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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Conversation about Purgatory, the Rock and Doubt...

Leaving a dinner party with friends recently, my wife and I ran into a good friend, who was saying farewell to another couple outside.

As we went to say goodbye ourselves, he started talking to us about the faith and tells me something interesting.

He says, "You know what Carlos, I don't believe in everything the Catholic Church teaches; like Purgatory."

He may have brought up the subject, because he knows how passionate I am about studying the Catholic faith (in all honesty, I feel it's an obligation).

Does that make him a bad Catholic?  Absolutely not.  Questioning our faith is how we grow.  The keys is to seek answers to those questions and to keep searching for the Truth. 

As a matter of fact, my friend is one of the most humble and dedicated Catholic men I know.  He is a man who truly lives a life of service to the Church by example and is involved in more ministries and undertakings for the good of his parish than I can even imagine.

Moreover, he was even instrumental in my own "reversion" to the faith several years ago.

To some extent, he may have also brought up the topic in hopes that I might enlightened him on the subject (which, I probably failed miserably).

After getting home, I started thinking about the conversation.

His main argument against Purgatory is very common among non-Catholic Christians.  He admitted his brother, who is Baptist, often tries to engage him in debates about Church teachings.

Anyway, their point is that Purgatory is never mentioned by word in the Bible, which if taken into account, neither is the Holy Trinity, yet most Christian denominations agree in this reality because, like Purgatory, it is alluded to throughout Sacred Scripture.

The key to understanding this is study, which most times leads to the early Christians, who learned the faith directly from the Apostles and passed on the faith to others.

Also, through the writings of the great thinkers in Church history, who dedicated their lives to study, prayer and discernment of the Bible and Sacred Tradition passed by the Apostles.  Catholics don't believe that one is exclusive of the other.  As a deacon friend once told me, they are both the living Word of God. 

Keep in mind, that at the end of the Gospel of John, he writes, "There are many other things that Jesus did, but if these were to be described individually, I do not think the whole world would contain the books that could be written."  Those other things is what the Church calls Sacred Tradition, with a capital T, that were passed on by the Apostles to their disciples.

Still, the more I thought about my friend's objection, the more I thought about my own rejection of certain teachings before I began to delve deeper into the faith.  I used to think I knew better than a two thousand year old Church.

It is partially the fault of poor catechises (at least in my case and, unfortunately, many of my generation) and partially the fault of the poor example of other Catholics.

However, if each Sunday, I profess, as we do in Mass, to believe in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church (the Marks of the Church), then I should believe in what that One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church teaches, don't you think?

If not, and I choose (faith is a choice) to reject something such as Purgatory, what would keep another Catholic in the pew next to me from rejecting the sanctity of life, or the Virgin Birth, or the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, or that the pope is the descendant of Peter, or even that they have to attend Mass on Sunday?

What would be left of the one faith that Jesus prayed for His disciples?

Then again, would it be faith at all or would it be my own adaptation, according to my likes and dislikes, which unfortunately in today's "me" and moral relative society, is not uncommon.

In other words, am I molding God into what I want Him to be or am I humbling myself and conforming to what He wants me to be?

Christ Handing Keys to St. Peter
My point, and this is not meant to be an indictment against my friend, or anyone that thinks as I once did, to be Catholic means to believe in the authority of the Church that Jesus Christ founded upon the rock of Peter, who He gave the keys to the kingdom and the authority to bind and lose on earth, what would be bound and loosed in Heaven. 

It is the same Church that has been preserving, protecting and making disciples of all nations from generation to generation in an unbroken line of succession since Jesus ascended into heaven.

And, the same Church, who's bishops, through that authority given to them by Christ, and guided by the Holy Spirit, decided the Canon of the Bible in the late 4th Century from among 200 epistles and 50 gospels that were circulating at the time.

In fact, after the Resurrection, Jesus appeared to the Apostles and told them that just as the Father had sent Him, He was sending them, and then breathe on them the Spirit of Truth that would guide them "into all the truth" and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit, whose sins you forgive are forgiven them.  Whose sins you retain, are retained."                      

How did the Father send the Son?  With full authority, as the Son sent the Apostles.

Let's face it, Christ understood the frailties of men.  We are self-righteous, prideful, arrogant, distrusting and quarrelsome, among many other things.  Left to our own devices, our relationships deteriorate into bickering and strife.

Knowing this, Jesus had to establish and leave a visible legacy that would serve as a beacon of truth for all Christians to know where to find Him.  He promised never to leave the disciples orphan.

In fact, in the first letter of St. Paul to Timothy, he calls the Church the "pillar and foundation of truth." 

So, despite times of corruption, bad popes, and even the priest sex scandal, Christ promised Peter the gates of hell would never prevail against His Church. 

Beyond our comprehension, God chose sinners to run the Church, and you can just look at Peter and Paul, as  examples, therefore the Church has to be protected and guided by the Holy Spirit from teaching error.  How else could a sinner like Peter, and his successors, be able to determine on earth what would be bound and loose in heaven?   

Think about it, kingdoms and kings have risen and fallen, governments, institutions and organizations have come crumbling down, and the Church has withstood through the ages, despite persecutions, efforts to destroy it, from within and without, and scandals.

Ironically, a couple of weeks ago, I was asked to talk about the line in the Apostles' Creed which states, "I believe in the Holy Catholic Church," to the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults group (RCIA) at my parish.

While I won't bore you with the details of my discussion, in which I explained the Marks of the Church, which first appeared in the Nicene Creed, in the year 325, when a heresy called Arianism was challenging the divinity of Christ, let me just mention my conclusion.

Since the Holy Spirit cannot teach error and Christ established one Church to pass on His teachings, there is but one fullness of faith. 

From the time of the Acts of the Apostles, when the Church began, to fighting, dispelling and condemning heresies like Arianism and Gnosticism, which stated that Christ was just a spirit and that we could earn eternal life through knowledge, to determining the Canon of the Bible and various creeds, to the great saints like St. Augustin, St. Francis, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Theresa of Little Flower, St. Bonaventure, St. Patrick, St. Gregory, St. Anthony, St. Kathryn of Sienna, St. Faustina, and many many more through the ages, including Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II in our own time, the teachings entrusted by Christ have been preserved and guarded by the Church for the last two millenniums.

Anyway, going back to my friend, I was watching a documentary by Fr. Robert Barron with my eldest daughter Saturday night, which coincidentally dealt with the Church's teachings on the last things; heaven, hell and purgatory.

Purgatory, is described like this in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:  All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.

While not widely accepted by most non-Catholic Christians, especially considering the rejection by the early reformers because some in the Church were using the teaching to sell indulgences, it was accepted among the Jews in Jesus' time and is still accepted by many Orthodox Jews today. 

In fact, it is called Sheol and mentioned in the Psalms and expressed in the prayers for the dead in the second Book of Maccabees, which is among the seven books dropped by Martin Luther in the 16th Century from the original Canon.

Christ alludes to this transitory state of being several times in the Gospels, and so does St. Paul. 

In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus says that, "whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come."  Since those in heaven are already forgiven, there has to be an intermediate state in which sins are still forgiven.     

Also, in Matthew, Jesus says, "Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison; truly, I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny."  Again, this is alluding to a place where the penitent pays their debt to God but eventually gets out.

Meanwhile, St. Paul talks about the purifying fire in which, "Each man's work will become manifest... and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done... If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire."  This suggests that despite a person being saved, he or she may have to suffer loss and be put through fire.

The Book of Revelation states, "nothing unclean shall enter heaven."

In any account, suffice to say there are many more accounts of this transitory state of being in the Bible and in the writings of the early Christians (see here).

Gustave Dore's Inferno inspire by Dante
In the documentary, Fr. Barron explains that hell is a choice people make by their own self-righteousness and rejection of God.

God doesn't condemn anyone to hell because He loves all His children and wants us to live in His eternal love, but, because of that love, He gives us the free will to reject Him.  It's a choice.  Purgatory, Barron says, is also a choice.

He compares the state of the penitent soul in Purgatory to that of a professional football player that is willing to put his body through the most rigorous workout and two-a-day practices in the scorching August sun and punishes his body in the gym to prepare for an upcoming season, or a marathon runner, who is willing to endure the grueling weeks and months of painful training to prepare for the race, or a guitarist that plays until their fingers bleed to perfect their craft. 

Having doubt is natural.  That's why it is called faith.  Even scientists, who claim to rely strictly on science, often rely on faith; that hypothesis that cannot be proven through science are correct.

The Apostles themselves had doubt.  In fact, when Jesus was arrested, they all fled and went into hiding; afraid and with their hopes dashed.  Peter not only doubted but he denied even knowing Christ.  Thomas refused to believe after being told that Jesus had risen, unless he put his fingers in the wounds.

As a Catholic, there may be things that I can't understand or have trouble wrapping my mind around.  There may even be doubt.  But, if I deny to accept a certain teaching of the Church, am I truly believing in the authority Christ gave the Church?

As the father of the boy who was possessed by a demon in the Gospel of Mark said, "I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief."  Or, as St. Augustine puts it, "Seek not to understand that you may believe, but believe that you may understand."

At the end of the day, I realize, it won't matter how much I know or don't know.  It will not matter whether I'm Catholic or not.  The only things that will matter, as last Sunday's Gospel pointed out, is whether I fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, took care of the sick and visited the imprisoned.  As we do for the least of our brothers, we do for Christ.

Then again, the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick and imprisoned are not just those suffering in the physical sense.  They also refer to those suffering in the spiritual sense.

Therefore, in this respect, what we believe does matter since we should never stop searching for the Truth in earnest (since God is Truth) or growing in our faith, for the more we know and understand, the better prepared we are to satisfy God's hunger and thirst, manifested in our brothers and sisters, like my good friend.

As well known author and former Presbyterian Minister, Dr. Scott Hahn, says in his conversion CD (which made a huge impact on my life), when he comes before God the Father on his Judgement Day, he doesn't want to say, "Lord, I taught what I was taught."  He wants to say, "Lord, I taught what you taught me."...

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