A letter from purgatory

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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: Radical living and my friend Shelly

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I saw my friend Shelly the other day, for the first time in 28 years.

Back in the day, she was Shelly Pennefather, basketball phenomenon. She led Denver’s Bishop Machebeuf High School’s women’s basketball team to three undefeated seasons, a 70-0 record. In her senior year, her family moved to Utica, New York, where she led the Notre Dame High School team to a 26-0 season, giving her a no loss record for her entire high school career. She remains Villanova University’s all-time scorer — men’s and women’s — with a career total of 2408 points.  She also holds the women’s rebound record, at 1171. She is a three-time Big East Player of the Year, the first All-American out of the Big East, the 1987 National Player of the Year, and a winner of the prestigious Wade Trophy. She’s been inducted into the Philadelphia Women’s Big Five Hall of Fame, and Villanova has retired her jersey. After college, she played professional women’s basketball in Japan. She was making more money than anybody I knew.

She doesn’t go by Shelly anymore. These days, she is Sister Rose Marie of the Queen of Angels. She lives in the Poor Clares Monastery in Alexandria, Virginia. She joined their community in 1991 and took her final vows in 1997. They are cloistered, which means that they don’t leave the monastery, except for medical emergencies. Her only contact with the outside world is through letters, and very limited visits with family and friends. She’s never used the internet, doesn’t know what Facebook is, and when she saw a visitor answer a cell phone, she asked “What is that?”

Why? Why on God’s earth would a basketball star of this magnitude just walk away from the game and the fame, or go from being one of the world’s highest paid women’s basketball players to taking a vow of perpetual poverty? Why would an attractive, funny, vivacious 25-year-old woman renounce marriage and family to lock herself up in a monastery? Why would a loving daughter and sister embrace a religious discipline wherein she could only see her family — through a screen —a few times a year, and hug them only once every 25 years? Why would anybody voluntarily live a life in which they could own nothing, sleep no more than four hours at a time (on a straw mat), eat no more than one full meal a day, and use telephones, TV, radio, internet and newspapers — well, never?

It all boils down to this: We’re all gonna die. And when we do, all of the money and the prestige and the accomplishments and the basketball awards are going to fall away. All that will be left is us and God. If we play our cards right, we will spend eternity beholding his face and praising him. And, as St. Augustine says, that is where our truest happiness lies — in this life as well as in the next: “Our hearts were made for Thee, O Lord, and will not rest until they rest in Thee.”

Cloistered sisters like the Poor Clares make the radical choice to live that way now — to begin their eternal life here on earth. As religious sisters, they are brides of Christ, and they focus their lives entirely on their bridegroom, without the distractions of all the stuff that’s going to fall away after death anyway. They spend their lives primarily in prayer — praying for you and for me and for this entire mixed up world and in deepening their own relationship with Christ.

This, it goes without saying, is a radical way to live. It is not for everyone, or even for most people. It is a free choice on the part of the sisters. But they do not take the initiative. God himself is the initiator. He calls them to this life, and they freely respond. Sister Rose Marie herself told her coach that this was not the life she would have chosen for herself, but it was very clear to her that it was the life God was calling her to.

I finally got to see Sister Rose Marie last weekend, as she celebrated the 25th anniversary of her solemn vows. I had the privilege of witnessing the once-every-25-year-hugs she gave her family. I spoke to her briefly, from behind the screen. She was always a cheerful person. But I saw a joy and a radiance in her that day that I have rarely seen ever, in anyone. It was beautiful.

The great gift these sisters give to us, aside from their prayers, is that they remind us that this life, and all its pleasures and distractions, will not last forever. And their dedication and their joy give us a small glimpse into the joy that is in store for us, if we can only imitate in some small way their singular focus on their Bridegroom.

Pray for them. And pray for the grace to do what they do — to rise above the distractions of this world and look toward the life that never ends.