In St Patrick’s Purgatory

Rocco posted a moving story last night on the opening of the Dublin Eucharistic Congress, and how—at the request of the Holy Father—the papal legate Cardinal Mark Ouellet spent last night in St Patrick’s Purgatory, fasting and keeping barefoot vigil in prayer for reconciliation and healing of the grievous wounds dealt by Ireland’s clergy abuse scandals.

The ancient pilgrimage site known as St Patrick’s Purgatory is on an island in Lough Derg near Dublin. According to legend, Christ appeared there to St Patrick and showed him, in a cave or pit, the gateway to hell. At the time of the vision Patrick was in despair over his inability to communicate the Gospel message to the Irish people. Nobody wanted to listen. “Show them what hell is like,” Jesus supposedly told Patrick, “so they will choose heaven.” Patrick’s time “in the Purgatory” turned his mission around.

Since at least the 12th century, pilgrims have flocked to Lough Derg. More than the familiar Blarney Stone, this is the place at the heart of the Irish soul. So it’s significant that the Pope directed Cardinal Ouellet to perform this uniquely Irish act of penitence.

Of course, this gesture will be read by many (if not most) as one more cynical photo opp, one more attempt at damage control by a Church unimaginably bereft of credibility. Can anybody hear the Gospel from the Church anymore, through the fog of scandal? It’s enough to make me share Patrick’s despair.

But perhaps that’s the point—for me, and for all Catholics. In a profound way, we all participate in the abuse scandals as both victim and perpetrator, because the Body is one. In the anti-Catholic vitriol that fills the newspaper comment boxes, Christ is giving us a vision of hell. In our inability to make ourselves heard or believed as witnesses to Good News, we are forced into solidarity with the little ones whose witness to our sinfulness we so long ignored and stifled. As Cardinal Ouellet himself has said:

As members of the Church, we must have the courage to ask humbly for God’s pardon, as well as for the forgiveness of His “little ones” who have been wounded; we must remain close to them on their road of suffering, seeking in every possible way to heal and bind up their wounds following the example of the Good Samaritan. The first step on this road is to listen to them carefully and to believe their painful stories.

For the Church, then, this very well may be more than just one night of fasting and prayer, but a long season in St Patrick’s Purgatory. By our willingness to be shown what hell is like, and to make reparation, may our eyes and hearts be drawn again to heaven. May our ears be opened to the painful stories of Christ’s people. May last night’s vigil mark the beginning of the time when our mission turned around.

St Patrick, pray for us!

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  • YouGoAnchoress

    A beautiful gesture. Hail glorious St. Patrick!

  • pmaume

    Lough Derg is not “near Dublin” – it’s in Donegal in north-western Ireland

    • joannemcportland

      My bad. I read too quickly. Thanks!

  • Mike

    I have been doing my own soul-searching about this, though I cannot express it half so eloquently. I feel a deep dissatisfaction not only over where I am but about where the Church is. We have the original apostolic teaching, the Eucharist and 2000 years of history and it doesn’t seem to matter. Maybe it doesn’t matter to others because it doesn’t seem to matter much to me. I once read of a pagan African’s reaction to the Eucharist after it was explained to him: “If I believed that, I would crawl to your church on my knees”. I believe that and crawling never occurs to me! What any religion ultimately means is defined by how its adherents live their lives. In the first century the pagans looked at the infant Church and said “See how [they] love another” and many were attracted to it thereby. I think if we do the same thing we will get the same result. But not the worlds’ kind of love which is little more than sappy sentimentality. The real thing is specific, personal, totally other-centered and not at all concerned that it often requires lots of grungy, gritty work with people who are not attractive.


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