Category Archives: Pope Benedict XVI

Purgatory shows that no man is an island

BVM and PurgatoryIn these last days of November the month of the Holy Souls, I think it is worth thinking about the doctrine of Purgatory. Several years ago Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical on hope “Spe Salvi” was published where he wrote some most beautiful lines ever written on purgatory. Here are paragraphs 45-48:

This early Jewish idea of an intermediate state includes the view that these souls are not simply in a sort of temporary custody but, as the parable of the rich man illustrates, are already being punished or are experiencing a provisional form of bliss. There is also the idea that this state can involve purification and healing which mature the soul for communion with God. The early Church took up these concepts, and in the Western Church they gradually developed into the doctrine of Purgatory. We do not need to examine here the complex historical paths of this development; it is enough to ask what it actually means. With death, our life-choice becomes definitive—our life stands before the judge. Our choice, which in the course of an entire life takes on a certain shape, can have a variety of forms. There can be people who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love, people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves. This is a terrifying thought, but alarming profiles of this type can be seen in certain figures of our own history. In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: this is what we mean by the word Hell. On the other hand there can be people who are utterly pure, completely permeated by God, and thus fully open to their neighbours—people for whom communion with God even now gives direction to their entire being and whose journey towards God only brings to fulfilment what they already are.

Yet we know from experience that neither case is normal in human life. For the great majority of people—we may suppose—there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God. In the concrete choices of life, however, it is covered over by ever new compromises with evil—much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains and it still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul. What happens to such individuals when they appear before the Judge? Will all the impurity they have amassed through life suddenly cease to matter? What else might occur? Saint Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, gives us an idea of the differing impact of God’s judgement according to each person’s particular circumstances. He does this using images which in some way try to express the invisible, without it being possible for us to conceptualize these images—simply because we can neither see into the world beyond death nor do we have any experience of it. Paul begins by saying that Christian life is built upon a common foundation: Jesus Christ. This foundation endures. If we have stood firm on this foundation and built our life upon it, we know that it cannot be taken away from us even in death. Then Paul continues: “Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor 3:12-15). In this text, it is in any case evident that our salvation can take different forms, that some of what is built may be burned down, that in order to be saved we personally have to pass through “fire” so as to become fully open to receiving God and able to take our place at the table of the eternal marriage-feast.

Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God. In this way the inter-relation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us for ever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love. Indeed, it has already been burned away through Christ’s Passion. At the moment of judgement we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy. It is clear that we cannot calculate the “duration” of this transforming burning in terms of the chronological measurements of this world. The transforming “moment” of this encounter eludes earthly time-reckoning—it is the heart’s time, it is the time of “passage” to communion with God in the Body of Christ. The judgement of God is hope, both because it is justice and because it is grace. If it were merely grace, making all earthly things cease to matter, God would still owe us an answer to the question about justice—the crucial question that we ask of history and of God. If it were merely justice, in the end it could bring only fear to us all. The incarnation of God in Christ has so closely linked the two together—judgement and grace—that justice is firmly established: we all work out our salvation “with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). Nevertheless grace allows us all to hope, and to go trustfully to meet the Judge whom we know as our “advocate”, or parakletos (cf. 1 Jn 2:1).

A further point must be mentioned here, because it is important for the practice of Christian hope. Early Jewish thought includes the idea that one can help the deceased in their intermediate state through prayer (see for example 2 Macc 12:38-45; first century BC). The equivalent practice was readily adopted by Christians and is common to the Eastern and Western Church. The East does not recognize the purifying and expiatory suffering of souls in the afterlife, but it does acknowledge various levels of beatitude and of suffering in the intermediate state. The souls of the departed can, however, receive “solace and refreshment” through the Eucharist, prayer and almsgiving. The belief that love can reach into the afterlife, that reciprocal giving and receiving is possible, in which our affection for one another continues beyond the limits of death—this has been a fundamental conviction of Christianity throughout the ages and it remains a source of comfort today. Who would not feel the need to convey to their departed loved ones a sign of kindness, a gesture of gratitude or even a request for pardon? Now a further question arises: if “Purgatory” is simply purification through fire in the encounter with the Lord, Judge and Saviour, how can a third person intervene, even if he or she is particularly close to the other? When we ask such a question, we should recall that no man is an island, entire of itself. Our lives are involved with one another, through innumerable interactions they are linked together. No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone. The lives of others continually spill over into mine: in what I think, say, do and achieve. And conversely, my life spills over into that of others: for better and for worse. So my prayer for another is not something extraneous to that person, something external, not even after death. In the interconnectedness of Being, my gratitude to the other—my prayer for him—can play a small part in his purification. And for that there is no need to convert earthly time into God’s time: in the communion of souls simple terrestrial time is superseded. It is never too late to touch the heart of another, nor is it ever in vain. In this way we further clarify an important element of the Christian concept of hope. Our hope is always essentially also hope for others; only thus is it truly hope for me too. As Christians we should never limit ourselves to asking: how can I save myself? We should also ask: what can I do in order that others may be saved and that for them too the star of hope may rise? Then I will have done my utmost for my own personal salvation as well.

The makes purgatory something to look forward to!

Pope Benedict XVI received honorary doctorate


Pope Benedict was conferred with a Doctorate Honoris Causa from the John Paul II Pontifical University of Krakow and from the Academy of Music of Krakow, Poland. The honors were bestowed on the emeritus pope at Castel Gandolfo on July 6, 2015. With his usual clarity the Pope said:

At this moment, I cannot but express my greatest and most cordial gratitude for the honor you have given me conferring the Doctoratus Honoris Causa. I thank the Grand Chancellor, his dear Eminence Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, and the academic Authorities of both Athenaeums. I rejoice above all over the fact that in this way my bond with Poland, with Krakow, with the homeland of our great Saint John Paul II has become more profound, because without him, my spiritual and theological journey would not have even been imaginable. With his brilliant example he also showed us how the joy of great sacred music and the task of common participation in the sacred liturgy, the solemn joy and the simplicity of the humble celebration of the faith can go hand in hand.

In the years after the Council, on this point a very old disagreement was manifested with renewed passion. I myself grew up in the Salisburghese marked by the great tradition of this city. It was a given here that Sunday Masses accompanied by the choir and orchestra were an integral part of our experience of the faith in the celebration of the liturgy. Indelibly impressed in my memory, for instance, is how, when the first notes of Mozart’s Coronation Mass sounded, Heaven virtually opened and the presence of the Lord was experienced very profoundly. And thanks also to you, who enabled me to hear Mozart and also the Choir for the great songs! Beside this, however, already present in any case also was the new reality of the Liturgical Movement, especially through one of our chaplains who later became Vice-Regent and then Rector of the Major Seminary of Freising. Then, during my studies at Monaco of Bavaria, I entered ever more concretely in the Liturgical Movement through the lessons of Professor Pascher, one of the most significant experts of the Council in liturgical matter, and above all through the liturgical life in the community of the Seminary. Thus little by little the tension became perceptible between the participatio actuosa in keeping with the liturgy and the solemn music that enveloped the sacred action, even if it was not yet perceived so strong.

Written very clearly in the Constitution on the Liturgy of Vatican Council II is that “The patrimony of sacred music be preserved and incremented with great care” (1124). On the other hand, the text evidences, as a fundamental liturgical category, the participatio actuosa of all the faithful in the sacred action. What in the Constitution was still peacefully together, subsequently, in the reception of the Council was often in a relation of dramatic tension. Significant environments of the Liturgical Movement held that, for the great choral works and even for the Masses for orchestra there would be room in the future only in concert halls, not in the liturgy. Here there could be a place only for the common singing and prayer of the faithful. On the other hand, there was consternation over the cultural impoverishment of the Church, which would necessarily flow from this. In what way could both things be reconciled? How could the Council be implemented in its entirety? These were the questions posed to me and to many other faithful, to simple people as well as to persons in possession of theological formation.

At this point, it is right, perhaps, to pose the basic question: What is music in reality? From where does it come and what does it tend to?

I think that three “places” can be localized from which music flows.

One of the first sources is the experience of love. When men are seized by love, a new dimension of being opens in them, a new grandeur and breadth of reality, and it also drives one to express oneself in a new way. Poetry, singing and music in general stem from this being struck, by this opening of oneself to a new dimension of life.

A second origin of music is the experience of sadness, being touched by death, by sorrow and by the abysses of existence. Opened also in this case, in an opposite direction, are new dimensions of reality that can no longer find answers in discourses alone.

Finally, the third place of origin of music is the encounter with the divine, which from the beginning is part of what defines the human.  All the more so here in which the totally other and the totally great is present, which arouses in man new ways of expressing himself. Perhaps, it is possible to affirm that in reality also in the other two ambits – love and death – the divine mystery touches us and, in this sense, it is the being touched by God that, overall, constitutes the origin of music. I find it moving to observe how, for instance, in the Psalms singing is no longer enough for men — an appeal is made to all the instruments: reawakened is the hidden music of creation, its mysterious language. With the Psalter, in which the two motives of love and death also operate, we find directly the origin of sacred music of the Church of God. It can be said that the quality of the music depends on the purity and the grandeur of the encounter with the divine, with the experience of love and of pain. The more pure and true this experience is, the more pure and great also is the music that is born and develops from it.

At this point, I would like to express a thought that has gripped me increasingly, all the more so in as much as the different cultures and religions enter into relation among themselves. Present in the ambit of the different cultures and religions is great literature, great architecture, great painting and great sculptures. And everywhere there is also music. And yet in no other cultural ambit is there music of equal grandeur to that born in the ambit of the Christian faith: from Palestrina to Bach, to Handle, up to Mozart, Beethoven and Bruckner. Western music is something unique, which has no equal in other cultures. And this – it seems to me – should make us think.

Certainly, Western music goes beyond by far the religious and ecclesial ambit. And yet it finds its most profound origin, in any case, in the liturgy of the encounter with God. In Bach, for whom the glory of God represents ultimately the end of all music, this is altogether evident. The great and pure answer of Western music was developed in the encounter with that God that, in the liturgy, makes himself present to us in Christ Jesus. For me, that music is a demonstration of the truth of Christianity. Wherever such an answer is developed, there has been an encounter with truth, with the true Creator of the world. Therefore, great sacred music is a reality of theological rank and of permanent meaning for the faith of the whole of Christianity, even if it is not necessary that it be performed always and everywhere. On the other hand,  however, it is also clear that it cannot disappear from the liturgy and that its presence can be an altogether special way of participation in the sacred celebration, in the mystery of the faith.

If we think of the liturgy celebrated by Saint John Paul II on every continent, we see all the breadth of the expressive possibilities of the faith in the liturgical event; and we also see how the great music of the Western tradition is not foreign to the liturgy, but is born and grows from it and in this way contributes ever again to give it form. We do not know the future of our culture and of sacred music. However, there is something that seems clear to me: where there is really an encounter with the living God who comes to us in Christ, born and growing there again is the answer, whose beauty comes from truth itself.

The activity of the two universities that confer on me – that have conferred on me – this Doctorate Honoris Causa – for which I can say again my wholehearted thank you – represents an essential contribution so that the great gift of music, which comes from the tradition of the Christian faith, may remain alive and be of help in order that the creative force of faith is not extinguished also in the future. For this, I thank you all wholeheartedly, not only for the honor that you have bestowed on me, but also for all the work you carry out at the service of the beauty of the faith. May the Lord bless you all.

Benedict XVI receives honorary doctorate

B16 July 4, 2015Earlier today at Castel Gandolfo Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI received honorary degrees from the Pontifical John Paul II University in Krakow and from the Krakow Music Academy.

Vatican Radio ran this story.

“We do not know what will be the future of sacred music, but one thing is clear: wherever the encounter with the Living God, who in Christ comes close to us really occurs, there is born anew and there again grows the answer, the beauty of which arises out of truth itself.”

Benedict XVI, 4 July 2015

Francis and Benedict

Francis and Benedict et al June 30 2015Everyone needs a summer a vacation! Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI went on holiday for 2 weeks at the Papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo. The summer residence is a very familiar place for Benedict. Before Benedict left, Pope Francis paid a visit to his predecessor.

Among the notables, are the others who make up Benedict’s household.

Photo courtesy of L’Osservatore Romano:

Benedict’s move one year later…

B16 leaving officeToday marks one year in Pope Benedict being flying away to the Summer Residence to retire from the petrine ministry. Hard to believe that he’s been gone for a year. Until last week, we have seen very little of him in public.

The final paragraph of the final Angelus address Pope Benedict said,

Dear brothers and sisters, I feel that this Word of God is particularly directed at me, at this point in my life. The Lord is calling me to “climb the mountain,” to devote myself even more to prayer and meditation. But this does not mean abandoning the Church. Indeed, if God is asking me to do this, it is so that I can continue to serve the Church with the same dedication and the same love with which I have done thus far, but in a way that is better suited to my age and my strength. Let us invoke the intercession of the Virgin Mary: may she always help us all to follow the Lord Jesus in prayer and works of charity.

And on the day he left The Vatican,

Dear friends, I’m happy to be with you, that I can see the Creator’s beauty around us, and all the goodness you’ve given to me – thank you for your friendship and your affection!

You know that this day of mine hasn’t been like those before. I’m no longer the Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church – at least, at 8 o’clock I won’t be – now I’m just a pilgrim beginning the last part of his journey on earth.

With all my heart, with all my love, with my prayer and all my strength – with everything in me – I’d like to work for the common good of the church and all humanity. I feel your kindness so much.

Let us always move together toward the Lord for the good of the church and of the world. Thank you for bringing yourselves – with all my heart, I give you my blessing….

Thank you and goodnight!

About the author

Paul A. Zalonski is from New Haven, CT. He is a member of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, a Catholic ecclesial movement, and an Oblate of Saint Benedict. Contact Paul at paulzalonski[at]
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