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Holy shades of Chaucer! Pope Francis is offering indulgences to anyone who follows Catholic World Youth Day on social media. Indulgences, for those who don’t know (or who thought such rusty concepts were confined to the Middle Ages), grant certain amounts of “time off” in Purgatory to their holders — sort of a “get out of jail free” card for the afterlife. In “The Canterbury Tales,” the Pardoner doles out such indulgences — for a fee — and Chaucer does not mince words in condemning him.

I’d like to think that God controls our destiny, not the Catholic Church (or any other church, for that matter). I can’t imagine it will matter much to God if we end up at the Pearly Gates with souls full of sin and ignorance, but clutching a few magic beans in our sweaty palms. “Oh,” imagine God saying, “You have indulgences. Well, that changes everything.” Fat chance.

I like Pope Francis. I like his commitment to the poor, his humility. I think he will do great things for the Church. And, Lord, do we need them! For every Francis, there’s a Cardinal Dolan, glad-handing his way right over the needs of the people, or a bishop looking the other way at abuse of children by priests. But I have to say, I’m a little embarrassed at Francis’ resorting to the old chestnut of indulgences in order to build interest in a Church event. It reeks of desperation. (Perhaps he is desperate?) But more importantly, it reeks of supposition.

Why any human being — even the Pope — might feel capable of giving people time off from the punishments of the afterlife poses a conundrum for me. For one, who’s to say the afterlife contains the kind of punishments we human beings can conceive of? I always viewed the moment of death as a reckoning: You see your life laid out before you in all its beauty and ugliness, and have to relive every bad-hearted, unloving thing you ever did. For me, this would be excruciating, even if it passed in a moment. My friend Alice doesn’t believe there will be punishment of any kind in the afterlife. Only a welcoming heaven provided by a God whose forgiveness exceeds our wildest imaginings.

We do ourselves — and God — a disservice when we try to analyze God’s plans for us beyond the world we live in. Only God knows what lies ahead. Only God will give us what we truly deserve. Will following an event by Twitter give God pause in God’s judgment? It seems unlikely.

Please, do follow (or attend) Catholic World Youth Day. Just don’t count your chickens — or your indulgences — before they hatch.

It is All Souls Day, a day on which the souls of all those who have died are remembered and celebrated. It was at Mass on All Souls Day, many years ago, that my mother told me about my sister, Christy. She had died at birth when I was four. (Not the sharpest knife in the drawer, I don’t even remember my mother being pregnant.) I recall an event from around that time: My Aunt Beverly took us kids to the circus. Afterwards, we played games with my cousin Mike. Then, my mother was home and she was crying. Was that when it happened?  A childhood friend (having overheard a snippet of conversation between our mothers) once told me that “you had a baby, but it crawled away.” The words were accusatory. I wracked my brain. When had there been a baby in our house? And how could it possibly reach a doorknob in order to escape? Why hadn’t anyone noticed?

Christy was buried in a Catholic cemetery, yet I can’t imagine there was time for even the most fleeting of baptisms. I spent a good deal of my childhood worrying over this fact. In those days, the Catholic Church was more vocal about a concept called Purgatory: A place of waiting and purification, neither Heaven nor Hell, for souls who were “in limbo” — i.e. in a state of sin or not baptized. One prayed for these souls, that in time, they might go to Heaven.

This struck me as fundamentally unfair. What sin could a baby commit, one who had not even had the chance to draw breath? Why should she be stuck in Purgatory, away from God? What sort of unfair Father preorders this sort of jail sentence?

We don’t talk about Purgatory anymore. I don’t believe in it, at any rate. Or, I guess I should say, I believe in it as a phase. Purgatory, to me, means those moment or moments after one dies when she is called upon to see her life in all its ugliness, to view the naked instances of unkindness, jealousy, spite and anger that marred her relationships and hindered her growth. It is this time of reckoning and repentance that constitutes Purgatory. Perhaps it lasts a minute; perhaps it lasts years — whatever it takes to come to terms with the life we led, and be ready to spend eternity with God. Babies need not apply.

I wonder, will I meet Christy someday? If so, will she be a baby or has she spent her childhood and adult life in Heaven? Is she married? Do I have nieces and nephews in Heaven? It is all beyond my ken. I also believe that God doesn’t waste souls. If He means for the inventor of the cure for cancer to be born, that person will be born, and no human intervention will prevent it. We have free will, but not over our Creator. It’s a paper-rock-scissors thing. God trumps all.

But if this is so, who was Christy? What am I mourning when I visit her grave? These are mysteries, things I cannot hope to fathom in my lifetime. What I do know is this: God doesn’t give jail sentences. Purgatory, if it exists, is a matter of our own making and controlled by our own self-awareness or lack thereof. As is Hell, for that matter. What is Hell, after all, but our own stubborn refusal to turn to God?

On this All Souls Day, let us remember those we have lost. But let’s also remember that “lost” isn’t what they are. Not at all. We remain in the place of questions. The souls of the dead have the answers. It is our souls that need all the prayer they can get.

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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