it’s what comes afterwards.”
“You’re concerned about Heaven?”
“No Father …” continued the man standing up from the pond and drying his hands on an old towel, “Purgatory … that’s the real problem.
“The Church tells us that our souls will go to Purgatory until they’re made clean of all sins.”
“Yes … that’s right …” said Father Ignatius stopping what he was doing for a moment.
“The way I see it …” said the man placing the old towel on one side, “we all have some sin or other on our conscience at any one time. So whenever we die not one of us will escape Purgatory. No matter how much I try … the chances are that I’ll die having committed some sin or other … and I’ll spend time in Purgatory.
“I don’t even know how long I’ll be there … it could be years … and I don’t like it.
“I’m not even sure what’s in Purgatory … is there a fire like in hell … only not as hot?”
Father Ignatius laughed.
“What’s so funny Father? What is in Purgatory anyway? It’s never quite explained in Catholic teaching; all I remember from my Catechism days is that it’s a place where we’re spiritually cleansed … sounds more like a car-wash to me!”
Father Ignatius smiled again. He stopped pruning the roses and sat down on a nearby chair.
“Jesus certainly told us about Heaven and hell … and He certainly described hell as a fiery place … but He never mentioned Purgatory,” said the priest cautiously.
“So it’s a Catholic invention then?” retorted the parishioner, “because I know that other Christian churches don’t teach about Purgatory or believe in it.”
Father Ignatius took off his glasses and cleaned imaginary specks of dust to gain some thinking time.
“You accept, do you not …” he asked eventually, “that after you’ve confessed your sins you should do a penance?”
“Yes … sure.”
“Well …” continued the priest, “those who die with sins on their soul, venial sins that is … have to go to Purgatory as a penance until they are spiritually cleansed. That’s what the Church teaches …
“The Catholic Church bases its teaching from Scripture. In Revelation Chapter 21 Verse 27 it says ‘Nothing unclean shall enter Heaven.’ So, strictly speaking, if we die with venial sins on our conscience we’re not spiritually cleaned … and that’s why we go to Purgatory.
“The belief in the existence of Purgatory goes back to the early Christians; and other Christian denominations, though not all, do also believe in such a place where souls go before they are ready to enter Heaven.
“As you know … we Catholics also believe that if we pray for the souls in Purgatory, or offer Mass for them, it shortens their stay there …”
“That’s exactly what I’m scared about Father …” interrupted the man somewhat agitated, “I have no family whatsoever … when I’m dead and gone I’ll be forgotten there in Purgatory for years on end … it’s just not fair!
“Having accepted that I’ll die with venial sins I’ll then spend time in Purgatory with no one praying for me or offering Mass for me … I just can’t escape the fact that I’ll end up in Purgatory … totally forgotten.”
Father Ignatius sympathized with the man and his fear of the after-life and what was in store for him there. He had to tread a thin line indeed between the teachings of his Church and the realities of life as he faced them right here and right now.
One of his parishioners believed so much in Catholic doctrine that it frightened him to death, almost literally so.
“Hey … don’t be scared …” he said gently, “let’s consider this a bit more …
“As I’ve explained, the belief in Purgatory and the need to purify our souls before we enter Heaven goes back to the early Church.
“Over the years … you can rest assured that many wise heads have pondered and argued about this time and again. And it is still a matter of contention between various denominations today … As you rightly say, some Christian denominations don’t believe in the existence of Purgatory as we Catholics do.
“Now … you wouldn’t expect me as a Catholic priest to tell you that Purgatory doesn’t exist … it’s all a Catholic invention … as you put it … would you?”
The man shook his head. “No Father!”
“Good … as a priest I can tell you what the Church teaches about Purgatory.
“But I can also tell you this … and I believe it because Jesus taught us so …” continued Father Ignatius gently.
“God our Creator loves us very much … so much so that He sent Jesus to die for us …
“Those who love God and believe in Jesus as His Son will certainly go to Heaven … as Jesus promised us so many times …
“God is a loving, forgiving Father whose wish is for us to be united with Him in Heaven.
“I don’t believe that He is so callous and uncaring that He’ll leave you forgotten in Purgatory for years on end … He loves you too much to forget about you.
“He knows your soul as well as He knows mine and everyone else’s. When we die He knows how pure we are; and He’ll decide when and how we will go to meet Him in Heaven.
“If there is such a place as Purgatory, or a means through which we have to be cleansed spiritually before we enter Heaven, God will make sure that this happens to us as is fitting and appropriate to our individual circumstances.
“So don’t fret so much about going to Purgatory but concentrate more on being at Peace with God. Trust Him to do the right thing.
“By all means, pray for those who died before you … put in a good word for them with our Lord …
“But most of all Trust Him to guide you and welcome you to Heaven rather than worry about how you’ll get there.”
The man nodded silently and continued cleaning the pond. Meanwhile, Father Ignatius prayed silently that the Church’s teachings serve to up-lift those put in its care rather than frighten them as in this case.