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: From Columbine to Christ: “Not only did God lead me out of Columbine, he was leading me to himself.”

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Every school day for almost two years, Jenica Thornby would spend her lunch hour in the library at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Every day, except April 20, 1999.

“I was sitting in my art class when all of the sudden I had this urge to leave school. I remember thinking, there is no way I am going to be talked into staying.”

Thornby found her friend that she always studied with and talked her into leaving too. As they drove away in a car her father had bought her just a week earlier, behind them they saw hundreds of other students running out of the school. Thinking it was maybe a fire drill, Thornby kept driving.

Back inside the school, two students had entered with guns, where they would kill 12 students and a teacher, and wound over 20 more people before taking their own lives.

In the days that followed, Thornby would learn that many of the casualties took place in the library, where on any other day she would have been sitting.

“I remember thinking, I always went to the library, and the only reason I wasn’t there was because I had this urge to leave. That was really hard to wrap my mind around, and so I really wondered, ‘What gave me that urge, why wasn’t I there?’”

Two decades later, Thornby is now Sister Mary Gianna, a religious sister of the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, and on the 20th Anniversary of the Columbine massacre, she shared her story with the Denver Catholic of how God led her out of her high school that day, and through a series of events, led her into a deep relationship with Christ.

Sr. Mary Gianna DLJC poses for a portrait at the Columbine Memorial on April 18, 2019, in Littleton, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

SEARCHING FOR FULFILMENT

Sister Mary Gianna said growing up in Texas, California and then Colorado, she had loving parents, but as a family they did not practice any religion or faith.

After the school shooting, like many of her classmates, Sister Mary Gianna struggled coming to grips with what had happened. Coupled with emotional scars from bullying in her teenage years and other insecurities, she said she tried desperately just to fit in.

“I started drinking and going to parties, thinking if I was in a relationship, then I’ll be happy,” Sister Mary Gianna recalled. “I was searching for fulfilment.”

But near the end of her junior year a classmate of hers who seemingly had everything going for him committed suicide, and Sister Mary Gianna said her senior year she hit rock bottom.

“If he was in so much pain and suffering and took his life, what do I do with all my suffering and all my pain?” Sister Mary Gianna said she asked herself. “I thought I was going to take my own life by my 18th birthday.”

It was that year that a friend invited her to come to a youth group at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church, where Sister Mary would meet a youth minister named Kate.

“I remember seeing something different in (Kate),” said Sister Mary Gianna. “She was so bright, so full of life. I could tell that she had something in her life that was missing in mine.”

Sister Mary Gianna said Kate and the youth group introduced her to a God that loved her, and that had a plan for her life.

“I felt like I was junk to be thrown away, and (Kate) would tell me you are made in God’s image and his likeness, and if God created you, how can you call yourself junk?” recalled Sister Mary Gianna. “I realized God did have a plan, and I love the words of St. Augustine: ‘Our hearts are restless until they rest in God,” and I realized not only did God lead me out of Columbine, he was leading me to himself.”

RCIA, NET and DLJC

After high school graduation, with the support of her parents Sister Mary Gianna chose to attend Franciscan University of Steubenville, where her freshman year she went through RCIA and was received into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil of 2002.

After college, she spent a year with NET (National Evangelization Team), sharing her testimony with teenagers across the country. At the same time, through the encouragement of others, she began to consider religious life.

“I felt God wanted to use me to lead others to Christ as my youth minister had led me to Christ,” said Sister Mary Gianna. “And I felt God was calling me to share how he had worked in my life, my personal testimony.”

Sister Mary Gianna said words in a book by Father Benedict Groeschel really impacted her.

“He wrote, ‘Instead of asking God why something happened, ask him, what would you have me do?’” Sister Mary Gianna said. “So instead of reflecting on my life and why did this happen or that happen, I began to ask God, ‘What would you have me do?’”

In 2010, Jenica Thornby entered religious life as a member of the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, was given the name Sister Mary Gianna, and last year on August 4, 2018, took her final vows. She now serves at The Ark and The Dove retreat center in Pittsburgh.

CHAIN REACTIONS

Standing in the center of the Columbine Memorial at Clement Park, Sister Mary Gianna is drawn to the plaque that remembers Rachel Joy Scott.

Sr. Mary Gianna DLJC poses for a portrait at the Columbine Memorial on April 18, 2019, in Littleton, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

Rachel was one of the first students shot on April 20, 1999, and after being wounded, one of the gunmen reportedly asked her if she still believed in God, to which Rachel replied, “You know I do,” before the gunman shot her in the head.

“Unfortunately the two boys talked about how they wanted to start a chain reaction of death and violence and destruction,” Sister Mary Gianna said. “However, Rachel had a theory that if one person could go out of their way and show compassion and kindness, we would never know how far it would go, it just might start its own chain reaction.”

Sister Mary Gianna said Rachel’s story has become an inspiration to her, and coincidently, Rachel’s family played a role in her own conversion. Sister Mary Gianna said the day after the shooting she was at a friend’s house and her friend’s mom told Rachel’s aunt about how she had left just before the shooting began. Sister Mary Gianna said Rachel’s aunt replied, “God must have a plan for your life.”

It was one of the first seeds planted in Sister Mary Gianna’s heart, that started to grow, and as Sister Mary Gianna continued to say ‘yes’ to God, led her to the life she has today.

“Even when I didn’t know God that day at Columbine, he led me out of school, he protected me,” said Sister Mary Gianna. “He loved me so much that he drew near to me and has shown me this path of life.”

“Even in the midst of tragedy, God can bring good, God could bring life out of death. The worst tragedy was Jesus being put to death on the Cross, and it led to our salvation. And even in the midst of this tragedy of Columbine, God could bring good.”