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Waiting in Joyful Hope

Purgatory and hockey

Today is the feast of All Souls, and in my homily I mentioned how part of this feast means that we celebrate the existence of purgatory as another sign of God's mercy. What, you say? Purgatory as a sign of *mercy*? Well, yes! If we understand it correctly, the fact that purgatory exists is a sign of both great mercy and great promise from the Lord.

Now my current parish is kiddy-corner from a Lutheran church, which makes for an interesting theological contrast at times — particularly in the matter of purgatory. It is a particularly Catholic doctrine. The Orthodox say they reject it, although they do pray for the dead. The Protestants, however, starting with Luther, totally reject the concept. It is alien to their vision of salvation — indeed, from their point of view, to affirm the existence of purgatory is tantamount to declaring there is a defect in God's mercy. I'd even go so far as to declare that there are many Catholics today who agree.

So which is it? Does purgatory signify mercy, or a defect of mercy?

Obviously, I affirm the former. But the question is worth addressing, in a way that can be easily grasped. So in today's homily, I offered the people a new analogy: the analogy of the hockey game. (Pretty Canadian analogy, eh?)

Heaven, goes the analogy, is like a hockey game. And not just any game: a match to beat all matches, a championship game to beat all championship games. And we are all invited. On this, Protestants and Catholics agree. Where we disagree is in this: are we invited to go as fans? Or as players?

The Protestant view is that we are to go as fans. Now this does not mean we are passive (I say fan, not spectator), as fans have a definite role in cheering on the game, and themselves contribute to the climate of enjoyment. But to be a fan at the hockey game, all you fundamentally need is a ticket. So from the Protestant point of view, we are fans who do not deserve a ticket, and cannot possibly earn enough to pay for one, *but* the Son of the stadium owner, in dying on the cross, has paid the price of our unworthiness and has bought a whole slew of tickets, which he gives out free to those who ask. By turning to him with sincere hearts, we get this free gift of grace, unmerited and unmeritable, and get into the game.

The Catholic view is that we are to go as players. Our enjoyment comes from being in there and playing the game itself — which, if you think about it, is the original reason for sports in the first place. Yes, we can enjoy watching sports, but fundamentally we play them not for others to watch, but because it is fun to play. But because this is a great, championship game, we cannot come unprepared. We need to practice, practice, practice, developing the virtues of a good player, so as to be able to be on the team. Whether we get on the team or not is still the free choice of the coach, but since it is his fundamental desire that we all get to play what he offers us is the means to attain greater perfection. In Catholic terms, then, this life, as well as purgatory, are like training camp, in which we are made, though a combination of our trust in the coach and our cooperation with the means of perfection he gives us, into players worthy of the game.

From the Protestant perspective, purgatory is totally unnecessary: you get the ticket to get into Heaven, so what is purgatory for? It sounds like a last-minute punishment meted out by an angry stadium owner, which doesn't sound right — no wonder they reject the idea! But from a Catholic perspective, purgatory is a great grace, because it implies that, even if we die in a state where we are not championship players yet, the loving desire of the owner to see us play means we still have the chance to work on our game after our death. Some are so "practiced", of course, that they by-pass purgatory altogether, while others simply refuse to play (and excluded from the game, they wind up in Hell). But the greatness of purgatory means simply this: God wants us in Heaven, and he wants Heaven to be excellent for us — so he gives us the means to be excellent for Heaven!

Thank you Lord, for the opportunity of purgatory!