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May 11, 2018 Our Catholic Faith No Comments

Q. What are we supposed to believe about the story of Jonah and his three days in the belly of a whale? Is it a parable or is it something that actually happened? — M.C., Wisconsin.
A. Catholics are free to view this incident from the Old Testament as a parable, i.e., a story told to make a religious point, or one can believe that it actually happened. Surely, the same God who raised Lazarus after four days in the grave could also have raised Jonah after three days in the belly of a sea creature. In either case, Jesus thought the story of Jonah important enough to recall as a foreshadowing of His death and Resurrection when the Pharisees asked Him for a sign of His divinity:
“An evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it except the sign of Jonah the prophet. Just as Jonah was in the belly of a whale three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights. At the judgment, the men of Nineveh will arise with this generation and condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and there is something greater than Jonah here” (Matthew 12:39-41).
In his excellent book The Case for Jesus, Brant Pitre points out that Jonah was not alive for three days in the belly of the whale, but rather that he died. He quotes Jonah as saying that he cried out from “the belly of Sheol” and “‘went down to the land / whose bars closed upon me forever; / yet you brought my life up from the Pit, / O LORD my God. / When my soul fainted within me, / I remembered the LORD; / and my prayer came to you, / into your holy temple.’ / And the LORD spoke to the fish, and it / vomited out Jonah upon the dry land. / Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’ So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD” (Jonah 1:17-33).
There are three key points to notice here, says Pitre:
“First, when Jonah says that he cried out to God from ‘the belly of Sheol’ and ‘the Pit,’ these are standard terms for the realm of the dead (Psalm 139:7-8; Job 17:13-16; 33:22-30). Second, when Jonah says that his ‘soul’ (Hebrew nephesh) fainted within him, this is another way of saying that he died. In other words, Jonah’s prayer is the last gasp of a dying man. Thus, when the fish vomits Jonah out onto the land, it is vomiting up his corpse. Finally, with all this in mind, notice what God’s first word to Jonah is: ‘Arise’ (Hebrew qum). This is the same Semitic word that Jesus uses when he raises Jairus’ daughter from the dead and says to her: Talitha cumi,’ meaning, ‘Little girl, I say to you, arise’ (Mark 5:41). In other words, the story of Jonah is a story of his death and resurrection” (pp. 187-188).

Q. What is the suffering like in Purgatory? Are there degrees of suffering there? — T.L.H., via e-mail.
A. First of all, the good news is that the souls of the just in Purgatory are destined for Heaven, even though they may not have been cleansed of all stain of sin when they underwent the Particular Judgment. What that means, said Fr. John Hardon, SJ, in his Catholic Catechism (pp. 275-280) is that “the souls have not yet paid the temporal penalty due, either for venial sins or for mortal sins whose guilt was forgiven before death. It may also mean the venial sins themselves, which were not forgiven either as to guilt or punishment before death. It is not certain whether the guilt of venial sins is strictly speaking remitted after death and, if so, how the remission takes place.”
Fr. Hardon said that “we are not certain whether Purgatory is a place or a space in which souls are cleansed. The Church has never given a definite answer to this question. The important thing to understand is that it is a state or condition in which souls undergo purification.” He also discussed the biblical roots of Catholic belief in Purgatory, even though the word itself does not appear in Scripture. The classic biblical texts are 2 Macc. 12:42-46, Matt. 12:32, and 1 Cor. 3:13-15.
In the last reference, St. Paul implies suffering in Purgatory when he says that “if someone’s work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire.” The suffering is thought to be of two kinds: a pain of sense and a pain of loss. According to Fr. Hardon, “Writers in the Latin tradition are quite unanimous that the fire of Purgatory is real and not metaphorical. They argue from the common teaching of the Latin Fathers, of some Greek Fathers, and of certain papal statements, like that of Pope Innocent IV, who spoke of ‘a transitory fire’ (DB 456).”
How intense these pains are, we don’t know, although St. Thomas Aquinas held that the least pain in Purgatory was greater than the worst on Earth. He was joined in this opinion by St. Bonaventure and St. Robert Bellarmine.
The other kind of suffering in Purgatory, said Fr. Hardon, is the pain of loss. He said that this suffering “is intense on two counts: 1) the more something is desired, the more painful its absence, and the faithful departed intensely desire to possess God now that they are freed from temporal cares and no longer held down by the spiritual inertia of the body; 2) they clearly see that their deprivation was personally blameworthy and might have been avoided if only they had prayed and done enough penance during life.”
He pointed out, however, that “parallel with their sufferings, the souls also experience intense spiritual joy. Among the mystics, St. Catherine of Genoa wrote: ‘It seems to me there is no joy comparable to that of the pure souls in Purgatory, except the joy of heavenly beatitude.’ There are many reasons for this happiness. They are absolutely sure of their salvation. They have faith, hope, and great charity. They know themselves to be in divine friendship, confirmed in grace and no longer able to offend God.”
In his book An Exorcist Explains the Demonic, the late Fr. Gabriele Amorth, who was the chief exorcist in Rome for many years, said that “there are gradations or diverse states in Purgatory; each one accommodates the situation of the soul that arrives there. There are the lower strata, more terrible because they are closer to Hell, and the more elevated that are less terrible because they are much closer to the happiness of paradise. The level of purification is linked to this state. The souls in Purgatory are in a state of great suffering. We know, in fact, that they can pray for us and that they can obtain many graces for us, but they can no longer merit anything for themselves. The time for meriting graces finishes with death.
“Purged souls can, however, receive our help in order to abbreviate their period of purification. This occurs in a powerful way through our prayers, with the offering of our sufferings, paying attention at Mass, specifically at funerals or at Gregorian Masses, celebrated for thirty consecutive days.”
Fr. Amorth said that “this last practice was introduced by St. Gregory the Great in the sixth century, inspired by a vision he had of a confrere who died without confessing himself and, having gone to Purgatory, appeared to him, asking him to celebrate some Masses in his favor. The Pope celebrated them for thirty days. At that point, the deceased appeared to him again, happy for having been admitted to paradise. One must take care: this does not mean that it will always work this way: that would be a magical attitude, unacceptable and erroneous toward a sacrament. In fact, it is solely God who decides these matters when He wills it through His divine mercy.”
In his 2007 encyclical on Christian Hope (Spe Salvi), Pope Benedict XVI said it is possible that “the fire which both burns and saves is Christ Himself, the Judge and Savior. The encounter with Him is the decisive act of judgment. Before His gaze all falsehood melts away. . . . In the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives becomes evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of His heart, heals us through an undeniably painful transformation ‘as through fire’ [1 Cor. 3:15]. 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” (n. 47).

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Today . . .

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Catholic Replies

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