The day before the Independence Day holiday weekend, the Catholic Answers staff headed up to Prince of Peace Abbey in Oceanside, California, for a retreat. It was led by a Norbertine priest from St. Michael's Abbey in Silverado, California. The priest chose Divine Mercy as his topic for the retreat.
As part of his talk, he told us a story from the private revelation allegedly given to Maria Simma. I don't know much about Maria Simma, except that she was a mystic who died a decade ago. According to our retreat master, her visions of visits with the holy souls in purgatory, as recorded in her book Get Us Out of Here!, have the approval of her local bishop. Nonetheless, Catholics are not required to put stock in private revelations, as is affirmed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
Throughout the ages, there have been so-called "private" revelations, some of which have been recognized by the authority of the Church. They do not belong, however, to the deposit of faith. It is not their role to improve or complete Christ’s definitive revelation, but to help live more fully by it in a certain period of history. Guided by the magisterium of the Church, the sensus fidelium knows how to discern and welcome in these revelations whatever constitutes an authentic call of Christ or his saints to the Church. Christian faith cannot accept "revelations" that claim to surpass or correct the revelation of which Christ is the fulfillment, as is the case in certain non-Christian religions and also in certain recent sects which base themselves on such "revelations" (CCC 67).
But the story shared by our retreat master was so compelling that, even if the visions are not authentic, the story is a wonderful parable of the justice and mercy of God. For that reason, I will retell the story as a story rather than look up the incident in Simma's writings and quote it directly.
Maria would receive visits from the holy souls in purgatory, begging her for her prayers and telling her tales of what was going on in purgatory (presumably to inspire more prayer for the holy souls). Many people who had heard that she was favored with these visits would write to Maria, asking about the fates of deceased family and friends.
One day someone wrote asking about the fate of a man and a woman in his village. The next time the holy souls visited, Maria asked them about these two. She wrote back with what she had been told: The woman had spent a brief time in purgatory and was now in heaven; the man was in purgatory and would remain there for a very long time.
Maria's inquirer wrote back, "Now I know you are a fraud! That woman was a notorious prostitute in my village and died instantly after falling on the train tracks and being struck by a train. The man was a priest, known by all here for his holiness."
Stunned, Maria asked the holy souls for clarification the next time they visited her. How could a notorious prostitute go to heaven almost immediately and a holy priest languish in purgatory?
The souls told her the rest of the story.
Yes, they said, the man was a holy priest . . . and that was why he was in purgatory and not in hell. He had been very harsh with sinners in the confessional, and he had denied the prostitute a Christian burial.
As for the woman, when she fell on the tracks, she looked up and saw the train coming. She knew she could not get away in time. Her last conscious thought before her death was, "My God, at least I will no longer offend you." That contrition was sufficient for her salvation, and for the remittance of almost all punishment due for her sins. That was why she spent practically no time in purgatory and went almost straight to heaven.
Since hearing this story, several things about it struck me.
One, it is a modern-day retelling of the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9–14). Like the Pharisee who "trusted in [himself] that [he was] righteous and despised others," the priest was holy and evidently knew it. Yes, he truly loved God, otherwise he would not have made it to purgatory; but he was not compassionate with those who had fallen and turned to him for assistance in rising. When the prostitute died, he gave more weight to the possibility of scandal than he did to the possibility that she might have died repentant and in need of the final graces of a Christian burial. The prostitute, on the other hand, looked up, saw her fate, and accepted it as her due. But her last thought was for God and what was due to God. However far she had fallen, she still loved God and ultimately desired not to offend him (even if she had not been able to live up to that desire during her lifetime).
Two, God truly is a God of justice and mercy. Those who want his justice will get justice—like Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, they "shalt have justice, more than thou desirest." As Christ solemnly warns in one of the most frightening passages in all of Scripture, "For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get" (Matt. 7:2). And those who trust in his mercy will find it to be bottomless, poured out above and beyond even what they might have hoped: "Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.' For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners" (Matt. 9:13).
And, three, although I am no expert in such matters, I found a certain ring of authenticity to this story. The holy souls only gave Maria information about others in purgatory that she specifically requested. When she first asked, on behalf of her inquirer, for the fates of the man and the woman, she was given the bare facts: The man was in purgatory and would remain; the woman had left purgatory quickly and gone to heaven. Only when Maria asked for clarification, due to learning more about who the man and woman were, was she given more information.
In other words, Maria was not acting as a medium or necromancer, who was performing for an audience. Those who falsely claim to speak with the dead often reel off all sorts of information about what the dead are supposedly telling them, all of it meant to "comfort" survivors (and sometimes having the opposite effect). Maria only asked what was asked of her and told what she was told. When the information given turned out to be shocking, she asked for more details and then passed on the rest of the story.
Finally, I remembered something that happened shortly before my father died.
My father had been a difficult man in many ways, and I will just leave the recounting of his failures at that. He was not particularly religious, and he was given to depression. When he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, he very nearly fell into despair.
My mother died in December 2004 after having been ill for many years. Despite her long history of illness, we truly had not expected her to die when she did, especially when my father was the one expected to die soon. I have often thought that perhaps her body finally gave up because she just could not bear to outlive him. In any case, when Mom died I was frightened that Dad would not be able to continue. But . . . surprisingly, he became almost—almost, he was still Dad—peaceful about his situation, and agreed to be placed in a hospice nursing care unit. He would spend just over three months there.
The weekend before he died, I went up to the hospital to visit him. During this visit, he slept most of the time I was there. When his roommate got up to use the restroom, I took the opportunity to talk to Dad, even though he was sleeping—much as I had with Mom when she lay dying several months before.
Although Dad was not particularly religious, he did believe in God and he had allowed visits from the hospital chaplain in the months he was in the nursing unit. I wanted to find something to say to help him be ready for death, but I had not "planned" anything. I just found myself saying, "When Jesus comes, tell him 'I love you.'"
Right after I said that, Dad, who had been sleeping, suddenly jerked—just as if someone on his other side had jabbed him in the shoulder. Dad opened his eyes, smiled, nodded affirmatively, and went back to sleep. It would be the last time I "talked" with him.
It was in that moment that I knew that I did not have to worry for Dad any longer. I knew that he had made his peace with God, and his desire to say to Jesus "I love you" would be enough. And, as it turned out, Dad died on April 2, 2005—within twenty minutes of Pope St. John Paul II, the pope who promulgated to the universal Church the message of Divine Mercy.
His mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree (Luke 1:50–52).
Note: A version of this essay originally appeared on the blog, Peace, Joy, Pancakes (7/13/14). It is republished here with permission.