|Purgatory in Limbo|
By Elizabeth Lev
ROME, JUNE 21, 2007 (Zenit.org).- A couple of months ago I was standing in the Sistine Chapel when I overheard an odd exchange in front of Michelangelo's "Last Judgment." A woman asked her husband which part of the painting was purgatory, to which her husband answered that it didn't matter because the Church had abolished purgatory anyway. (Yes, you really do hear it all in there!)
Now, looking for purgatory in an image of the "Last Judgment" is not a sign of great theological acumen, so I thought nothing of it, but as the months wore on, more and more pilgrims in Rome -- often devout people well-versed in their faith -- were asking whether it was true that the Church had rid itself of purgatory.
The question can be solved, of course, by a quick glance at the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which provides authoritative answers for this sort of thing.
In it we are taught: "All those 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" (No. 1030). It also explains that "the Church gives the name "purgatory to this final purification of the elect" (No. 1031). So, purgatory is up and running just as much as ever.
The question remains, where did this confusion come from? Last October, the International Theological Commission convened to discuss limbo, and found that the theory of an eternal middle ground between heaven and hell -- where souls could enjoy a "natural happiness" -- was no longer useful for the faithful.
Many newspapers, often at a loss when covering the Vatican, saw an opportunity for a catchy headline: "Pope Abolishes Limbo." Here began the confusion.
The London-based Times newspaper didn't report the exact words of the commission, but printed: "A Times source said that the theologians' finding basically says 'that all children who die go to heaven'" -- a misleading statement that was repeated by many other sources.
Unlike purgatory, the existence of limbo has never been part of official Catholic doctrine. It was, as Benedict XVI said, a theological construct.
The idea of limbo served as a way for the faithful to understand the fate of unbaptized souls. Not having been washed of the guilt of original sin, the argument went, they could not enter heaven, but innocent of personal sin, nor did they deserve hell. In the "Divine Comedy," Dante fashioned an unforgettable impression of limbo. When he enters, the poet exclaims: "No laments could we hear -- except for sighs that trembled the timeless air."
And Virgil -- Dante's mentor who is also excluded from heaven -- replies: "They did not sin; If they have merit, it can't suffice without baptism, portal to the faith you maintain" (Inferno IV, 20-25). These beautiful words, tinged with sadness and regret, remind the faithful of the beauty and importance of baptism, as well as our responsibility as being marked among the elect. Questioning the existence of limbo does not cancel the teaching that salvation ordinarily comes to us through the sacraments.
But in our modern age, give an inch and the rest will go with it. A wonderful family of pilgrims told me that their parish bulletin in Atlanta had declared that purgatory no longer existed. The logical follow-up is that hell, too, will soon be consigned to the dustbin of theology.
This series of misunderstandings, however, underscores the importance of pilgrimage. Here in Rome, we are still given penances to pray for the souls in purgatory. One can visit the Purgatory Museum and a plenary indulgence for the living or dead can be obtained at any of the major basilicas.
Coming to Rome, the home of the Church, walking in the footsteps of hundreds of great saints that passed through these streets, one revitalizes one's faith, and finds answers to questions and doubts.