Back in 1984, when His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI was a mere Cardinal Joseph Ranzinger, presiding over the Vatican’s doctrinal enforcement lobby, he expressed his opinion that he was personally in favour of scrapping the 13th-century notion of ‘Limbo’, the no-man’s land situated between Heaven and Hell and reserved for unbabtized babies, which he termed a mere “hypothesis.”
It was the French monk Peter Aberlard who introduced the idea of Limbo. Before the 13th Century, all unbaptized people, including new born babies who died, went to hell because they had not been cleansed of original sin by the Christian baptism ceremony. Abelard said that babies who had no personal sin didn’t deserve such punishment
Earlier this year, in his new position of supreme power, the Pope gave his approval to a 41 page document drafted by the International Theological Convention , although adding that its conclusions were not to be considered Roman Catholic Church dogma. Published in US magazine ‘Origins’, the report announced: “The many factors that we have considered … give serious theological and liturgical grounds for hope that unbaptised infants who die will be saved.”
And so a concept that had been preached and believed in for 800 years has been virtually abolished. It’s sad that a baseless fable should have caused so much mental anguish to Catholic parents of stillborn or early-dead children over the centuries, believing that their child would never reach Heaven, and whose little corpse was refused burial in the church graveyard. Instead they can now believe as the Muslims do, that the departing soul of an innocent babe will go straight to Heaven.
The word ‘Limbo’ comes from a Latin word meaning “the edge”, and Limbo was usually described as a sort of dim and foggy place where there was no pain, but no real pleasure either. In Purgatory, that other no-man’s-land between Heaven and Hell, there is pain. And plenty of it.
St Augustine, august father of the Church warned that “the pain suffered by those who expiate their faults by purgatorial flames is more intolerable than any one can suffer in this life.” The only good thing about Purgatory is that you know it’s good for you in the long-run, because the sins you accumulated on earth are being seared away and you’ll eventually emerge purified in Heaven. Still, one naturally wants to stay there for as short a time as possible. Is there any way to speed up the process?
As a matter of fact there is. Apart from the temporary forgiveness of sins afforded by confession and penance, there are the esteemed ‘indulgences’ which the Church can bestow on an individual from its ‘Treasury of Merit’, and which can grant full or partial remission from one’s stay in Purgatory.
In 1517, in order to pay for the rebuilding of St Paul’s basilica in Rome, Pope Leo X began the practice of selling indulgences. The idea proved to be a popular money-spinner. They even had a chart that listed a price for each type of sin you could be forgiven. The slogan went: “As soon as the gold in the casket rings / the rescued soul to heaven springs.” Then along came an upstart German monk named Martin Luther who called foul. He denounced such transactions and denied the Pope’s right to grant pardons on God’s behalf. This caused a massive schism and the Christian Church split. Suddenly there weren’t as many indulgences being handed out as there used to be.
But now – lucky Catholics! Suddenly there’s a unique opportunity for shedding extra time of Purgatorial agony For a limited time only, to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the apparitions of the Virgin Mary 14 year old Bernadette Soubirsous claimed she saw outside the village of Lourdes in France in 1858, the Supreme Pontiff Benedict XVI has decided to specially concede the gift of Plenary Indulgence to the faithful.
In order to qualify for the Plenary, which wipes out a whole lifetime of sins in one fell swoop, Catholics have until December 8th 2008 to go on pilgrimage to Lourdes, visit all the officially sanctified shrines – birthplace, registery Office, grotto, etcetera, and “on each occasion pause for an appropriate length of time in prayer and with pious meditations, concluding with the recital of the Our Father, the Profession of Faith, the jubilee prayer or other Marian invocation.” Following this formula will ensure the cleansing of the soul by the indulgence. Try to be good afterwards, however, as new sins have a habit of ticking up.
To get to Lourdes, naturally, you’ll try to make use of the recently inaugurated ‘Vatican Airlines’, with its official slogan, “I’m Searching for Your Face, Lord,” imprinted on headrest covers throughout the plane. The cabin crew is “specialized in voyages of a sacred nature” and instead of standard movies, the in-flight entertainment system plays religious videos. The shrine of Fatima in Portugal where the 3 little shepherd children claimed similar sightings of the BVM (Blessed Virgin Mary) in 1917 is another hot destination.
If you can’t get to Lourdes, don’t worry. There’s still a way of getting your plenary indulgence, but you only have 10 days to earn it. In the Vatican’s Plan B for salvation, “if between February 2, and February 11, 2008, during the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Lourdes and 150th anniversary of the apparition, you visit, in any church, grotto or decorous place, the blessed image of that same Virgin of Lourdes, solemnly exposed for public veneration, and before the image participate in a pious exercise of Marian devotion, or at least pause for an appropriate space of time in prayer” you will be exempt from the pain of Purgatory.
Interestingly, Bernadette was disappointed when she saw the statue of the lady in white with the blue sash, designed for the sacred grotto after Lourdes took off as a place of pilgrimage and a money-spinner for the Catholic Church. She said the virgin was too old. The apparition she’d spoken to had been that of a twelve-year-old girl.
But, hold on a second. Does anybody remember ‘Limbo’? That was the place where the souls of unbaptised babies and those unfortunate enough to have been born before Jesus, used to go–a kind of Purgatory but without the pain. Not a bad place, but not good either, because there was no chance of gazing on the radiant face of God.
Earlier this year, after 800 years of official existence, Limbo was officially abolished by Pope Benedick. He said that it was time to let the idea of limbo drop “since it has always been only a theological hypothesis, and never a definitive truth of the faith.”
So, if the Pope can do away with Limbo after all these years with the stroke of his pen, maybe he could do the same to Purgatory?
And if Purgatory is abolished, what is to become of Heaven and Hell?
“Imagine all the people, living for today? … ”
Heaven on Earth?
MICHAEL DICKINSON, whose artwork graces the covers of Dime’s Worth of Difference, Serpents in the Garden and Grand Theft Pentagon, lives in Istanbul. He can be contacted via his website http://yabanji.tripod.com/ or at: firstname.lastname@example.org