Nearly twenty years ago, when I was a baby Catholic, I read Purgatory Explained by Fr. F.X. Schouppe, S.J. In sometimes lurid detail, Fr. Schouppe paints vivid accounts of the sufferings of the holy souls in purgatory, as reported by the saints, and tells of the wondrous effects of our prayers to speed the holy souls on their way to heaven. Not to mention the tales Fr. Schouppe includes of the holy souls interceding for those who pray for them—just in case a Catholic needs a little extra motivation to be diligent in his prayers for the holy souls.
At the time I read it, the book inspired in me a devotion to the holy souls in purgatory that lasts to this day (although, in hindsight, I now think this book would make a great graphic novel). But in those two decades, I can honestly say that I had not received any favors from the holy souls in return for the prayers and Masses I had offered for them. In fact, I had not had any kind of experience that signified an “awareness” that my prayers for souls had been heard or made a difference. Until a couple of weeks ago.
In recent months I have been doing some research on the occult for possible future apologetics projects. This has required a lot of reading of books and web sites, mainly by active practitioners of the occult. When following up on one book I read, I found through Googling that the author, a practicing witch, had died several years ago, shortly before her book was published. As a matter of respect for the fact of her death and to preserve the privacy of her family, I’ll call her “Tabitha.”
I did not really think much about the story of Tabitha’s death, other than to be touched by the tragedy that she had died and at a fairly young age. I thought, “How sad. I should have a Mass offered for her.” Here at Catholic Answers, where we have a daily Mass for the staff, that is easy enough to arrange. On a whim, I also decided to request a Mass to be offered for Tabitha at the National Shrine of the Divine Mercy.
Then the strangeness began.
The procedure for Mass requests at Catholic Answers is for the request card to be placed on the altar before Mass. Our chaplain will say the name of the person for whom the Mass is being offered during the Mass, then the Mass card will be returned to the person who requested the Mass.
When this intention came up in the roster, the card was placed on the altar as usual. But the chaplain uncharacteristically neglected to say the name of the deceased during the Mass. When I checked with him afterward, he said the Mass had been offered for Tabitha, but offered to keep the card on the altar for the next day’s Mass and say her name then. Pleased at the idea of two Masses for this intention, I agreed.
But the next morning, as I passed by the staff mailboxes, I found Tabitha’s card in my mailbox. While the explanation turned out to be simple (the staff member in charge of coordinating the Mass requests thought that this Mass intention had been completed), not so simple to explain was what happened at Mass that day.
Since the card was not on the altar, as it was supposed to be, I decided to receive Communion for the repose of Tabitha’s soul. Because I sat in the back, I was one of the last people to receive Communion at the Mass. All went smoothly with the distribution of Communion until I approached to receive. When the chaplain tried to place the Eucharist on my tongue, for the first time ever in my experience of receiving Communion, the priest fumbled the host. We were both startled, and I had to slap my hands to my mouth to prevent the Eucharist from dropping to the floor.
After Mass, I once again consulted with the chaplain, and obtained his assurance that he would offer the next day’s Mass for Tabitha. I then ruminated on what all this might mean. It could have been written off as random occurrences, having nothing really to do with the fact that Tabitha had been a practicing witch at the time of her death.
Some might speculate that there was meaning to the occurrences and that the meaning was that the deceased was in hell. But, if that was the case, then the prayers offered for her soul would not have benefited her. God might apply the graces to another soul who could benefit, but there would be no reason for the attempts to offer Mass for this soul to be interrupted.
Fully realizing that the events were open to other interpretations, and that I was just giving them my own interpretation, I decided that someone, somewhere, did not want Tabitha to leave purgatory. So I wrote on Facebook:
Seriously, at this point I am convinced that there is some guardian demon out there determined to prevent this poor woman from leaving purgatory. So, in your kindness, please pray for the repose of the soul of [Tabitha]. And, if you are a priest with an open slot for a Mass intention, a Mass for the repose of her soul would be gratefully welcomed. Thanks.
The response was immediate. Friends quickly agreed to pray. A priest offered to work the intention for Tabitha into his Mass schedule. A friend who is a personal friend of a retired bishop put in a request with her bishop friend for one of his Masses to be offered for Tabitha, and he readily agreed.
The next day the Mass at Catholic Answers for Tabitha went off without a hitch. And I marveled that the day the Mass for her finally went through without hiccups was a day when the readings for that day’s Mass included:
[First Reading] From the day that your fathers left the land of Egypt even to this day, I have sent you untiringly all my servants, the prophets. Yet they have not obeyed me nor paid heed; they have stiffened their necks and done worse than their fathers. . . .
[Psalm] If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
Come, let us sing joyfully to the Lord;
let us acclaim the Rock of our salvation.
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
let us joyfully sing psalms to him. . . .
[Gospel] Jesus was driving out a demon that was mute, and when the demon had gone out, the mute man spoke and the crowds were amazed. . . . [Jesus said:] “For you say that it is by Beelzebul that I drive out demons. If I, then, drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your own people drive them out? Therefore they will be your judges.”
Perhaps I am not correct in how I interpreted the strange series of events surrounding my Mass requests for the repose of Tabitha’s soul. But it cannot be denied that my choice not to put down these events to random occurrences had the effect of gaining for her even more prayers and Masses than she otherwise might have had. As St. Paul observed:
We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28).
It has been a long, strange Lent this year. There have been incomprehensible tragedies for young families, sudden accidents leading to the tragic deaths of dear friends, natural disasters at home and abroad, and mysterious international calamities. Like the choice I faced with whether or not to put down the difficulties in getting a Mass intention offered to meaningless coincidence, all of this could be put down to weird randomness. And, it must be acknowledged, all of this Lenten strangeness this year could well be weird randomness that just happened to occur during Lent.
Or, we can choose to see the possibility of God speaking to us through patterns of suffering, reminding us that Lent is a time for drawing nearer to him and depending upon him ever more deeply. Perhaps God means for us to remember that Lent is a time to store up whatever graces might be found for the journey ahead, because the journey ahead for Christians is always a Via Dolorosa that we walk with Christ. As C.S. Lewis once noted in his book, The Problem of Pain:
God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.