Fr. Trenham relates the revealing conversation, saying, “It struck me. I said, ‘That is the greatest summation of the response that we’ve seen in our nation to [the Covid crisis] that I could make. You’re right. No one wants to die anymore.’ …And then he said, ‘No one wants Jesus, the Second Coming anymore. The end of the New Testament…The cry of the Christian heart from age to age throughout centuries has been this; Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus, come.’
“He said, no one wants to die any more and no one wants the Second Coming any more.” This, Fr. Trenham said is “the poison of a wealthy secular society; that we actually want to hold on to this cheapo life that we have on the earth,” instead of desiring with all our hearts “the kingdom of God in the next life.”
“The abundant life that Jesus offers is only obtained through death.”
There’s a lot to lament about the loss of the Catholic attitude toward the Four Last Things. And it’s not all the fault of Vatican II. We can put it down to a lot of things; the general Protestantising of the Faith, particularly in Anglo-Protestant countries like the US, Britain and Canada; modernity’s great swing toward material, this-worldly concerns that came with the post-War economic booms; the hippie-generation’s narcissistic certitude that death was something that was only going to happen to other people…
In the Catholic Church we can certainly link the loss of the “memento mori” quite clearly to a general loss of awareness of sin and the collapse of Confession as a regular practice since Vatican II. With the denial of death and the erasure of sin, fear of eternal damnation seems to have evaporated and along with it any thought to preparation for the next life. Indeed, there are plenty of parishes throughout the world where no Confession time is included in the weekly sacramental schedule, with or without a global viral outbreak
The fairweather Church
During the Covid crisis a crescendo of Catholic voices was heard against the shutdown of the Church by bishops and the disappearance of priests. In some few places heroic priests – often against the wishes of their bishops – employed creative means to allow the faithful to continue to have access to the Sacraments, but these were rarities. In most places in the Catholic world, churches were simply locked and the faithful out of luck.
Given that we were told the virus was deadly and we were all in danger of death (in certain parts of Italy this was manifestly true) it was doubly outrageous that the Church simply retreated behind locked doors, leaving the flock with no pastoral care whatever. My own Umbrian village was typical, in which no information was given as to the whereabouts or how to contact a priest for any circumstance. A hand written note was taped to the parish bulletin board that read simply, “All Masses are cancelled.” No telephone number, website or email address was included.
If Covid really had been a new Black Death-scale global health disaster, the near-complete disappearance of the pastors from the scene would certainly have gone down as one of the most outrageous scandals in our 2000 year history.
It seems that among the messages we may take home from this experience of complete abandonment is that, in the feel-good, Post-Conciliar Age, the age of balloon and clapping Masses, chummy hand-shaking and guitar-strummin’ folk songs, the Church no longer “does” death. The VaticanTwoist Catholic Church, where no one ever talks or thinks about the Four Last Things, is at best a fair-weather friend.
WE are now the resurrection and the life
It seems to be a result of the Post-Conciliar patchouli-scented miasma that wants to say death itself just isn’t very important. They get around the inescapable thought that everyone will, in fact, die – including the hippies – simply by lying: everyone goes to heaven because God is really nice. Also, nearly everyone is already a saint anyway because being a saint is really easy. All of this becomes abundantly clear at a Novusordoist Catholic funeral Mass. The deceased is inevitably eulogised into premature sainthood and if anyone is considering praying for him instead of to him, we can just keep that rigid neo-pelagian stuff to ourselves.
Under Paul VI we learned that the Mass and the Holy Eucharist is not so big a deal as we had previously been told. Then, because we had a nice friendly new God who wasn’t into judgment, sin turned out to be not much of a deal either. Confession turned into low-budget therapy to help you get over your hang-ups about it.
And here’s the rub: having abolished sin, and with death itself all but banished we no longer need the Resurrection of the Son of God. We just used our mighty powers, standing up as mature, adult, Easter-Resurrection People, and wished death and judgment into the Novusordoist, VaticanTwoist, Therapeutic Deist cornfield. No hell below us and heaven right here on earth.
But we’re terrified of death.
The Covid19 crisis has taught us that all our insouciance and arrogance about death is an utter sham. The entire world was, for a feverish three or four months, gripped by a blinding, unchristian, terror of death that pushed out every other human and spiritual concern. We were shocked and grieved in Italy at the stories of elderly people dying alone in hospitals, nursing facilities and at home, of families forbidden to help grandparents at the end of their lives.
We saw the entire nation’s economic functioning totally shut down, and while the government promised cash for the suddenly un-employed nothing actually materialised in this bureaucracy-entangled nation. Small businesses of all kinds have collapsed, leaving formerly prosperous people suddenly destitute – in a country with little in the way of a “social safety-net”. All because of a dread of death that would have baffled our spiritual ancestors. Nothing could have demonstrated more forcefully how far from our cultural roots in Christianity we have come.
Have we returned to the pagan terror of death that outstrips all other concerns, erases all bonds of human fellowship? Pre-Christian cultures across the world did unimaginably horrifying things to appease terrible, dark, unknown gods – out of a fear of even darker and more unknown death. Have we truly forgotten that we know what happens at death? We know with a certitude that should banish all fear; death is emphatically not unknown to Christians.
The “catharsis of evil” – Purgatory is the cure for what ails you
What did our Christian forebears know that we have forgotten? St. John Chrysostom writes against this pagan fear among those calling themselves Christian:
I am ashamed and blush to see unbecoming groups of women pass along the mart, tearing their hair, cutting their arms and cheeks, and all this under the eyes of the Greeks. For what will they not say? What will they not utter concerning us? Are these the men who philosophize about a resurrection? Indeed! How poorly their actions agree with their opinions! In words, they philosophize about a resurrection: but they act just like those who do not acknowledge a resurrection. If they fully believed in a resurrection, they would not act thus; if they had really persuaded themselves that a deceased friend had departed to a better state, they would not mourn.”
The Orthodox do not have a belief in Purgatory, but the idea behind it is the same. This “catharsis of evil,” this purging and perfecting, we know, is achieved for those in a state of grace at the end of life through “a place or condition of temporal punishment but who are “not entirely free from venial faults, or have not fully paid the satisfaction due to their transgressions”. The saints tell us clearly that most good Christians who die in a state of grace will still have this expiation to do.
There are three unassailable reasons to be fervently grateful for the sufferings of Purgatory:
We know that Purgatory is the “catharsis of evil” – the purging of all evil in ourselves. Revelation 21:27 tells us that “...nothing unclean will enter [Heaven].”
We know it is the cure for the things in ourselves that we are powerless on our own to resolve. For the Catholic in a state of grace, death may not be, as the pagans say, an “end to suffering” but it is an end, at last, to sin. We cannot sin in Purgatory, nor can we be sinned against, a freedom no living human being can enjoy.
Purgatory gives us the joy of this relief and a security that we cannot even imagine in this life. At death, the soul that enters the “place or condition” of Purgatory is utterly and totally secure; she is in a condition of safety that she has never known in life. The fear of hell is ended forever.
The third reason is that it perfects us to a degree that not even the greatest saints could achieve in life. As my friend and fellow Remnant columnist, Fr. Paul MacDonald put it recently, “The punishments in Purgatory are getting us ready for eternal bliss. They are medicinal, and without them we cannot enjoy a union with God. The constant joy and peace of the souls in Purgatory is, I think, only tasted briefly by the saints on earth.”
No other religion has ever so firmly asserted a reason for human suffering. Buddhism is right in one sense that all life is suffering; but refuses to answer the question why. We know it is sin. We know we did this to ourselves. But we also know there is a cure that is freely and gratuitously given by God.
One thing about this life that we cannot escape is the consequences of sin. We are immersed in it. We suffer moral, physical, psychological, emotional and even simple material damage from sin, and psychologists will admit that very often these hurts cannot ever be fully healed. We sin again and again, and we carry the harms of those sins through our whole lives. We feel so often helplessly in the grip of a force that is at once generated by our own bad will, and at the same time strangely outside our control.
St. Paul summarised this strange agony of human weakness saying:
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do. But what I hate, I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I admit that the law is good. In that case, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh; for I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do. Instead, I keep on doing the evil I do not want to do. And if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
So this is the principle I have discovered: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law. But I see another law at work in my body, warring against the law of my mind and holding me captive to the law of sin that dwells within me.
Purgatory ends forever this otherwise completely insoluble problem, this source of so much incomprehensible dread and confusion. It fixes the one problem that we are completely helpless to resolve ourselves.
One of the biggest sources of suffering in this life is mental suffering. Especially now we suffer a terrible uncertainty, because we don’t know what life is for or how to live it. And most of all we often don’t really believe anyone loves us. For the children of the divorce generation and the horrors of the Sexual Revolution the idea that God really loves us is the hardest one to wrap our heads around. Imagine an entire life lived without a fundamental belief that you are worth loving. That’s nearly everyone our age, an age of divorce, family dissolution and abandonment.
In Purgatory that huge and insoluble problem will instantly be gone forever. We will have knowledge of the love of God that was completely unavailable in this life. It will not be perfect, as it will be in the Beatific Vision, but it will be perfect-in-promise. We will know we are loved in a way that no one in this life could know, and we will know with an unassailable certitude that only better and better love – infinite Love – is destined to be ours forever.
It is, by the way, the mind of the Church that the souls, while still in Purgatory, are praying for us, even though they can no longer pray for themselves. Mercy will be shown to the merciful. As Chrysostom says, “Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.”
Prayers with ecclesiastical approval: “Eternal Father, through the sorrowful and immaculate heart of Mary, I offer Thee The Wounds of our Lord Jesus Christ, for all the souls in Purgatory, To heal their wounds, to cleanse all their stains and to pay all of their debts.”
“My Jesus, through the merits of thy holy wounds: Eternal rest grant unto them O Lord and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace.”