As I was preparing a talk on Dante the other day I had the chance to reread the Inferno, where we encounter the unbaptized babies of Limbo, the first circle of hell. It brought back memories of the Catholic subculture in which I grew up, and in particular my grade school and the collection of money for missionaries in pagan lands. And in pagan lands, there are pagan babies. These babies needed to be baptized, and so they needed missionaries, and the missionaries needed money.
As an incentive for our fundraising, when we raised $5 we were allowed to give a Christian name to a pagan baby. The boys could give a name to a boy pagan baby and the girls, a girl. In eighth grade, the girls (in their ongoing effort to please our teacher, Sr. Veronica, a member of the Sisters of Saint Joseph) would name their babies something like “Mary Elizabeth” or “Mary Margaret.” Catholic babies in those days were always named for a recognized saint, but we boys knew that the girls were sucking up to Sister Veronica, and we wanted no part of it. We decided to name one of ours “Brutus.” (We knew nothing of the noble Brutus of Julius Caesar fame, of course; we were thinking of Popeye’s nemesis.) When we announced our choice of names, Sr. Veronica’s eyes became horizontal slits and her mouth turned a menacing frown; she was not pleased. After glaring at us for what seemed like several minutes, she rapidly announced, “He shall be called Joseph. Open your math books to page 61.”
Medieval theology, reflected in Dante’s poem, recognized the great value of baptism and the incorporation of the baptized into the community of the Church. But it also had a difficult time dealing with the dilemma caused by the need of baptismal grace for eternal salvation while recognizing the innocence of children who deserved no punishment. Hence Limbo, an invention that seemed to have it both ways: no innocent suffering but no eternal salvation either. Contemporary theology, expressed succinctly in the Catechism, has moved beyond the dilemma that Limbo was supposed to solve: “As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved…” (# 1261).
So I was wondering, what can I retrieve from our grade school pagan baby collections? And here’s what I came up with. In Dante’s poem, one of the things you can’t miss as you move from the Inferno to the Purgatorio is the change in the inhabitants’ ability to communicate, to be in communion. The inhabitants of hell are people who continue to say no to God’s grace, and this eternal refusal is manifest in their unwillingness to be in community. They do not talk to one another and think only of themselves and their fama, their earthly fame, which they ask Dante to promote when he returns there. But in purgatory, even though there is suffering, there is an underlying joyfulness because the sinners there are repentant, they continue to long for what was given to them as divine images: God. The manifestation of this desire is their sense of community; the inhabitants of purgatory care about one another, ask for prayers, and think of others. Their desire for God is purging their egoism.
Purgatory is a lot like life when it’s going well: a growth in holiness. I remember my mother often saying that one can live out one’s purgatory here on earth, and sometimes she would stare at me and my brothers just a few seconds too long for comfort when she said it. So, when we donated money to the missionaries, besides the foolishness of naming babies or the problematic theology of Limbo, we were also learning that we were in some sort of communal relationship with people far away living in alien cultures, but who were human beings like us, in need of grace and the help of their fellow Christians. Like the inhabitants of Dante’s purgatory, the Catholic emphasis on community and relationship and our equality before God came through. All in all, not a bad subculture to grow up in.
David Hammond teaches theology and church history for Saint Joseph’s College Online.