In St Patrick’s Purgatory

In St Patrick’s Purgatory June 13, 2012


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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