Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Why purgatory is no laughing matter

With Eileen to a Catholic memorial mass marking the anniversary of the death of a neighbour in these parts, whom I'll call John. At the start of the service the canon announced that we were here to pray for the repose of John’s soul. Later, he remarked on the size of the congregation, how many friends John had, and how pleased John would be to see us all here tonight. He was sure John was smiling down on us all from heaven. A comforting image for anyone which can bring themselves to believe in such things.

Comforting but false. False in any event by the lights of the Catholic church. For according to Catholic doctrine, [1] John is not in heaven. He is atoning for his sins in purgatory whence he will be elevated to heaven at the last trump.  Which is why we were all supposed be praying for his soul. Why after all pray for John’s soul if he is in heaven already?

As the canon drove off afterwards I tapped on his car window and said I needed to have a theological discussion with him sometime. This is all good fun and he will take it in the spirit in which it’s intended. Next day we went round for dinner at the house of a devout Catholic couple who were also at the service, and I decided to defy Eileen’s ban on me talking religion, and sport with them on this theme of priests glossing over the existence of purgatory.

Needless anxiety

And then, thankfully, the conversation changed, giving me chance to reflect. And I abandoned my plan. Because actually that would be a rather cruel sort of sport, would it not.  If as a faithful Catholic you are comforted by the belief that your departed mother and father are already in heaven, who am I to cause needless anxiety, just for the sake of airing a bit of knowledge.

Dante poised between the mountain
of purgatory and the city of Florence
Domenico di Michelino's
painting, Florence 1465
A N Wilson [2] says most Catholics (even though they may not be aware of it) get their idea of purgatory from the 14th century poet Dante, not from the church. Purgatory had been invented only 50 years before Dante wrote, says Wilson, and Pope Boniface VIII (who Wilson suggests may have been an atheist) raked in the money by declaring 1300 the Holy Year and encouraging the faithful to come to Rome to pay for remission from their time in the newly invented arena of torment.

And when Wilson says rake in, he does mean rake in. Priests with rakes raked the gold coins off the altars.  

It's worth taking a close look at this pop-up of souls in purgatory from a French 15th century manuscript - some souls trapped in water, some in fire, and some rescued by angels. [4]

More painful than anything in this life

St Augustine described the cleansing fires of purgatory as more painful than anything a man can suffer in this life [3].  But this kind of talk is all a bit fruity for modern sensibilities, in recognition whereof Pope Benedict has recently described purgatory as like a purifying fire burning inside a person, a painful experience of regret for one’s sins.  

And in this short video the Pope doesn’t mention fire at all, the soul is purified by the love of God.

But still and all … whichever way you cut it purgatory isn’t for the faint hearted. On the whole I think Catholic priests are well advised to hide its existence from the faithful and confine it to seminaries.  The best way to keep a docile and contented congregation.

Though not all agree. A recent reader’s letter to the Irish Catholic deplored that most Catholics don’t understand purgatory. The writer has met Catholics who thought purgatory had been “done away with”, and others who’ve never heard of it. People praying at the graveside frequently say they are “just remembering their dearly departed.”

That's really all I want to say about purgatory. What follows is by way of a digression.

What of Judgement Day ?

Judgement Day: Christ separates the sheep
from the goats in an early
mosaic from Ravenna
Disappointingly something that the Catholic church does seem to have done away with, is Judgement Day. This is the day, or so I thought, that the Son of Man will return in glory to judge the quick and the dead, to separate the sheep from the goats. And when the faithful pray for departed souls, they are praying the souls will numbered amongst the sheep. Or maybe amongst the goats.

But it seems that somewhere along the line there has been an adjustment, and the Church’s current teaching no longer includes a universal day of judgement.  A person undergoes judgement immediately after death.  Saints go straight to heaven.  Out and out sinners go straight to hell.  The rest go to purgatory, from where eventual admission to heaven is guaranteed.  But first the stain of transgressions must be burnt away, and the soul purified.

Which leaves me wondering what exactly it is you're praying for, when you pray for the souls of the departed. Whole books have been written on the subject I'm told. But they will remain unread by me. The time available for pondering the doctrine of purgatory has now well and truly expired.

[1] For Catholic doctrine on purgatory,  see Catholic Encyclopedia  or for a shorter exposition  Reaching Catholics For Christ. For purgatory in other traditions see Wikipedia.

[2] A N Wilson on BBC’s Start the Week (4th July) talking about his book Dante in Love, 2011. 

[3] Search for "Pain and fire" in the Wikipedia article on purgatory.  Note conflict with Wilson’s statement that purgatory was invented in the 12th century

[4] "Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry", a book of hours, c. 1410.

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