A letter from purgatory

Mary Beth Bonacci is a syndicated columnist based in Denver and the author of We’re On a Mission From God and True Love.

A gentleman named Harmon Hallett, the father of a friend, died recently. In a Facebook post, she wrote “He was very adamant about not being eulogized. He was terrified nobody would pray for his release from purgatory. He was sure he was headed there first and said on more than one occasion, “I don’t want anyone thinking I’m a saint! I want them praying for me!”

I can relate. The beauty of the Catholic funeral is that is centered around praying for the deceased person. But funerals have evolved from occasions of prayer to “celebrations of life,” and the only mention of an afterlife consists of reassurance that the deceased beloved is currently in Heaven, enjoying the Beatific Vision and unlimited, calorie-free pastries. Or whatever.

This is doing no favor to the deceased person in question.

I don’t want this happening at my funeral. In fact, I so don’t want it to happen that, several years ago, I wrote a letter, to be read aloud at my funeral Mass. I lost it somewhere along the way. But, inspired by Harmon Hallett’s example, I have re-written it.

I want this, in its entirety, read at my funeral:

So, apparently I’m dead. I’ll make this brief, as I’m not entirely certain of the protocol involved in speaking at one’s own funeral. And I’m sure you’re all anxious to get to the reception. Which I hope for your sake will in some way involve cocktails.

In the mean time, I have just one request: If anybody stands up here and says “She is in Heaven now,” I want that person removed from the pulpit. Immediately. Because I’m not so sure that I am.

I believe in the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory. And I believe that my personal best case scenario will probably involve some time there. Not because I’ve lived a double life or committed any big, secret sins or anything. Just the garden variety selfishness and weakness that I’m sure many of you observed, but can’t mention right now because you are supposed to “speak no ill of the dead.”

But I, as the dead, can speak any way I like.

I believe that Jesus died for my sins. Absolutely. I also know that I responded very imperfectly to the graces he won for me. And that, since “nothing unclean enters Heaven,” I could probably stand some purification before standing in the presence of the eternal God. During that process, I’m going to need prayers.

So I don’t want you to canonize me. I want you to pray for me.

How? Have Masses said. It’s easy. Just go to any Catholic parish office, make a donation and request a Mass for the repose of my soul. Or more than one. As I write this, Masses can even be ordered on the internet. By the time I die, who knows? Maybe you can have a Mass said just by thinking about it.

And say prayers for me. With any luck, that little holy card they hand out will contain a prayer. If not, go with this one: “May her soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God rest in peace, Amen.”

Say that a lot.

I know some of you don’t believe in all of this. That’s okay. Do it anyway. Humor me. Others may be thinking I’m being unduly humble, and all of this isn’t necessary. Again, humor me. Because unless I was martyred — unless my death was immediately preceded by a gunman asking if I believe in Jesus Christ — I am relatively certain that I will need the prayers. Actually, even if the gunman scenario actually happened, you should still pray for me, as it is possible I misunderstood the question and thought he was offering me fries or something.

And don’t think that, if I’m wrong and I actually made it to Heaven in a straight shot, all of this prayer will be wasted. I am quite certain that God will make good use of it.

You can view all of this as an investment. You pray for me now, and I will pray for you when your time comes. Because I will be keeping tabs.

Okay, so now you get back to the praying and saying all the nice things that people say about the deceased at funerals.

But don’t let anybody get too carried away.

With love from the Great Beyond, MB

There it is. I am placing a copy in my safe deposit box. But I am also charging all of you, in the event of my demise, to make sure that it is read. And to pray for me.

And while you’re at it, say a prayer for Harmon Hallett. I’’m sure he’ll appreciate it.

Image: By Haylli – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44225282

COMING UP: John Paul II, youth minister

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

Pole that he was, Karol Wojtyla had a well-developed sense of historical irony. So from his present position in the Communion of Saints, he might be struck by the ironic fact that the Synod on “Youth, Faith, and Vocational Discernment,” currently underway in Rome, coincides with the 40th anniversary of his election as Pope John Paul II on October 16, 1978. What’s the irony? The irony is that the most successful papal youth minister in modern history, and perhaps all history, was largely ignored in Synod-2018’s working document. And the Synod leadership under Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri seems strangely reluctant to invoke either his teaching or his example.

But let’s get beyond irony. What are some lessons the Synod might draw from John Paul II, pied piper of the young, on this ruby anniversary of his election?

1. The big questions remain the same.

Several bishops at Synod-2018 have remarked that today’s young people are living in a completely different world than when the bishops in question grew up. There’s obviously an element of truth here, but there’s also a confusion between ephemera and the permanent things.

When Cardinal Adam Sapieha assigned young Father Wojtyla to St. Florian’s parish in 1948, in order to start a ministry to the university students who lived nearby, things in Cracow were certainly different than they were when Wojtyla was a student at the Jagiellonian University in 1938-39. In 1948, Poland was in the deep freeze of Stalinism and organized Catholic youth work was banned. The freewheeling social and cultural life in which Wojtyla had reveled before the Nazis shut down the Jagiellonian was no more, and atheistic propaganda was on tap in many classrooms. But Wojtyla knew that the Big Questions that engage young adults — What’s my purpose in life? How do I form lasting friendships? What is noble and what is base? How do I navigate the rocks and shoals of life without making fatal compromises? What makes for true happiness? — are always the same. They always have been, and they always will be.

To tell today’s young adults that they’re completely different is pandering, and it’s a form of disrespect. To help maturing adults ask the big questions and wrestle with the permanent things is to pay them the compliment of taking them seriously. Wojtyla knew that, and so should the bishops of Synod-2018.

2. Walking with young adults should lead somewhere.

Some of the Wojtyla kids from that university ministry at St. Florian’s have become friends of mine, and when I ask them what he was like as a companion, spiritual director, and confessor, they always stress two points: masterful listening that led to penetrating conversations, and an insistence on personal responsibility. As one of them once put it to me, “We’d talk for hours and he’d shed light on a question, but I never heard him say ‘You should do this.’ What he’d always say was, ‘You must choose’.” For Karol Wojtyla, youth minister, gently but persistently compelling serious moral decisions was the real meaning of “accompaniment” (a Synod-2018 buzzword).

3. Heroism is never out of fashion.

When, as pope, John Paul II proposed launching what became World Youth Day, most of the Roman Curia thought he had taken leave of his senses: young adults in the late-20th century just weren’t interested in an international festival involving catechesis, the Way of the Cross, confession, and the Eucharist. John Paul, by contrast, understood that the adventure of leading a life of heroic virtue was just as compelling in late modernity as it had been in his day, and he had confidence that future leaders of the third millennium of Christian history would answer that call to adventure.

That didn’t mean they’d be perfect. But as he said to young people on so many occasions, “Never, ever settle for anything less than the spiritual and moral grandeur that God’s grace makes possible in your life. You’ll fail; we all do. But don’t lower the bar of expectation. Get up, dust yourself off, seek reconciliation. But never, ever settle for anything less than the heroism for which you were born.”

That challenge — that confidence that young adults really yearn to live with an undivided heart — began a renaissance in young adult and campus ministry in the living parts of the world Church. Synod-2018 should ponder this experience and take it very, very seriously.