Be limber when teaching kids about Purgatory

Originally Appeared in : 9825-12/6/18

The prayers of the faithful had just begun when I received a pair of requests for intercession of my own: “Daddy, can I go to the bathroom?” was loudly whispered by Jesse and Eli over several siblings down the pew.


“Alright,” I replied, “let’s go.”


A church is most silent at the very moment any pair of my children’s shoes hit the tile floor, and this was no exception. Who knew a children’s size 11 could resound so loudly, even after repeated whispers of, “Walk normal, Eli,” but we plodded toward the narthex nonetheless. 


Steps turned into skipping once we hit the carpet, but that was at least better than the full-out sprint my children sometimes shift into when they transition from one room to the next, so I didn’t complain.


All was trending toward an otherwise uneventful potty stop, and then Jesse dropped a theological hot potato into my lap that required a few extra minutes beside the sink.


“How do people suffer joyfully?” Jesse asked.


I cringed. “Well, what do you mean?” I said, knowing full well what he was talking about.


Father Jacob’s homily had begun harmlessly about an unplanned delivery of honey to a fellow priest, but that shifted when the honey recipient retold how a near-death experience had given him a tour of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. As Father Jacob had recounted, the priest talked about how the people in Purgatory suffered, but did so joyfully knowing they would eventually ascend into Heaven.


“But if you do bad, aren’t you supposed to go to Hell?” Jesse continued.


“Yeah, you go to Hell” Eli chimed. 


“Because how can you be happy about suffering?” Jesse said before I could begin my own litany and get us out of bathroom limbo.


“Guys,” I said gently, “Purgatory is for people who aren’t pure enough to get into Heaven but are good enough not to go to Hell.”


“Then how can priests or bishops go to Hell like Father Jacob said?” Jesse redirected like an accomplished personal injury attorney.


I knew if I didn’t act fast, another quick peppering was about to come my way and lead to me being led away from the witness stand, err sink, in handcuffs. After all, this is the same child who, upon learning the full story of the real St. Nicholas last year almost ended Santa Claus for our household. (“If it’s ‘Christ’s Mass,’ then why don’t Mary and Jesus bring us presents? St. Nicholas died. He can’t bring presents.)


“Son, anyone can go to Hell. Even priests and bishops if they don’t do right. That’s why we have to live right. Now let’s get back into church.”


Magan thought it was absolutely hilarious.


“He’s too smart for his own good,” she giggled.


Great spiritual minds have spent lifetimes explaining the purpose of Purgatory, and my only hope was that I sated Jesse’s information appetite on the topic long enough to get us to at least his teenage years when we could research (Hey Google…) it more completely.


As parents, our children look to us to have all of the answers. After all, we have been here on Planet Earth exponentially longer than they have, but the reality is we are all in various stages of growth as people and as Catholics.


It wasn’t until I had reached adulthood that I learned that the bulk of decent people would end up in Purgatory “suffering joyfully” for some period of time, and that only those with the highest level of purity would walk straight through the pearly gates. 


Magan and I try to be sure never to shy away from these sorts of questions and, instead, try our best to answer them in a way that is as theologically sound as possible without talking over their heads and confusing them even more.


Reaffirmation of our faith is an ongoing conversation we are called as parents to have with our children: “And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deuteronomy 6:6-7).


Maybe next time I’ll compare it to being sent to the corner, where Jesse is currently suffering less joyfully for throwing a log into the creek, but based on his lack of penance or joy, the corner may not be purgatory after all.


Jason Halcombe has five sons and two daughters. He and his wife, Magan, are members of Immaculate Conception Church, Dublin.

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