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Theological Concerns in Conflict
By Father Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.

Q U I C K S C A N

Still Angry About Mother's Absence at Their Baptisms
Purgatory Revisited
Can They Do That?


Q: My wife has four nieces who have a tough time dealing with what they say was a Roman Catholic custom lasting into the 1950s.

They are disturbed that their saintly mother was never allowed to attend their Baptisms, all occurring in the 1950s. One of them says that they "pound the pews in rage" when they witness Baptisms today.

I have tried to find the answer online but get only so far. I have read about such terms as churching and unclean. One niece even says that her mother was prohibited from receiving Holy Communion until she was churched.

Their mother, my sister-in-law, was as close to sainthood as anyone I know, and I would certainly like to hear an answer. Was this simply the policy of their pastor then? I will be most grateful for any light you can shed on this subject.

A: I am sorry for your nieces' continuing anger about this matter. It is true that in the past mothers were often not present at a child's Baptism. Two factors explain this: 1) There was a concern that a newborn child be baptized as soon as possible to avoid any possibility of dying without benefit of Baptism, and 2) Medical care then available often required extended bed rest for mothers immediately before and following a birth. Many more women died in childbirth than is the case today.

The concern for baptizing a child promptly was given priority over a mother's presence at the Baptism. That is still true in emergency situations.

The first Baptism I performed was in a neonatal unit of a non-Catholic hospital. As a first-year theology student in 1971, I was the Saturday night chaplain in the emergency room and, at the family's request, was called to baptize a newborn whose future was very uncertain. That Baptism was formally acknowledged during a liturgical ceremony several weeks later—with both parents present. Neither father nor mother had been present when their child was baptized in the neonatal unit.

Regarding a prohibition of receiving Holy Communion before a new mother had been churched, I consulted three priests ordained in the 1950s; they confirmed that there was no universal law requiring this blessing before a new mother could receive Holy Communion.

In some places, there was indeed a special blessing for women who had recently given birth, based on the Old Testament custom of doing so 40 days after a child was born (see Leviticus 12:1-8). This is the practice that brought Mary, Joseph and Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem (Luke 2:22-38) and which our liturgy acknowledges on February 2 as the Presentation of Our Lord.

In the 20th century, this custom was strong within certain ethnic groups, but it was not a universal requirement. I was baptized as an infant and was a teenager in the 1960s before I heard of this custom.

The Rite of Baptism for Children, revised and approved in 1969, presumes that a mother is present when her child is baptized. For example, both the mother and father are asked what name they have given the child, they are asked if they are accepting the responsibility of training this child in the practice of the faith, and they trace a cross on the child's forehead.

Before the renunciation of sin and profession of faith, the celebrant tells the parents: "You must make it your constant care to bring him (her) up in the practice of the faith. See that the divine life which God gives him (her) is kept safe from the poison of sin, to grow always stronger in his (her) heart.

"If your faith makes you ready to accept this responsibility, renew now the vows of your own Baptism. Reject sin; profess your faith in Christ Jesus. This is the faith of the Church. This is the faith in which these children are about to be baptized."

Parents are addressed when a candle is lit from the paschal candle and presented to them. The special blessing for mothers reads: "God the Father, through his Son, the Virgin Mary's child, has brought joy to all Christian mothers, as they see the hope of eternal life shine on their children. May he bless the mother of this child. She now thanks God for the gift of her child. May she be one with him (her) in thanking [God] for ever in heaven, in Christ Jesus our Lord."

Your sister-in-law clearly passed on her faith to her four daughters. While their mother's absence at their Baptisms was regrettable in view of today's practice, should they allow that fact to cancel out their mother's diligence at passing on her faith in Jesus, the same faith celebrated in the Sacrament of Baptism? They and the rest of the Church owe each newly baptized child a positive witness of what faith in Jesus means.

Q: Does purgatory really exist? If so, who goes there and when? Is it for punishment due to sins that you already confessed? Is it for mortal sins that you did not confess? For venial sins?

A: Yes, purgatory exists. It is more a process of cleansing and preparation to enjoy the eternal banquet than a place of suffering. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: "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" (#1030).

The Catechism then continues: "The Church gives the name purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent" (#1031).

Purgatory is linked to the idea of temporal punishment due to sin. Any sin continues to have negative consequences even after it is confessed and forgiven. If I murdered someone and was truly sorry before God, I could be forgiven, but my sorrow would not bring that person back to life.

Sin has a life of its own, and that is one of life's hardest lessons. Once I commit a sin, it is no longer under my control. Unconfessed venial sins are cleansed in purgatory, which is not a scaled-down version of hell.

I could die having lived a good life but still having a moral blind spot or two. For example, if I couldn't stand people from Australia (not true!), I would need some purification before I would be ready for the eternal banquet where someone might greet me with "G'day, mate!"

The Church does not understand purgatory as an opportunity to repent of mortal sins. Hell is still possible, though only God knows how many people may be there.

Father Leonard Foley, O.F.M., former editor of this publication, chose to end his classic book, Believing in Jesus: A Popular Overview of the Catholic Faith, with this Postscript: "A discussion of purgatory may seem a wry way to end a book on our life in Christ. But, as we saw, p45rgatory rests on a big if. There must be a period or process of purification if we need to be purified. It is possible that some persons are completely purified in this life.

"So the present is purgatory too—adjective and noun. Being saved is being cleansed, liberated, raised up to the life of Jesus daily. Purification is the daily dying to whatever is selfish, untrue, un-Christlike, and daily being raised by him to a deeper sharing in his own life.

"We are called to be like persons in purgatory in one crucial way: We are trying to learn to say the last words of the Bible as they say them, with bursting desire. To say them with no lingering strains of selfishness, with no lack of trust, with our whole heart and soul, mind and strength: Come, Lord Jesus! (Revelation 22:20)."

Q: At a regularly televised Mass, gifts are not brought up at the Offertory, the sign of peace is not given and Holy Communion is not offered from the cup. Do they have the right to omit these practices?

A: Because gifts should not be present on the altar at the start of Mass, they must be brought there eventually. Although a server may bring them from a credence table, an offertory procession is presumed by Article 140 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. People can be invited to exchange the sign of peace (#154). Communion from the cup may or may not be offered (#160), perhaps because of time constraints. The local bishop of the place where a televised Mass is celebrated may issue additional instructions for such Masses.

If you have a question for Father Pat, please submit it here. Include your street address for personal replies enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope, please. Some answer material must be mailed since it is not available in digital form. You can still send questions to: Ask a Franciscan, 28 W. Liberty Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202.


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