- In mid October, I concluded my 12 years as co-chair of the national Lutheran / Catholic Dialogue with the submission of the joint Report from Round XI “The Hope of Eternal Life.” While Lutherans tend to emphasize God’s mercy and to recall the indulgence abuses of the 16th century, Catholics accent the bond of baptized Christians across time and space as well as the fact that our prayers can benefit those not as yet sharing in final glory. We both agree on the need for some type of purgation in the transition from this age to the next. Martin Luther taught that it was acceptable to pray for the dead, but that it should not be done too often lest we sin against God’s mercy. Pope Benedict XVI once suggested that what Catholics call purgatory may be nothing more than an instantaneous encounter with the searing love of Christ which embraces us and purifies us forever. This description was warmly endorsed by the members of the Lutheran delegation! It is after all a process, not a place.
- At the end of October, I attended the 30th anniversary of Project RETURN, a local ministry dedicated to assisting those who are released from incarceration and in need of help to restart their lives again. Sr. Helen Prejean of “Dead Man Walking” fame spoke about the horrors of the death penalty and the Catholic case against it in our modern world. The possibility of genuine purifying repentance and renewal happens in prison, namely in daily life as well as in the next.
- In early November, I presided at the final corporate communion breakfast of the St. Jude League, a group of Catholic police and firefighters, who have been meeting regularly since 1937 to provide mutual support for a difficult, demanding, and often dangerous service to our community. By profession and personal dedication, they encounter tragedies of all sorts, meeting the best and the worst of human beings. They deserve our support and gratitude. They have often been workers for justice and new beginnings. They are often instruments of conversion and new beginnings. The mystery of purgation can be active in moments of human tragedy, too.
- Last week I chaired a meeting of the board of Dismas Ministry, a group of the finest members of our community dedicated to providing Catholic Bibles and Catholic faith formation materials for Catholic prisoners throughout some 43 states across our nation. The economic downturn has reduced the level of donations to this work and made the proper use of resources crucial.
Common to each of these events was the recognition that at some level all of us are flawed sinners in need of growth and change of heart. The work of the church is to help people toward the conversion we need, both as individuals and as an entire society, in this life and in the journey to the next. The purpose of the church is to praise God by transforming the world, ourselves included. The world needs to be cleaned up; purgation is a fact of life for everyone except the Lord and his Blessed Mother.
November is the season when we understand the need for conversion even beyond this life as we know it. Everything we can do to help ourselves and each other face up truthfully to our mistakes and to remove the enduring consequences of those sins in our personalities is important. The more we cleanse ourselves in this life, the less need will we have for that process upon death.
We probably should make November resolutions as well as Lenten ones!
Even after we have been forgiven, our propensities to fudge the truth, to retain resentments for perceived injuries or to cling to sinful attitudes remain. We Catholics call those enduring realities “the temporal punishments due to sin.” They must be removed by some purgation or cleansing before we are able to stand in the presence of an all pure God. Many years ago, one of my high school religion teachers sputtered that we can call that process (it’s not really a place) “purgatory” or the “south side cleaners,” but it is a necessary requirement for meeting God face to face.
Purgation is a great mystery because it happens through so many different experiences of truth, love and justice. It is a grace and a gift from the God who loves us more than we love ourselves. It is a challenge we need to face if we are to be faithful to the God we serve.