Thursday, November 29, 2012

Saint Ho Ho Ho

Every year, it felt like an endless night.  I would lie awake in my bed and watch my clock slowly track the hours passing by.  Though I strained to hear a noise or creak, the house was always silent and still.  

Through the early morning hours, I didn't dare leave my bed or make a peep.  It was entirely possible that, silent as the house might seem, he was just down the hallway in the living room, going about his work.

And then the excitement as my brother and I ran down the hallway later that morning: the presents under the tree!  Santa had been there!  He had come to our house!

Now I am the parent and I find myself facing difficult decisions.  Last year it was easy: Mary was not yet one-year-old and was more preoccupied with eating ribbons and bows to bother about presents, let alone the gift-giver.

This year, it's quite different and I'm not sure quite what to do.

As vivid and fond as my memories may be of Christmas morning, there is another memory I have, just as vivid but certainly not fond.

My second grade class was sitting in our school's library.  The students were roaming about finding a book or two to take out and I was by the couch, flipping through a story.  Billy D. happened to abruptly announce then, "There is no Rudolph."  

Perturbed, I couldn't forget his declaration and, immediately upon arriving home, confronted my Mom. She and my Dad sat me down and confirmed my worst suspicions: no Rudolph, no Easter Bunny, and worst of all--no Santa Claus.

I was devastated and bewildered: my parents had lied to me?  How could they be so hurtful and deceitful?  I resolved that I would not do the same to my children one day.

But, as the years passed, while I never fully forgot the terrible feeling of disappointment, I gradually weakened in my resolution.  I observed that some children weren't so scarred.  My sister, for instance, thought it quite clever and somewhat humorous that my parents played Santa for all those years.

The dilemma is more complicated when I consider the nature of Christmas.

Easter is much simpler.  Yes, the Easter Bunny visits, but his gift is relatively small and simple.  He is a nice addition to the day, but he is easily not the focus.  The centerpiece is where it should be: Christ, risen from the dead!

Christmas, though, is another matter entirely.  

Speaking from my own experience, when I was a child, I must confess that in complete honesty, my primary focus on Christmas was presents and Santa Claus.  When I awoke Christmas morning (not that I really ever slept that night), my immediate thought wasn't that this was Christ's birthday.  It was, rather, on whether the Barbie motorhome lay under the tree for me.

It was only after the presents that the religious nature of the day became a factor when we all went to Mass, which was nice, but still somewhat of an unfortunate interruption from playing with one's new toys.

In my child's mind and in our society at large, Santa Claus rivaled Christ on Christmas Day.  

When we go to the store, it's Santa's image plastered everywhere, not Christ's.  At the library, 98% of the Christmas books lining the four book shelves are about Santa Claus.

Christ's (true!) story in Bethlehem with shepherds and angels is largely overshadowed by Santa's (false) story in the North Pole with elves and reindeer.  

Now, to be clear, I don't mean to demonize Santa.  Santa, on the contrary, is a saint.  Saint Nicholas was a real man, a very holy man, who is now in heaven and whom I hope to meet one day.  

However, the story of St. Nicholas has been gravely stripped of its historical truth and replaced with a secular mythos involving Rudolph, elves, and a flying sleigh.  Many people encourage the idea of Santa Claus, without ever realizing that Santa Claus was a holy bishop who helped the poor and desired all people to know and love God.  This mis-identification is, I think, somewhat demonic.

Even the words we use make it easy to betray the true nature of things.  In many cultures, people refer to December 25 as the "Nativity of Our Lord."  Here we call it Christmas.  Christ's name is certainly there, but how much easier it is to overlook.  Santa Claus the same--how many children know that those words actually mean "Saint Nicholas?" 

When the story of Santa Claus (not Saint Nicholas) looms large, the gift-giving and receiving become so central that the reality of God coming to earth in poverty is easily forgotten.

So I really struggle with what to do.  On the one hand, I want Mary to know the joy and excitement of Christmas.  But, here's the catch: what is going to give her joy?  

Presents--liable to be broken, lost, forgotten--are passing pleasures.  

The figure of Santa Claus may bring her happiness in her younger years, but how can I really rationalize that happiness bought with the price of lies?  Let's be honest: there is no man in a red suit coming down our chimney to deliver Mary toys made by the elves of the North Pole.  Not going to happen.  So, even with the best of intentions, I will be lying to her if I say this is what occurs.  

If she believes a man in a red coat delivers her presents on Christmas, only later to discover that he does not, why then should she not question other people in whom she believed?  What is to stop her from doubting her faith in God?  

So, that's not lasting joy.

The lasting joy we can give to Mary is helping her know and love the little baby born on Christmas Day.  So, it seems our job is to do what we can to ensure that this is the central focus, attention, and attraction on December 25. do we do that?

Let's take it item by item.

1. Santa Claus/Saint Nicholas.  
There is nothing wrong in believing in Saint Nicholas.  Quite the opposite: we should believe in him, because he does in fact exist! Actually, I have started praying to him and asking for his help in making the right decisions on these matters!  

We are going to do our best to stress the true identity and story of Santa Claus.  Chris and I refer to him exclusively as "Saint Nicholas."  Mary is catching on, though she prefers to call him "Saint Ho Ho Ho."  Close enough, for now. :)

As for what transpires Christmas Eve night...we are thinking that we will tell Mary that Saint Nicholas helped us get her presents.  We bought them, put them under the tree--but Saint Nicholas helped.  That is, after all, true!  I am sure we can count on his heavenly intercession.

With regard to a sleigh, coming down the chimney, putting the presents under the tree: I just have a real hard time telling Mary St. Nicholas does these things when, in fact, he does not.

2. Gifts
How does a parent strive to make Christ's birth the focus of Christmas, as opposed to the presents the child receives?

It seems the best way to confront this problem is to control the quantity of gifts.  Chris and I decided that we (with Saint Nicholas' help) would give Mary three presents on Christmas morning, in imitation of the three presents that Christ received from the Magi.  (And one of these presents would be something practical, like a dress to wear on Christmas Day.) Plus, we are going to ask our parents to only give her one present.  Chris and I plan to exchange one present each as well. 

After all, Christ spent His birthday in a rather impoverished setting.  I'm not saying presents are bad, but they must be carefully handled or they take over.  I speak from experience.

3. Emphasis
As parents (especially of a toddler), we have pretty good control over what our daughter reads, watches, hears, and learns.  We can decide to tell her about Rudolph or about the Annunciation.  We can read her a book about St. Nicholas or Santa Claus.  

So, Chris and I are going to do our best to put the emphasis where it should be this Advent and Christmas.  We already have a few traditions for Christmas morning I would like to continue.  For example, before anyone opens presents, we place the Christ child in the manger and all sing "Happy Birthday."

I have heard of other families baking a birthday cake and serving it as dessert after the Christmas meal.

Even now, when we see lights outside or spot a Christmas tree, I say to Mary, "Look!  Everyone is putting up decorations for Jesus on His birthday!"

I feel pressure this year to make the right decision on these matters.  It's a good pressure: I'm not stressed out about it, but I do see this as a critical sort of year.  Mary is old enough to comprehend what is going on and I want to put down a very good foundation on which she can build an understanding of "Christmas."  I want to build holy traditions.

But I am very unexperienced in these matters and would welcome your wise input!  

How do you handle Santa Claus/Saint Nicholas?
What do you do to keep your Christmas Christ-centered?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Smells, Bells, and What They Tell - Part IV

For earlier posts in this series on the sacramentals, please see here, here, and here!

Now, before highlighting some of my favorite sacramentals, I think it might be wise to address some common objections people at times put forth on this topic.


Sacramentals are not magic.  They aren't bargaining chips or special charms.  

The whole key to using sacramentals is one's interior disposition.  Remember that sacramentals work subjectively.  Their efficacy is dependent upon the user's inner attitude and faith.  

If I approach a sacramental with an attitude of, "If I do this, God will do ____ for me"--well, that's kind of missing the whole point.  The purpose of a sacramental is to call to mind the presence of God, to adore Him and love Him, to implore His assistance.  

Pride says, "By using this sacramental, I will make God do this favor for me."  Humility says, "I am weak and need all of God's help, so I will have recourse to this sacramental to call upon His mercy and assistance."

Faith must always be put in God, not in the holy medal, rosary bead, or holy water itself.  These latter objects are mere conduits, not the source, of grace.  

There must always be a proper ordering of importance.  God is foremost and the origin of all goodness. Sacraments are the primary means of receiving God's grace.  Sacramentals are secondary means.  Therefore, when using sacramentals, one should avoid placing more attention or trust in them than one should.


Did the Church invent sacramentals?

Well, they are instituted by the Church, yes.  However, they also have strong Scriptural roots.  Sacramentals appear all throughout sacred Scripture!

Let me provide two examples, one from the Old Testament and one from the New.

"4 They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”
Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.
The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived." (Numbers 21:4-9)

"The Brazen Serpent" by Peter Paul Rubens

Clearly, the bronze serpent did not, itself, cure anyone.  To believe so would indeed be both superstitious and pagan.  It was God who cured the people, but He used the occasion of the bronze serpent.

The serpent was a sacramental!

Here is an example from the New Testament:

"And God worked more than the usual miracles by the hand of  Paul; so that even handkerchiefs and aprons were carried from his  body to the sick and the diseases left them and the evil spirits went  out." Acts, 19:12

Paul's handkerchiefs and aprons brought about cures.  They were sacramentals!

"St. Paul Preaching in Athens," by Raphael (1515)

These are just two of many examples from the Bible.


It is true that many sacramentals were first used by pagans, but these objects were, you could say, a manifestation of a common religious unconscious, rather than a formal pagan creed.

Incense, candles, and medals were first used by pagans, but so was another sacramental that most people use: the wedding ring.  And we don't consider that pagan.

Now that we have defined sacramentals and discussed some possible objections, let's examine some specific sacramentals!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Smells, Bells, and What They Tell - Part III

(This is part of a series on sacramentals.  See here and here for the previous posts!)

Now, what, exactly, constitutes a "sacramental?"  What falls under that category and how does it get there?

Well, there are actually four different kinds of sacramentals:

1.  Pious Objects.  This is the kind of sacramental people usually think of when they hear the word "sacramental."  Rosaries, scapulars, holy cards, holy water, candles, ashes, palms, holy medals, salt, wedding rings--these are all sacramentals.

2.  Prayers.  Yes, prayers are sacramentals!  I always thought a sacramental needed to be a physical object--not so!  The Angelus, Confiteor, litanies...these are all considered sacramentals.

3.  Sacred Signs.  Sometimes sacramentals are physical motions.  Think of making the Sign of the Cross or genuflecting before the Tabernacle.

4.  Religious Ceremonies.  Often, a specific part of a sacrament is considered a sacramental.  For example, during Confirmation, the bishop will extend his hands over the Confirmandi.  This extending of the hands is a religious ceremony and a sacramental, in and of itself.

Sometimes, a sacramental will fall under more than one type.  Consider the rosary, which is both a pious object and a prayer.  
Let's examine the most well-known kind of sacramental: pious objects.  How does an object, say a rosary, become a sacramental?

The key is all in the blessing of the priest.  

Isaac Blessing Jacob, by Govert Flinck

Lay people (everyone besides an ordained priest) can certainly bless objects, and we should!  You've probably blessed your food before your meal.  However, when we bless an object, our blessing is a sort of plea to God.  

A priest's blessing is another matter altogether!  When a priest blesses an object, that blessing brings a guarantee that the prayer will be heard.  This is because the priest is a man consecrated to act in the person of Christ and in the name of the Church.  Through his blessing, the prayers of the universal Church (all around the world, in Purgatory, and in heaven!) are then attached to the sacramental.

So, after a priest blesses my rosary, whenever I pray using that rosary, my prayer is certain to be heard by God and it is linked with the prayers of the Church.  The rosary, after his blessing, becomes a sacramental.

There are numerous reasons why we should have recourse to the sacramentals.  Here are the most compelling effects:

* While always remembering that sacramentals do not save souls on their own accord, they are a means for securing heavenly help.  Sacramentals move God to give graces that He would not have otherwise given.

* They are very powerful in driving away evil spirits.

* They deliver the soul from sin (though, to be clear, only the sacrament of Confession will remove mortal sin).  St. Thomas Aquinas states that, "The episcopal blessing, the aspersion of holy water, every sacramental unction, prayer in a dedicated church, and the like, effect the remission of venial sins, implicitly or explicitly."  In other words, if I piously bless myself with holy water, that sacramental will bring about the removal of any venial sins from my soul--even if I am not consciously asking God to do so!  

* They may be used to obtain temporal favors.  For example, a farmer may ask a priest to bless his field to pray for an abundant crop.  Cars may be blessed before a long journey. 

* Many have indulgences attached to them.

If we should need more reasons, consider that Our Lady, when she appeared at Fatima in 1917, was holding two sacramentals: a scapular and a rosary!  

Statue of Our Lady of Fatima

The variety and use of sacramentals is extensive: a father sprinkling his child's bed after he had a nightmare, a mother using blessed salt to bake some bread, kissing a Miraculous Medal for peace, the numerous blessings the Church offers for water, salt, oil, candles, bread, cars, houses, children, pets, engaged couples, wedding rings, pregnant mothers, wheelchairs, fishing tackle, cheese, and even beer.

Why, you might ask.  Why bless these seemingly ordinary things of everyday life?

Well, the truth is that we must sanctify all parts of our day through divine grace.  God wants us to be wholly holy.  Prayer shouldn't take place only in the Church or when we are on our knees.  We must call to mind the presence of God when we're in the office, washing dishes, paying the bills, and stuck in traffic.  

Through the sacramentals, we can pray at all times, in all places.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Smells, Bells, and What They Tell - Part II

(This is the first in a series on sacramentals.  Here is Part I.)

Before we delve into the smells and bells themselves, perhaps it would first be helpful to step back and consider the theology behind a sacramental.  

Why is it that Catholics light candles, bless themselves with holy water, make the Sign of the Cross, pray with rosary beads, and wear holy medals?  

Is this mere superstitious recourse or simply habituated responses?  

Well, no.  These sacramentals have been around for a long time (as in, even going back to Moses!) and they have a rich, beautiful meaning.  

In a sentence, we have sacramentals because these physical items and gestures signify something greater and, in having recourse to them with the right intention, God actually works through them to bestow His grace upon the soul.

Sacramentals, as the name suggests, have a close relationship with the sacraments.  Yet, there are clear distinctions, which may help shed greater light on the role and purpose of the sacramentals.

Sacraments are outward signs, instituted by Christ, for the reception of supernatural grace (the greatest of graces!).  Christ is the principle celebrant of each sacrament.  Thankfully, the sacraments work ex opere operato (from the deed done).  This means that they are efficacious regardless of the minister: they always produce sanctifying grace by virtue of the rite employed.  There are seven sacraments and they are necessary for salvation.

Got that?

Sacramentals are also outward signs, but here is where the differences begin.  Sacramentals were instituted by the Church and they are for the reception of actual grace.  They prepare the soul for the supernatural grace of the sacraments.  The efficacy of the sacramental is entirely dependent on the disposition of the believer.  Holy water might produce a miraculous cure in one person, but do absolutely nothing for another.  It is absolutely subjective, based upon the one using them.  

Whereas sacraments are required for salvation, sacramentals are entirely voluntary.  No one has to wear a Miraculous Medal.  However, lest we be tempted to disregard them, we must remember that sacramentals can fill our days with God's grace and properly orient our souls to best receive the supernatural grace of the sacraments.  

We can consider them the means to live a richer, fuller Catholicism--and thus, a richer, fuller life in Christ.

Not Catholic?  Join on in!  Sacramentals are not restricted to only baptized Catholics.  In fact, non-Catholics should definitely put the sacramentals to use, as they are conduits of actual grace. 

There is a Gospel narrative that best highlights the difference between a sacramental and a sacrament.  Our Lord is traveling to the home of Jairus, to raise his daughter who had just died.  Amid the crowd surrounding Our Lord is a woman with a hemorrhage.  She touches the fringe of His garment, saying to herself, "If I only touch His garment, I shall be made well."  She is indeed cured and Our Lord commends her faith.  Upon reaching the home of Jairus, Our Lord then proceeds to bring his dead daughter back to life.

The woman with the hemorrhage illustrates the power of the sacramentals.  It was by touching the hem of Jesus' cloak that she was cured.  Her faith made her reach out to touch His cloak.  It was, of course, Our Lord who healed her (not the cloak!), but He allowed the cloak to be the means to bring about that cure.

Meanwhile, Jairus' daughter shows us the power of the sacraments.  She was dead; she could do nothing.  It was Jesus who took the initiative to perform an outstanding miracle: bringing her from death to life!  This, indeed, is what occurs in the sacraments.  Jesus transforms the soul and bestows upon it His own supernatural grace.

So, you see, sacraments are far more important.  

But sacramentals have a role, too.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Smells, Bells, and What They Tell

-       Where do you see God?

   The created world, all around us, is a sign of God's presence.  We read in Genesis that God created the light, the stars, the water, the plants and animals--and called them all good.  

You can look at an artist's painting and deduce something about the craftsman based on his work.  Well, we can look at God's masterpiece (creation) and deduce that God delights in beauty, that He esteems order, and, most importantly, that He loves us so.  Creation is indeed very good.

I once knew an atheist who had a deep love of nature.  He was a hiking enthusiast and was passionate about the outdoors.  I believe it was the beauty and goodness of creation, placed there by God, that was so attractive to him.  Through creation, God was reaching out and touching the heart of this man, inviting him to contemplate the Creator through His creation.

Lest we need any more reasons to acknowledge our physical, created world as "good," Christ Himself walked this earth.  In the Incarnation, God Himself entered our physical world in flesh and blood.  

God uses the physical world as a means to come to us.  It is effective, too, because we are physical beings.  Granted, we are spiritual beings as well (having a soul), but in our bodies, we grasp for something to hold onto, to look at, to touch and to fill our senses.

God fills this need through the sacraments of His Church.  Through sacred, physical signs (water, oil, bread and wine), He comes to us.  These physical parts of creation become conduits of supernatural grace.

But what about finding God in our day-to-day operations?  When we find ourselves in work, at school, at home, with friends--where can we find God?

God's grace is all around us and we can receive it through the "little sacraments": sacramentals.

Sacramentals are the means to sanctify (make holy) our daily life.

Just as Christ is the invisible God made visible, so are sacramentals a visible sign of God's invisible grace.

Holy water, blessed candles, scapulars, holy medals, salt--how do these seemingly ordinary, day-to-day, physical objects become a means for us to grow in holiness, to receive God's grace?

I recently gave a talk on sacramentals and I would like to share parts of it with you, dear readers.  I will be writing more in the days ahead, so be sure to check in again soon!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Now or Later

Imagine, if you will, a piece of wood.  You can drive a nail into the wood and then, realizing you acted in error, remove the nail.  The nail will be gone, but it leaves a hole where it once belonged.

Something similar happens to our souls.

When we commit a sin, it's like a nail being driven into our soul.  It wounds and weakens us.  Thankfully, through the sacrament of Confession, God forgives us of our sin.

But that's not the end of the story.

Just like the wood, sin leaves a sort of hole in our soul.  The sin may be gone, but there is still work that needs to be done.  For one thing, there may still remain the tendency or desire to commit the same sinful act.  

Secondly, the spiritual "holes" represent that the soul is lacking in love.  There is a lack of full love for God, a love that would prevent the soul from succumbing to sin again.  

Finally, there is a need for correction.  Think for a moment of a child.  Let's say the child smashes his mother's antique vase.  Well, his mother will forgive him, of course, out of love.  But there must be some recompense: the child must repair the vase or replace it.  This is just and it is also love.  Loving discipline directs one to what is good.

Similarly, while Confession removes our sin, it doesn't remove the punishment due to those sins.  This is a very key point!  Just like a child, we also need to be corrected through punishment when we willingly and knowingly disobey our Father.  

So, evil dispositions, lack of love, need for temporal punishment: these are the holes that remain in our soul once a sin is forgiven.

We must be purified.  The question put forward to us is: when?  

You see, it is our choice.  

We may be purified now or later.

On November 1 we celebrate All Saint's Day, a joyful occasion when we remember and thank God for our friends in heaven.  The saints are our heroes: they've won the race and are now cheering us on.  They have been purified: there are no holes in their souls!

This year on All Saint's Day I found myself involved in a very timely project.  I've volunteered to decorate our parish's bulletin board each month, which has been enjoyable albeit a bit challenging, as I don't really consider myself a very crafty person.

Anyhow, in honor of All Saint's Day, I decided to fill the board with every saint card we owned, which, over the years, has amounted to a substantial number.  Some collect baseball cards; I guess we collect saint cards.  Amidst the cards, I added quotes from the saints themselves, since they obviously have a great deal to teach us.

Well, as I typed up the quotes, I noted to myself that there was a general theme running through the messages.  Whether the saint be a martyr from the fourth century, a wife and mother, or a prisoner at Auschwitz, they all agreed upon one thing: suffering.

Here are just two examples:

"When you are ill, offer up your sufferings with love, and they will turn into incense rising up in God’s honour, and making you holy." ~ St. Josemaria Escriva

"The cross is the greatest gift God could bestow on His Elect on earth. There is nothing so necessary, so beneficial, so sweet, or so glorious as to suffer something for Jesus. If you suffer as you ought, the cross will become a precious yoke that Jesus will carry with you." ~ St. Louis Marie de Montfort 

More than miracles or mystical prayer experiences, the common bond of these souls in heaven was that they all suffered.  It wasn't something they had to unfortunately "deal with" during their day, an untimely obstacle along the rosy path of life.

No, they embraced the suffering.  They united their suffering with the suffering of Christ on the cross--some, like St. Padre Pio, to the point of even bearing Christ's wounds.  They allowed that suffering to purify them.  It was what made them saints!

They chose to be purified now, here, on earth.  Through suffering they became detached from all sin and made reparation for any damage caused by their previous sins.  Thus their love for God was so pure that, at the moment of their death, they entered directly into heaven.  

Then we come to November 2--All Soul's Day.  This is the day when we especially pray for the souls who were not fully purified here on earth.  

These are the souls in Purgatory, a word that itself means "purified."  As St. Catherine of Genoa writes:

"The Almighty is so pure, however, that if a person is conscious of the least trace of imperfection and at the same time understands that Purgatory is ordained to do away with such impediments, the soul enters this place of purification glad to accept so great a mercy of God.  The worst suffering of these suffering souls is to have sinned against divine Goodness and not to have been purified in this life."

Purgatory is God's hospital for souls.  It functions just like a hospital here on earth.  The inpatients realize fully that they are sick and need a cure.  They additionally recognize that a cure will come only through suffering--surgery or medical procedure of some sort.  Yet, they willingly proceed with the suffering, knowing that it is for their ultimate good and in hope for full health one day.

The souls in Purgatory await the ultimate cure: the bliss that is the Beatific Vision.

Joyfully, there is only one door out of Purgatory and that is the door to heaven.  But until the purification is complete, the soul will experience a suffering "more painful than anything a man can suffer in this life" (St. Augustine).  They suffer because they see so clearly the evil of their sins and sin's effects.  

They seek the peak of the mountain, but must make the painful ascent, shedding their sins and sinful desires as they rise to the top.  

While being purified, these holy souls in Purgatory cannot earn merit for good works.  They cannot hasten their ascent to the top.

This is a teaching we affirm at every Mass when, following the consecration, the priest prays, "Remember our brothers and sisters who have gone to their rest in the hope of rising again; bring them and all the departed into the light of your presence."

Who are these "brothers and sisters" from whom we pray?

Not the saints in heaven--prayers will not help them, as they have reached eternal happiness.

Not the souls in hell--prayer will not help them, as they have been damned to eternal punishment.

We pray for the souls in Purgatory, who were not purified now on earth and must therefore be purified later.

Then we come to a realization.  We are each given suffering, every day, in a myriad of shapes and sizes.

Crucifixion of St. Peter by Caravaggio

How will we use that suffering?  Will we squander it?  Or will we use it for atonement of and reparation for our sins?  Will we be like the saints who embraced their suffering and were purified through it?

That's what we can do now.  I believe it was C.S. Lewis who said that we begin to choose--today!--our eternal destination.  Heaven and hell begin on earth, through the decisions we make about how to live our life.  

Right now we can allow our suffering to purify us.  

And right now we can help those in Purgatory.  

Remember, they cannot help themselves: they cannot hasten their ascent to the heavenly mountain.  But we can!  Through our prayers and by offering up our sufferings, we can hasten their way to heaven.  

We all have loved ones who have died.  Don't assume that they are in heaven because, if they are in Purgatory, they need your help.  Offering our suffering, our prayers, our work, any difficulties in this life is the best way to show these departed ones our love.

We can (and should) remember the souls in Purgatory every day, but most especially now, in the days following All Soul's Day.  

Each day from November 1 until November 9 we can gain a plenary indulgence (removes all punishment due to sin) for a soul in Purgatory.  Of course, this is following the various requirements of a plenary indulgence, including detachment from all sin, which is quite difficult to achieve.

But we should still try!  

Here is what you need to do:

1. Visit a cemetery--any cemetery will do; it need not be the one where your loved one is buried.

2. Say a prayer for the particular soul for whom you wish to gain the indulgence.
3. Attend Mass the same day.
4. Go to confession within 20 days of the cemetery visit.
5. Have a spirit of detachment from all sin.
6. Pray an Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be for the intentions of Pope Benedict.

Now, through God's grace, we can atone for our sins and heal those holes in our soul, thus increasing and perfecting our love for God.

Now we can aid the suffering souls in Purgatory and, by assisting them, we also will be further purified.  

Now we can try to bypass Purgatory and aim for heaven, where we will see God face-to-face.

Holy Mary, Refuge of Sinners, grant us the strength and grace of God to act "now" so that "later" will find us adoring God in heaven, in the company of all the angels and saints!