March 10, 1997

[This letter in English]
[Dieser Brief auf deutsch]
[Esta carta en español]


March 10, 1997
Month of Saint Joseph

Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

Precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of His saints (Psalm 115: 15).

It was on December 31, 1640, in the presbytery of a small hamlet by the name of La Louvesc in the mountains of Vivarais (France). Saint Jean-François Régis, a priest of the Society of Jesus, was lying down in his bed, exhausted from fatigue and sickness. A Jesuit Brother was watching over him. Around midnight, the Saint, who had completely retained consciousness, told his companion that he felt very bad; and shortly thereafter he said: "Ah! my Brother, I see Our Lord and Our Lady opening Paradise for me." Then he repeated the words that Jesus said on the Cross: "Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit," and his soul took flight to Heaven.

This edifying death is a cause for joy, because it is certain, in the eyes of the faith, that every man receives his just reward in his immortal soul as soon as he passes into eternity. For those who do not have the faith, death is an enigma. Nevertheless, no man can avoid this crucial question: What happens after death?

For materialists, death reduces us to nothing. Reason belies this opinion. Indeed, man can think, wish, love; he can conceive ideas, he can reason, he possesses liberty; all of these elements show in him the existence of a spiritual principal, the soul. The immortality of the human soul can be deduced from its spiritual character and its desire for perfect happiness. The general sentiment of mankind also attests to this truth. That is why the revolutionary Robespierre himself wrote: "The French people believe in the immortality of the soul." For his part, Voltaire, even though he was a relentless enemy of Christianity, did not hesitate to say of materialism that it is "the most enormous of absurdities, the most revolting folly that has ever entered into the human mind."

A cycle that one does not begin again

But there are other false answers to the question. One of them is widespread today: the theory of reincarnation. For those who adhere to this doctrine, after death the human soul takes on another body and thus reincarnates itself anew. This teaching is found among several peoples. In India (Hinduism and Buddhism), it is a dogma that dominates all religion and thought. This cycle of rebirths is frightful, because it is linked to the theme of fault and expiation: it is a punishment and a curse. On the other hand, in our Western societies, reincarnation is put forth in a positive light: it would permit the realization of all the aspirations of man, who cannot be satisfied with a single existence. It would also be the means to redeem one's faults and errors committed during life.

This idea, born of paganism, contradicts Holy Scripture and the Tradition of the Church. It is especially opposed to three points of the Christian faith:

- Firstly, its principle error lies in the refusal of the Redemption of man by Jesus, the Saviour, because it is fundamentally a theory of self-redemption and self-realization. At first glance, it appears quite indulgent concerning human weaknesses, but in reality, it is of an inhuman hardness. Indeed, it shoulders man with all the weight of a liberation that in fact he can only receive from God. Man must succeed alone in his own life. Who can say if he will get better results the next time? Christianity, on the other hand, forcefully asserts: God alone is the unique perfection of man. In Jesus Christ we have Redemption, through His blood, the remission of sins according to the riches of His grace (Ephesians 1: 7). Communion with God and life in God can never really be spoken of as the work of man, but only as a free gift of God, offered to every man. Our eternal salvation does not depend on how long we have lived, but only on the welcome that we reserve for the love of Christ.

- On the other hand, believers in reincarnation cannot accept the following teaching of the Church on particular judgment: "Death puts an end to human life as the time open to either accepting or rejecting the divine grace manifested in Christ [...]. Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven - through a purification (Purgatory) or immediately - or immediate and everlasting damnation" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1021, 1022).

- Finally, the theory of reincarnation cannot be reconciled with the resurrection of the body, at the end of the world, for the last judgment. The Church "firmly believes and confesses that on the Day of Judgment all men will appear in their own bodies before Christ's tribunal to render an account of their own deeds" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1059). This Last Judgment at the end of the world will not dispute the irreversible verdict rendered during the particular judgment at the moment of death, but its goal will be to re-establish social justice: our good or bad actions have repercussions on the good or bad development of our neighbor. Sometimes this influence even endures beyond death in the works that we have left behind in the world. At the end of time, virtue will be exalted and evil condemned before all men. Justice will also be rendered to the risen bodies according to their participation in good or evil. Finally, the Wisdom of Divine Providence in the conduct of the history of men will clearly appear.

A supreme mercy

Only the Church, faithful depository of the teaching of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, fully enlightens us on death and the realities of the hereafter. Following Tradition, Vatican Council II asserts that "the course of our terrestrial life is unique" (Lumen Gentium, 48). Thus, the moment of death is decisive.

He who dies in the divine friendship, entirely purified of his sins, immediately enters into the glory of Heaven. Heaven is the state of supreme and definitive happiness and is the realization of the most profound aspirations of man. There, the blessed live forever with Christ; they are like unto God because they see Him face to face.

At the opposite pole, if someone dies in the state of serious sin, in the refusal of the Love of God, he immediately descends into eternal hell (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 1035). Death has fixed him in the interior state of rebellion against God. Here is what Saint Catherine of Genoa said: "Since they left the world with an evil will, the souls that are in hell are forever in a state of sin. And this sin is never forgiven them, and cannot be forgiven, because they are no longer in a condition to change their will. The moment of death froze them in an arrested state forever" (Treatise on Purgatory, chapter 4).

Finally, certain people die in the grace and friendship of God, but are imperfectly purified. "They 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.... This final purification of the elect is entirely different from the punishment of the damned" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1030-1031).

Nothing that is soiled can be introduced into the presence of the Lord. Any stain is an impediment to the intimate encounter with God, whose sanctity requires a perfect purity for those who enter into Heaven. This principle must be understood not only with respect to serious sins ("mortal"), that break and destroy the friendship with God, but also with respect to stains which darken this friendship. Among these belong venial sins, as well as the consequences of serious sins, which can remain in a man in a state of grace after forgiveness of the sin obtained either by the Sacrament of Penance or by a perfect act of contrition coupled with the desire to receive the Sacrament. Saint Caesarius of Arles said that venial sins, "without killing the soul, deform it such that it can hardly, or with great confusion, come to embrace the celestial Spouse" (Sermon 104:3). Fortunately, the mercy of God offers us the consoling possibility of a complete purification after death.

A little girl will help us to better understand the mystery of Purgatory.

Being the providence of the good Lord

One day, chasing butterflies with her friends, Eugénie, an exuberant seven year old, suddenly stopped her rapid pursuit: "Do you know what I think?" she said to her friends, and, without waiting for an answer, she continued in a serious manner: "Tell me, if one of us were in a prison of fire, and a simple word would deliver us from it, we would quickly say the word, wouldn't we?... That's what happens in Purgatory: It's like a prison of fire for the souls there. The Good Lord is only waiting for a prayer to deliver them, yet we don't say this prayer." Having barely pronounced these words, the little girl started racing again, a beautiful butterfly having recalled her from the invisible depths where a surprising grace had plunged her for an instant. But who was this girl?

Eugénie Marie-Joseph Smet was born on March 25, 1825, in Lille, France, into a family of solid Christian tradition. Early on, the action of grace made itself felt in her soul, and two things above all fascinated her: Purgatory and Divine Providence. At the age of twelve she prayed, "My God, You are my Providence: Ah! if one day I could be Yours!" When she was looking for the means of "being the providence of Him who had given her everything," she answered herself this way: "Ah! Here's how I will be the providence of the Good Lord: He loves the souls in Purgatory so much, and He cannot deliver them on account of His justice! Well! I will give Him these souls that He loves, and I will ask everyone to deliver them to Him by their prayers and little sacrifices."

Indeed, the souls in Purgatory endure very great sufferings in order to be entirely purified. The nature of the suffering in Purgatory has not been specified by the Magisterium of the Church. Saint Catherine of Genoa asserted that the delay of the face to face vision of God is very painful for the soul. Indeed, the soul, separated from its body, clearly sees that God is its unique ultimate end; it also strongly desires to unite itself with the Sovereign Good that it so ardently loves.

In Purgatory there is also sensible pain. The disordinate attachment to creatures which is found in all actual sin, even venial, is atoned for by a suffering that comes from creatures. The Latin Church, following numerous Fathers and Doctors of the Church, teaches that one of the instruments of this pain of the senses is real fire. "The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1031). The intensity of this pain of Purgatory nevertheless remains proportionate to the nature and the gravity of the sins to expiate.

Supernatural solidarity

Even though she had decided to help the souls in Purgatory, Eugénie did not yet know what kind of life God had called her to. On All Saints' Day, 1853, during Holy Mass, the inspiration to establish an association of prayers and good works for departed souls came to her. The next day, the day of the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed, this thought came to her: "There are communities which respond to all the needs of the Church militant, but there are none which dedicate themselves by the practice of works of zeal and charity to the Church suffering." That will be the original idea of the Association, and of the religious Institute which will spring from it. Eugénie, who will become Mother Mary of Providence, had always had the idea that works of mercy, above all those which are done for the poor of this world, are the most effective means of helping the poor in the hereafter. In becoming the servants of the poor, the sick, prisoners, old people, in a word, all the needy, the Helpers of the Holy Souls will realize the ideals of their founder: "To pray, suffer and act for the souls in Purgatory."

Indeed, Holy Scripture teaches us that we can aid the souls in Purgatory. Commenting on the offering made by Judas Machabeus in a sacrifice for the dead, it asserts: It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins (2 Mach 12: 46 - Vulgate). The Church has always honored the memory of the dead, and offers prayers, good works and above all the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass on their behalf. The liturgy of November 2 was specially instituted for this purpose, thanks to an initiative by Saint Odilo, Abbot of Cluny (998). At every Mass, the prayer of the Canon includes an intercession on behalf of the faithful departed. This supernatural solidarity is an aspect of the Communion of Saints which is very pleasing to God, as Our Lord revealed one day to the Venerable Marie Lataste: "You could do nothing more pleasing to God than come to the aid of the souls in Purgatory." In return, the souls that we have helped by our prayers, donations, sacrifices, Masses said for them, and to whom we have shown our affection in an effective manner, will not fail to help us in return.

This exercise, so salutary for the departed, is also useful for us. It reawakens our faith and hope, and thus becomes a powerful stimulus of sanctification and penance. Indeed, we can even purify ourselves on earth of our little faults caused by our human frailty. "There is a great and wholesome purification for the patient man who, receiving injuries, grieves more for the malice of the other person, than for his own wrong; who prays sincerely for his adversaries, and pardons them from the bottom of his heart; who, if he has injured others, is always ready to beg forgiveness; who is moved more to compassion than to anger; who mortifies himself and endeavors to subject the flesh entirely to the spirit." (Imitation of Christ, B. 1, ch. 24).

Achieving an ideal

The foundation of a religious order must always pass through tests. A thousand anguishing moments will grip the heart of Mother Mary of Providence: profound interior sadness, total lack of material goods. But Providence was always there. One day, when her heart was being tested by a profound bitterness, she confided her problems in the holy Curé of Ars. He had her sent a letter in which could be read: "The pastor smiled when he heard about all of your trials, and he charged me to tell you that these crosses are flowers that will soon bear fruit.... If God is for you, who can be against you?" He concluded another letter this way: "A house that is built upon the cross no longer has to fear the storm and the rain: it is divinely sealed."

While her Institute was branching out in France and in foreign countries, Mother Mary of Providence endured her own cross, attacked by pain that gave her no respite. Overcome by suffering, to the outside world she showed her contagious tranquil assurance, her fervor and her happiness. No one knew better than her how to console troubles and spread confidence and peacefulness. She often said, " All of my strength is in seeing my crucifix." Her great charity consumed her for God and souls. She realized what Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus would write a few years later in one of her poems: "I know that it is necessary to pass through the fire in order to contemplate Your glory. For myself, I choose for my Purgatory, Your burning love, O Heart of my God" (Poem No. 23).

God's love also reigns in Purgatory. Without it, suffering would be unable to produce the marvelous work of purification. There, souls enjoy a profound and unalterable peace, because they completely accept the will of God over them. Despite their great suffering, they are happy in their love of God, the assurance of being loved by Him, by Our Lady and the Saints, in the firm hope of Heaven and the certainty of their salvation.

Invincible security

In 1870, at the height of the Franco-German war, Mother's thoughts again brought her to Purgatory. She said, "My God, how many souls are coming before You! My Jesus, mercy! I can think only of the souls that are entering into their eternity. At least this is a truth! And what a truth!" On February 7, 1871, the holy foundress gently gave over her soul to God. She had lived on the cross and the cross had opened Paradise to her. Shortly before that she had said: "Let us be attached to the cross, it is our only hope.... Life is so short...! and eternity is forever. Let us already be in eternity."

The day following the ceremony of beatification, on May 26, 1957, Pope Pius XII summarized, in a speech, the essence of the message left by Sister Mary of Providence: "Whoever acts thus in a manner devoid of all personal interest and selfishness, and consecrates himself to the universal work of redemption, will know, like Mary of Providence, the suffering and the travail, but also the invincible security of those who are established on the strength of God Himself and await with humble confidence the hour of endless triumph: In te Domine speravi, non confundar in aeternum; in Thee, O Lord, I have hoped, let me never be put to confusion (Psalm 70: 1)."

Such is the grace that we wish for you and for all of those who are dear to you, with a special thought for all your departed loved ones.

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

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