Q. My mother passed away some time ago, and I wonder whether she is now in “God’s eternal embrace.” How can I be sure?
She was a good mother and she dearly loved the church, but we have been taught that everyone has some imperfections and, upon death, must be sent to purgatory before they can enjoy heaven. I would rest more easily if I knew that my mother were not suffering any longer. (Forest, Virginia)
A. The church does not teach that everyone who dies must necessarily pass through purgatory before reaching heaven.
As a matter of fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says specifically that the punishment due for venial sins can be meted out “either here on earth, or after death” (No. 1472). It goes on to say that “fervent charity can attain the complete purification of the sinner in such a way that no punishment would remain.”
Even for those who must undergo some punishment after death — which, I would think, includes most of us — we have no idea as to just what purgatory involves or how long it lasts. (It could even be instantaneous.)
So even though you cannot have infallible certitude that your mother is already in heaven, she may well be. Jesus said in Matthew’s Gospel, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (7:21); since your mother, in your words, was a good mother and loved the church dearly, she obviously tried to do what the Lord asked of her.
But I would “play it safe” and keep praying for her nonetheless; praying for the dead is a sacred and long-held practice that even predates the church — in the Old Testament (2 Mc 12:46) Judas Maccabeus “made atonement for the dead” that they might be delivered from their sin.
Q. About two years ago, I made a promise to the Blessed Virgin Mary that I would fast on the Wednesdays and Fridays of each week, taking only bread and water — for the poor souls in purgatory and for peace in the world. I have remained faithful to this commitment since then and intend to continue for the rest of my life.
Recently, my wife celebrated her 50th birthday, and the same day also happened to be our 20th wedding anniversary. Unfortunately, it fell on a Wednesday, so I refused to take anything but bread and water. My wife was not very happy with that and has remained upset about it since that day.
We are both practicing Catholics, although I believe that I pray much more than she does and attend Mass every morning, while she goes on Sundays and holy days. We have had a good marriage over the years, enjoying many happy moments together, and God has blessed us with four beautiful kids. I have always thought it important to put God before family, and I find it hard to break a promise made to the mother of God.
Please advise me as to how I can explain this to my wife, so that I am free to worship as I want and so that my personal sacrifices do not infringe on our daily lives. Should I have taken a break on that one special day and had a meal with her, or did I do the right thing by sticking with my fast? (New York City)
A. This question is an easy one. OF COURSE, you should have had a meal with your wife on her birthday and your wedding anniversary!
Read the Gospel of Mark (2:23-28), where the disciples of Jesus picked grain because they were hungry — even though it was the Sabbath. Jesus defended them against the complaining Pharisees, saying “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
I am impressed and edified by the penitential practice you have chosen, but I feel quite confident that the mother of God would have approved your “taking a break” on that very special day. I think that you should apologize to your wife and take her out for a very nice dinner.
Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at firstname.lastname@example.org and 30 Columbia Circle Dr., Albany, New York 12203.