A shortcut out of purgatory

Mary Beth Bonacci

I know, I write about death a lot. I would write about it even more if I didn’t force myself to look elsewhere for topics periodically.

But there is a reason for this. Memento Mortis. Remember death. It’s where we’re all headed, and as Christians we believe that the way we live this life will determine the way we live the next. It’s easy to forget that, to get caught up in the shiny here and now.

I like to remind you occasionally that we’re destined for greater things.

It was in that spirit that I wrote a column a few years ago that included a letter I want read at my own funeral. It was essentially a plea for prayers for the repose of my soul, since I believe in purgatory, and should I wind up there, I want all the help I can get in making my stay brief.

Based on the feedback I received, that letter is going to be read at a lot of funerals. In fact, by the time mine rolls around, people will probably groan and say “That letter? Again?”

I still stand by that letter, and I still want it read at my funeral. But, the other day, I ran across a different way of looking at purgatory, a “shortcut” if you will. And, lest you think I have fallen prey to some weird spiritual novelty, worry not. This theory comes straight from none other than that great doctor of the Church, St. Therese of Lisieux.

The message came to me via Father Michael Gaitley, who spoke here in Denver recently. He is the author of 33 Days to Morning Glory, and now 33 Days to Divine Mercy. In that book, and in his talk, he discussed St. Therese and her Offering to Merciful Love. She, living in the era of Jansenism, saw many of her sister nuns making an “Offering to Divine Justice” — basically asking God to give them the punishment due to sinners, instead of giving it to the sinners themselves. It would appear the good Lord took them up on it, given that many of them went on to die horrible, painful deaths. Little Therese, understandably, had no attraction to such an arrangement. But it occurred to her that if they could offer themselves to his justice, so could she offer herself to his merciful love, to ask for all of the graces he longed to pour down on humanity, but had been rejected by those who didn’t love him.

There are several facets to this offering — more than I have room for today. (If you want to learn more, I highly recommend getting your hands on 33 Days to Divine Mercy.) But I was particularly struck by this passage. In a letter to her sister and religious superior, Mother Agnes, she wrote:

You permitted me, dear Mother, to offer myself in this way to God, and you know the rivers or rather the oceans of graces that flooded my soul. Ah! Since that happy day, it seems to me that Love penetrates and surrounds me, that at each moment this Merciful Love renews me, purifying my soul and leaving no trace of sin within it, and I need have no fear of purgatory. I know that of myself I would not merit even to enter that place of expiation since only holy souls can have entrance there, but I also know that the Fire of Love is more sanctifying than is the fire of purgatory.

What? No purgatory? Simply by making this offering? Sign me up!!

In another letter, she said:

As soon as you try to please Him in everything and have an unshakable trust, He purifies you every moment in His love and He lets no sin remain. And then you can be sure that you will not have to go to purgatory.

So that’s it. “Try to please Him in everything.” “Have unshakable trust.”

Of course, continuing to try to please him in everything is key. This is not a license to sin. It presumes we are striving to grow in holiness. St. Therese, as “little” as she was, did that to a heroic degree.

But there’s more. Father Gaitley points out that choosing the path of mercy means choosing it not only for God, but for ourselves. In Luke 6:38, Christ tell us “The measure you use, will be used against you.” So if we want to receive mercy, we need to be merciful.

“Not so bad,” I thought at first. “I’m pretty merciful.” Then I thought about it a little more. Am I really? I have pretty high standards for myself, and I often extend those standards to others I encounter. And it didn’t take me long to come up with a pretty significant list of people to whom I could extend more mercy:

The youngsters who moved to Colorado for the legal weed, without having the slightest clue how to drive on snow. Or, seemingly, how to drive at all.

The new real estate agent on the other side of the transaction who is covering inexperience with bluster.

The people who carry on loud conversations inside the church while others around them are trying to pray.

Just about everybody arguing on Facebook.

And that was just in the space of a couple of hours. This is not as easy as it may seem.

So this is how I want to start examining my conscience: To whom did I fail to show mercy today? Have I tried to please the Lord in everything? Have I trusted him?

I’m not saying I’m doing such a great job. I have to keep running back for more mercy. Which I suppose is the general idea anyway.

Of course, I am not the Little Flower. So when the time comes, I still want you all to pray for the repose of my soul.

And I still want that letter read at my funeral.

COMING UP: 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