Q. My mother passed away some time ago, and I wonder whether she is now in “God’s eternal embrace.” How can I be sure?
She was a good mother and she dearly loved the church, but we have been taught that everyone has some imperfections and, upon death, must be sent to purgatory before they can enjoy heaven. I would rest more easily if I knew that my mother were not suffering any longer. (Forest, Virginia)
A. The church does not teach that everyone who dies must necessarily pass through purgatory before reaching heaven.
As a matter of fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says specifically that the punishment due for venial sins can be meted out “either here on earth, or after death” (No. 1472). It goes on to say that “fervent charity can attain the complete purification of the sinner in such a way that no punishment would remain.”
Even for those who must undergo some punishment after death — which, I would think, includes most of us — we have no idea as to just what purgatory involves or how long it lasts. (It could even be instantaneous.)
So even though you cannot have infallible certitude that your mother is already in heaven, she may well be. Jesus said in Matthew’s Gospel, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (7:21); since your mother, in your words, was a good mother and loved the church dearly, she obviously tried to do what the Lord asked of her.
But I would “play it safe” and keep praying for her nonetheless; praying for the dead is a sacred and long-held practice that even predates the church — in the Old Testament (2 Mc 12:46) Judas Maccabeus “made atonement for the dead” that they might be delivered from their sin.
Q. My widowed mother is getting ready to remarry, and she is very concerned that her fiance has never been baptized. How hard is it to get a dispensation to marry someone like that in the Catholic Church, and is it a lengthy process? (Mom says that she’s not getting any younger!) (Louisville, Kentucky)
A. As you indicate, a Catholic who wishes to marry a non-Catholic (whether baptized or unbaptized) must first obtain permission from the Catholic Church. This requirement is rooted in a bishop’s responsibility to safeguard the religious faith and practice of the Catholic party.
And so, for such a dispensation to be granted, the Catholic party must promise to continue to remain faithful to the Catholic religion and to do all within his or her power to see that any children of the marriage are baptized and raised as Catholics.
Beyond that pledge, it is not difficult to obtain the permission your mother seeks, and such dispensations are regularly granted.
As to the time required, there is some variation from diocese to diocese (depending on the volume of requests and the size of the tribunal staff), but generally such permissions are granted within a matter of a few weeks. Your mother should contact her parish priest and get the process started.
Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at firstname.lastname@example.org and 30 Columbia Circle Dr., Albany, New York 12203.