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Praying with Grandpa, and the evolution of purgatory


By Joseph Foy


When I was a seventh grader in St. Ann’s School, Monsignor Sprenke often came to teach our religion class. He was friendly and let us pepper him with questions.

Just before Halloween, he gave us a talk: “The first day after Halloween, we will celebrate one of the three greatest feasts of the year: there’s Christmas, there’s Easter, and there’s All Saints Day.”

Really? There is something else that ranks up there with Christmas and Easter?

A hand shot up: “Monsignor, how many saints are there?” I remember his answer to this day: “Millions,” he said, “Millions and millions! That’s what All Saints Day is about. It’s not a feast for the saints who have their own special days, like St. Ann and St. Joseph and St. Peter. It’s a day set aside to honour ALL the holy people who are now with God in heaven. Like your grandparents, and their parents, right on back, hundreds and hundreds of years. All your ancestors. They are saints too, you know. From all over the world. All united together in heaven. We call this The Great Communion of Saints. AND — he looked at us for a long time — you and I are spiritually connected to those people; all of us; we are all part of that great Communion of Saints. That is one of the greatest teachings of our church. It’s right in the Apostles Creed.”

He went on: “The next day, the one after All Saints Day, is called All Souls Day, and it is also very important. On that day we all pray as hard as we can for all the poor souls still in purgatory, to help them get out.” (I still remember that phrase: the “poor souls.”)

We knew about purgatory from our Catechism: after you died, a few very, very good people went directly to heaven, but everybody else went to purgatory to receive the punishment they deserved for their many sins. Not a nice place, purgatory. It was just like hell, a fire pit, but with one big difference: you eventually got out.

The monsignor had just created for me a big problem. I had once asked my dad, “What church did you and your dad go to?” Dad told me he went to St. Alphonsus, “but my dad didn’t go to church. He always encouraged me to go, but he never went himself.”

A grandfather who never went to mass on Sunday? Grandpa Foy was not with God in heaven? I figured he must be stuck in purgatory.

Then, to our teacher Sister Mary Gertrude’s stunned surprise, Monsignor finished up by saying: “On All Souls’ Day, whenever you are finished with an assignment, you can go next door to the church and pray for one of your ancestors. Say a rosary and God will let them out of purgatory sooner.”

For years I said the rosary on All Souls Day for Grandpa Foy, to help him get out of purgatory.

Flash forward a dozen years and I am taking early church history at a papal university from Professor Johannes Quasten, a world expert. A question came up: “Where did the idea come from that purgatory is a fire pit?”

“The fire pit image of purgatory is very common in our western church,” said Quasten, “but there is an alternative.” Now I was really listening. “The ancient churches of the Middle East did not buy that idea. Their idea of purgatory was different: when someone dies, and it is time for them to be ushered into the presence of God, they say, ‘Wait! I’m not ready for this. I have been selfish, greedy, mean; I’ve hurt too many people, too many times.’ ”

“So the angel says, ‘That’s OK, you don’t have to go in until you’re ready. Go over into that garden and rest for awhile.’ And they do. And then, to their surprise, Jesus walks into the garden! He begins to teach them how not to be selfish, not to be greedy, not to be mean, not to hurt people. In short, how to love. And then, when they feel ready, he takes their hand and they go out of the garden and into the loving embrace of their forgiving Father.”

I was thunderstruck. The fire pit had just turned into a garden. The garden had a regular visitor named Jesus.

I didn’t get much sleep that night. And, after that, I stopped going to church on All Souls Day. I figured, no need to; Grandpa was in good hands.

Some years later a Sunday sermon mentioned the idea of “praying with the saints,” which got me thinking about Grandpa again. Maybe I should be praying with Grandpa. Think about it. Suppose you are visiting someone very sick. You might ask, “Would you like to pray for a moment together?” I have done that, and mostly folks say yes.

There is something comforting about praying to our God of mercy along with someone else. So now, on both All Saints Day and All Souls Day, I quietly say, “Grandpa, let’s pray together.” It feels right, because I believe in the Apostles Creed, which teaches the Communion of Saints. And that means Great-grandma Kelly and Grandma Alice and Dad and Mom and my brother Dan and Uncle Eddie and Aunt Marie and all sorts of ancestors are all linked together — and they are all praying right along with Grandpa and me.

I have no way of knowing whether Grandpa is now in the presence of God, or still getting ready. No matter, because I believe he is in good hands. We are both part of the Mystical Body of Christ, embraced by the Holy Spirit.

Joe Foy writes from Hantsport, Nova Scotia.