A comment some time ago induced me to reflect on another hopefully unintended consequence of V II: the plenary indulgences to go.
Apparently, in hospitals the last rites are not really “last”, and people collect them as I collected model cars when I was a child. To the Last Rites is obviously connected the possibility of a plenary indulgence, and I can’t imagine someone thinking he can receive them every few days does not also believe that a plenary indulgence is a very easy matter.
The brutal fact is that in their assault to the Church, the generation of VII has not spared even this sacrament; which, like pretty much everything else, has been trivialised and made similar to a small tale for the very young or the very old.
Therefore, you can bet few priests will treat this sacrament other than like a kind of benediction routinely given to old people, and fewer less will explain to said old people a plenary indulgence was traditionally considered not an easy matter to obtain. This fundamental mistake will then forcibly lead to others, as very ill people form already in this life a strong consciousness of their own impending canonisation, and this thinking then transmits to their relatives; with the very probable result that the departed discovers he was not canonised after all, and his relatives do not pray for him.
Lastly, and also taking inspiration from the comment found in my comment box, this warped thinking warps the entire concept of Purgatory; then if purgatory is so astonishingly easy to avoid, then it cannot be so bad either. Again, the trivialisation of everything Catholic introduced from Vatican II extends to Purgatory.
If you ask me, the recovery of sound Catholicism must also go through a recovery of old thinking in what concerns everyday life: fear of The Lord, seriousness of sin, seriousness of the punishment merited by sin, necessity of honest work towards our salvation, etc. The fear and trembling must get in, and the self-canonisation must go out. When this happens all the other pieces fall into place, and we understand the logic behind indulgences and Purgatory in a way the mentality of the “I want it all and I want it now” will never allow us to grasp.
Fear of the Lord. Judgment. Purgatory. Hell. I do not even hear these words anymore. They are simply disappearing from the public consciousness; another sign of the progressive de-Christianisation of the West we who live in England see in such a traumatic way in these days.
I have written only some days ago about the different perceptions in traditionally Catholic, and mixed countries, of the probability of salvation.
Today I would like to spend some words on the different views about Purgatory. Those of my generation were taught (at school, at the Catechism, and from our grandmothers) to abandon every illusion that Purgatory would be a pleasant walk in the park. “Painful” and “long” were the adjectives you would hear more often linked to it, and even as a child you knew this was something to be taken seriously. Therefore, one can safely say that the same people who were equipped with a sane optimism about their and their beloved ones’ salvation were also those with a very sobering expectation concerning the consequences of human behaviour and of their innate sinfulness. I remember here, in a rather personal matter, my grandmother already in bed with cancer assuring me, a little child, she was ill of cancer because of her sins and she hoped to land in…. purgatory after death. We are talking here (without giving too many personal details) of one of those pious women, tutte casa e chiesa (all home and church) you think are not produced anymore (except they are I think, only in much smaller numbers). I do not remember my grandmother asking me to pray for her after her death, but I think it’s fair to say the thought must have been there, and my mother teaching me the “eternal rest” the very day my grandmother died and asking me to say it every day before I go to sleep could, I reflect now, perhaps have been in compliance with my grandmother’s asking (and I know my mother prays for her every day to this day herself).
In all this, you see the working of a traditional Catholic society, in which people took salvation extremely seriously but with a fundamental optimism, worked on their salvation until the very end without gloom and without presumption, with fear and trembling but also with childish abandonment, and knew death would not mean the end of the hard work.
What would a person in the same situation today think, I wonder. If they should happen to talk about death with their small nephews, they will probably never mention Purgatory and I doubt they would mention death at all. If they do, Grandma will probably said to be going to play with the angels, utterly destroying decades of devoted daily prayers for her. As the “promotion to heaven” is considered a given by her daughters, these would not even think of asking their children to pray for the dead, or to pray for the deceased themselves. If a permanence in Purgatory in envisaged, this will be something very short, mainly a formality. Masses for the dead will, obviously, not be needed. God will certainly be nice and not cause sufferance, surely? Rex tremendae majestatis is not even in their vocabulary, let alone in their hearts.
So here we have the modern conception of purgatory: no prayers for the dead, no devotions, no Mass attendance, no need to even be properly instructed, and we all go straight to Paradise – bar the few who will have to make a short pit stop in Purgatory and, probably, Hitler and Stalin – because we are nice people, very inclusive, and always so nice with everyone.
I’ll stick with my Grandmother, thank you very much.
I started reading this booklet, How to avoid Purgatory, with not a little measure of scepticism. Grown in an environment where the non practising Catholics were rather indifferent (my parents) and the practising Catholics were rather stern (most notably: my rather steely grandmother) I grew up believing that Purgatory is something you grow to expect, hoping that it will be as little unpleasant as possible; that it is difficult enough to avoid Hell to have the presumption of thinking of even planning to avoid Purgatory; that this idea of asking for oneself something reserved for the most saintly Christians smells of arrogance or, as I would have put it in my childhood, of being a spoiled child.
Add to this that this booklet is clearly dated. The measuring of purgatory in terms of earthly days (so and so many days of indulgence for such and such prayers, or measuring purgatory in “years”) would have been considered extremely questionable even in 1936 and acceptable only as a way of explanation for the uneducated, and of encouragement for the very young.
Still: when one has read the entire booklet, has absorbed its meaning and has pondered a bit over the general tone and message of this little but very intelligent work (and, most importantly, has noticed the continuous effort of the author to explain that the desired behaviour will, in many cases, not be enough to avoid purgatory altogether, to which even my grandmother would have gravely nodded), one understands what blessings this little booklet can bring to the faithful.
If I were allowed to make a politically incorrect comparison, I’d say that the leitmotiv of the booklet reminds one of the typical behaviour of one of the two sexes. What it boils down to is: ruthless nagging of God, The Blessed Virgin and the Saints for what we desire; a countless number of little efforts and little prayers; an unceasing pushing made in little things, but repeated a huge numbers of time. The following of the practices suggested in the booklet (there are several of them; no one of them unpleasant; all of them rather easy; almost all repeatable at will; some rather daring and not frequently heard) is most fitting for those not strong enough for the heroic effort, but clever enough to recognise a deal on very favourable terms when they see one.
Gutta cavat lapidem, non vi, sed saepe cadendo. The drop hollows out the stone; not by force, but by frequent dropping. In our case, the stone is so willing to be hollowed out by our drops! And yes, without heroic virtue one will probably not attain avoidance of Purgatory anyway and not many are those who bring to the deal the necessary strenght. But very many of us can – if they but apply themselves to the acquiring of a limited number of not very uncomfortable, but very good habits – obtain such favours as to avoid that Purgatory – so it is not spared to us – is at least devoid of its harshest sting.
Come on, boys’ n girls….. Let’s start nagging!