Thursday, October 31, 2019

31st Sunday Year C (Gospel: Luke 19:1-10) Heaven, hell and purgatory

At this time of the year we focus on the dead and we pray especially for them. I actually like this time, because for me it is a kind of healthy focus on reality. The one thing all of us are sure of is that we will die and it is good to think of that every so often. Since we believe that we are destined for heaven, then we have nothing to be afraid of, but it is important not to take it for granted.

When we die, probably very few people are ready to come directly into the intense holiness of God’s presence. It would be too much for us. Think of when you wake up in the morning and you turn on the bed-side light. You turn away your eyes because you are not used to the light yet. Imagine getting the direct light of the sun? It would be unbearable for us. We have to gradually get used to it. Purgatory is something like this. It is the last stage of being made ready, before we can come into God’s presence. It is also when we may have to atone for sins from our lives. People often scoff at this idea, but think of it this way: if someone had committed a lot of sin during their life and repented just before they died, would it make sense that they would suddenly be in heaven? The Lord assures us of his mercy, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have to atone for our sins. The Lord has also taught us that we can help those who have died by praying for them. That’s why we dedicate a whole month to remembering them.

There was a lady from Austria by the name of Maria Simma (1915-2004). For many years of her life she experienced a very unusual gift, that is, she was visited continually by the Holy Souls, who asked her for prayers. God granted her this gift of interceding for them, no doubt also to help us to believe in the reality of what happens after death. When they came to ask her for prayers, many of them would tell her why they were in purgatory. A short book was written about her a few years ago, where she was interviewed and what is most interesting about it, is that what comes across more than anything else is the mercy of God.

Maria Simma (1915-2004)
One of the encounters that she had really struck me. She recalls that one night a young man of 20 appeared to her, asking her to pray for him. He told her why he was in purgatory. He had been a fairly wild young man with a bad reputation. He lived in the Alps and one winter his village was hit by a series of avalanches and quite a number of people were killed. One night when another avalanche struck, he heard the screams of people nearby for help and he ran down stairs to help them. His mother tried to stop him from going outside, knowing there was a good chance that he would be killed. When he went out he was in fact killed, but God allowed him to die at this time, because he was in the middle of doing something so good. In other words, God took him when he was at his best. I think that this is a wonderful way to understand what happens when people die. God will do everything He can to help us. Such is the mercy of God. God will always give us the benefit of the doubt.

St. Pius of Pietrelcina, better known as Padre Pio, also experienced the same gift and he said that more people came to him from Purgatory asking for prayers, than pilgrims on earth. I have no doubt that one of the reasons why God gave him this gift, was to help us understand the reality of what happens after death. Most people need to go through some kind of purification when they die and while it is good to shed tears for them, we can help them by praying for them and offering the mass for them, which is the most powerful prayer we have.

When we die there can only be three things: heaven, hell, or purgatory. If heaven is real and we have free will, then we must be able to lose heaven too. If we had no option but to go there, then we wouldn’t have free will. If heaven is the total fulfilment of being in God’s presence, light, beauty, happiness and the company of other people we love, then to lose it would be to be left with the opposite, that is, darkness, pain, isolation, hatred and the knowledge of knowing that we have lost the possibility of eternal happiness. God does not send people to hell. People choose hell by the way they live, rejecting God and everything to do with God. Many places where Our Lady has appeared, she has shown the visionaries heaven, hell and purgatory, to remind us they are real. It is not something we should take lightly.

What about people who no longer go to Church, or no longer practice their faith. Just because they don’t practice, doesn’t mean they don’t believe in God or try to live the right way. It may just mean that they cannot relate to organised religion as we do, but we should pray for them, because having a framework is a great help. Continually going to church is going to help us stay tuned in to what is important, to what God is asking us to do and reminding us of what is right and wrong. It is not so easy to do this by yourself.

What about people who have never known Jesus? People primarily accept or reject God by the way they live. Just because they don’t understand God as we do, doesn’t mean they don’t believe, or that they reject God. Only God can judge us. Our job is to pray for those who don’t know God and hopefully to help them come to know him, by they way we live. Most of the people Mother Teresa’s sisters take in off the streets in places like Calcutta, are not Christian, but they don’t try to convert them. They simply love them and allow them to die with dignity. They say more about what they believe by those actions than by anything you could say.

If we make even the smallest effort to live for God, to live as God asks us, then we have nothing to be afraid of. The Lord continually assures us of his love and mercy for all who seek him. The important thing is that we remember that our choices have consequences.

"Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father's house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me, that you also may be where I am."

A book I would highly recommend is The Amazing Secret of the Souls in Purgatory: an Interview with Maria Simma, by Sister Emmanuel of Medjugorje.

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