By Reverend Joseph Portzer, FSSP
Editors Note: With the death of a close friend (Matt Cameron, to whom this blogsite is dedicated) and an uncle in the same week, thoughts of the eternal have been filling my mind. Another very close friend, Father Portzer, lost his mom a few weeks ago as well. I knew her, and can attest she was a very good woman who raised 14 children in the Faith. However, while reflecting on his mother’s life, Father wrote about authentic Catholic teaching – not about Heaven – but about Purgatory. -CF
Even before my mother died about two weeks ago, the usual silly practice of canonizing those we love was starting. Friends from our parish visited her, and attempted to comfort her by telling her what a good person she was, and of course my mother protested. It is an odd trap when you receive compliments you don’t deserve as a Catholic. If you tell them you are not so virtuous as they think, then they just have one more reason to praise you: you are so humble you don’t see your own virtues! My mother told me later that she really didn’t understand why they said such things to her. I told her to ignore their remarks, because she knew the truth about herself, and they did not. My mother knew she was not a saint. She could have honestly listed her sins if anyone had asked her to do so.
After she died I was on the receiving end of condolences from many at her parish, and far too often I heard some remark that assumed she was already in Heaven because of her personal goodness. One good woman even told me that I had a new intercessor in Heaven. It astounds me how far this false teaching has spread, because although this was coming from traditional Catholics, I even heard a traditional priest make the same sort of remark at a funeral sermon within the last few years. This misplaced praise and this misunderstanding of God’s mercy have to stop. I am most of all troubled by the fact that such remarks sweep away all motivation to pray for the deceased. When my grandmother died, the priest addressed all of her grieving relatives and friends with words that I now paraphrase: I am sure that God sees all the prayers that have been said and will be said for her, and because of them she is now in Heaven.
The problem with that sermon, and the sermon I heard a traditional priest preach, and the problem with all those who are so sure my mother is in Heaven, is that they are completely ignorant of basic Catholic teaching. The problematic result is that they assure themselves and others that someone is in Heaven, and therefore, logically, there is no reason to pray for the deceased or to have Masses said for them. It is this sort of silly thinking that causes us to have funeral Masses wearing white vestments. White, in Western culture, is the color of joy and celebration. It is not appropriate for funerals. This is why, in his encyclical Mediator Dei, Pope Pius XII warned against the then beginning trend to have funeral Masses in white vestments. His warnings were ignored. The “everyone goes to Heaven” thinking took over the Church. Black vestments, by contrast, show mourning at the loss of a friend or relative, and rightly show forth a Church which begs God to have mercy on His departed servant.
In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, number 1030, we find this teaching on Purgatory: “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.” What people are saying when they claim that my mother was so good that she went to Heaven immediately or very soon after she died is that my mother died in or very near the state of perfection. They have no idea what they are talking about. First, let’s recall the life of a very holy woman who lived a life of heroic virtue for years, St. John Bosco’s mother. She had a difficult life, losing her husband early and living in poverty as she raised her sons. Then, when her son John became a priest and began to care for boys by the dozens and then by the hundreds, she was at his side cooking, cleaning, mending, and that right to the end. Her life was one of work and sacrifice, and she did it all with a deep spirit of faith. When she died, St. John Bosco was praying for hours that she would go straight to Heaven, and was there to give her the sacraments of the Church.
Some time after she died, she appeared in a dream to him and spoke with him. He asked her if she had gone straight to Heaven. She replied very directly, “No.” After telling him that she sang a hymn in praise of God. You may need to read that over again to grasp the full import of it. She lived a heroic and difficult life, she poured herself out for years for poor needy boys, she was accompanied by the sacraments of the Church and the prayers of her saintly son, a priest, and she went to Purgatory. Now take all your pious ideas about good people going straight to Heaven and throw them right in the trash. The Church has never taught this.
What has the Church taught? That only those who are completely perfect go straight to Heaven. That is why the Catechism of the Catholic Church says that all who are “still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation, but after death they undergo purification.” We can get into more detail on this subject by consulting a doctor of the Church, St. John of the Cross. St. John mapped out in his spiritual writings the purifications a person will go through if he gives himself generously to God in this life. At the beginning of a serious spiritual life, he purifies himself by carefully avoiding all sin, both mortal and venial, and then by giving up those things which satisfy his senses but which he does not need, and that includes all satisfactions for each of his senses. God, in response to this generosity, brings his soul through the first of two purifications, which St. John calls the dark night of the senses. In this night spiritual consolations are taken away, temptations may increase, and various calamaties may afflict him: loss of health, financial disaster, loss of friends, the death of one or more loved ones and so on. At the same time the spiritual life, because no consolations are present, seems dry, boring and useless, and prayer can be very difficult. Sometimes, as happened to St. Therese of Lisieux, a most painful attack of scruples takes place. He must persevere through all of this in order to benefit from it. Although it seems like a time of punishment, it is instead a time of great spiritual blessing and growth. It can last for years.
After the dark night of the senses the soul emerges into a time when prayer is easy, and can last for a long time. The dryness is gone, and a period of spiritual prosperity is felt. If a person is faithful to God through this time he will grow ever more in his generosity to God, and will sacrifice everything to Him. Many years, perhaps even decades, will pass in a time of spiritual advancement, and then, due to his very great generosity, God rewards him by putting him into the dark night of the soul. Those of you who have read the story of the interior darkness experienced by St. Teresa of Calcutta entitled Come Be My Light know what a difficult experience this is. Many were scandalized to know that someone who seemed so holy on the outside, and brought such peace and happiness to others, was dry and miserable on the inside. They did not know the truth about the dark night of the soul. It is a most painful experience, very bitter, dark and horrible. The soul even feels at times that it is doomed to Hell, that it somehow has become God’s enemy. St. John of the Cross describes it in terms that leave no doubt about the horrors of the dark night of the soul. This night, however, plunges a person advancing towards God into terrible darkness precisely because they are coming closer to God, and the evil that is in us is purged by the fire of God’s perfect holiness. St. John aptly compares a person going through both of the dark nights to a log that is placed on a fire. At first, the log smokes and exudes all sort of impurities, it turns black, but then it finally begins to burn. The fire penetrates deeper and deeper into the log, until finally it is a glowing, burning coal of fire. It has become just like the fire itself. In the dark night of the senses saints are made, they become just like God Himself, about whom St. Paul said, “Our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:29)
And how long does this last? That depends on a few things, such as how holy God wants to make the person, how generously they endure the suffering, and what they are able to endure. In the case of St. Teresa of Calcutta, by exception, it lasted to the end of her life. Normally the saints pass, after many years, through this stage and within a few years they die, having reached a very great holiness. St. John says that those who have successfully passed through the dark night of the spirit go directly to Heaven because they have gone through their Purgatory on earth.
What does that mean for the rest of us? How many of us have even given up all earthly pleasures, and have then been taken by God through the first purification, the night of the senses? Just about nobody. I cannot say that I know of even one person who has gone through that night, which is quite an intense experience, more painful than anything the average good Catholic has ever endured. And how many have then been blessed with years of increased spiritual growth, and have shown great generosity to God and served him with great zeal and self-sacrifice? And how many have gone through the dark night of the spirit, and therefore have no need of Purgatory? How many such persons do you know? I am certain I don’t know any. Now you see why it is sheer foolishness when a priest in a funeral sermon assures everyone that the deceased is in Heaven, and when people tell themselves or others that surely such a good person is in Heaven?
Further, the Church has a most carefully planned process by which it decrees that a person is in Heaven. This is a decision that is made only by whomever is Pope, and not by anyone else. It is a multi-layered process, involving the gathering of testimony from witnesses, repeated reviews by the Church, and decisions made carefully one step at a time as the holy person passes from being venerated first as a servant of God, then a venerable, then a blessed and finally a saint. Miracles have to be proven for the cause to advance all the way. I wonder if anyone who declares someone to be in Heaven realizes that they have just snatched away the job proper to a pope when they make their bold statement? My goodness, so many self-appointed popes and popesses! And now that you have read the Catholic teaching on the matter, will you please stop canonizing my mother? Thank you.
My mother was sensible Catholic woman, and she knew full well that her deceased relatives and friends, no matter how much she loved them and how dear they were to her, were to be prayed for. I have never met anyone who had Masses offered for the dead like my mother. I remember that a common item in the parish bulletin for many years was “Mass for the poor souls in Purgatory, requested by the Portzer family.” Portzer family = my mother. One day I was looking through an old book and found a parish bulletin from the 1960’s, and I wondered if I would find it, and there it was, “Mass for the poor souls, requested by the Portzer family.” In her last weeks my mother left a message for all of us in the family, but also for everyone else, through my brother. He wrote her words down faithfully, and they are as follows: Please live your life well so we may meet again in Heaven. Strong Catholic words, those. But do not assume that she thought that she was going straight to Heaven. My mother was quite resistant to such foolishness, for she knew that, like all of us, she was a sinner. And that is why she said to me and to a few others who were in the room with her, just days before she died, “I don’t want a bunch of flowers. I want Masses.”
So if you are one of those people who tried to canonize my mother (or other victims of modern un-Christian thinking) even though you do not have the power to do so, it’s time to take off your papal tiara, consider the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and that of St. John of the Cross, and pray. Now you are doing what my mother would approve of wholeheartedly. If you keep thinking like a Catholic, you might find yourself doing what she did, requesting Masses for the poor souls in Purgatory.