Pagan Babies

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? HammondAnd 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.

Authentic Love and the Discovery of Fire

The gospel for the 5th Sunday of Easter Cycle C contains one of most powerful admonitions that Jesus offered his disciples:  “I give you a new commandment: Love one another as I have loved you (John 13:34).”  I’d like to share a true story about a young couple from Chicago that will help explain the profound meaning of this gospel.  Peter and Linda were both just 21 years old and had been dating for almost two years.  Peter planned to ask Linda to marry him.

One evening, Peter and a friend were involved in a horrible accident, and Peter was thrown from the car.  He suffered a severe concussion and ended up in a deep coma.  The doctors told Peter’s family and friends that he probably wouldn’t survive.  Even if he did, he would remain in a comatose state.  In the sad days ahead, Linda spent all of her spare time at the hospital.  Night after night, for three and a half months, Linda sat at Peter’s bedside, speaking words of encouragement to him, even though he gave no sign that he heard her.  Then one night, Linda saw Peter’s toe move.  A few nights later she saw his eyelash flutter.  This was all she needed.  Against the advice of the doctors, she quit her job and became his constant companion.  She spent hours every day massaging his arms and legs.

Eventually Linda arranged for Peter to go home.  She spent all of her savings on a swimming pool, hoping that the sun and water would restore life to his motionless limbs.  Then came the day when Peter spoke his first word since the accident.  It was only a grunt, but Linda understood it.  Gradually, with Linda’s help, those grunts turned into words – clear words.  Finally, the day came when Peter was able to ask Linda’s father if he could marry her.  Linda’s father said, “When you can walk down the aisle, Peter, Linda will be yours.”

Two years later, Peter walked down the aisle of Our Lady of Pompeii Catholic Church in Chicago.  He had to use a walker, but he was walking.  Every television station in the city covered that wedding, and newspapers all over the country published the story with pictures of Peter and Linda.  Celebrities called to congratulate them.  People from as far away as Australia sent them letters and presents.  And families all over the world with loved ones in comas called to ask them for advice.  Today, Peter is living a very normal life.  He speaks slowly, but clearly.  He walks slowly, but without a walker.  Peter and Linda even have a lovely little baby girl.

The story of Peter and Linda is a beautiful commentary on the words of Jesus in John’s gospel:  “I give you a new commandment: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.  This is how the world will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)

If there is one thing that we desperately need in our world today, it’s to rediscover the power of Authentic Love – self-giving love.  Jesus is calling us to a relationship with others modeled on his love, a love that Saint Paul describes so well in 1 Corinthians 13.  This is a love that we’re never tired of hearing about, a love that we want for ourselves, a love that we are called to extend to others: “a love that is patient, a love that is kind.  It is not jealous, pompous, or inflated.  It does not seek its own interests, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth, a love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things, a love that never fails.”  The story of Peter and Linda illustrates that this kind of love has tremendous power.  It has the power to change the world.  It has the power to bring people back from the brink of death to life.  It has the power to bring people back from hopeless sickness to perfect health.  It has the power to inspire people all over the world and give them new hope, as Linda’s love for Peter did.

In the early 1980s, an unusual film was playing in movie theaters across the nation.  It was called The Quest for Fire.  Its French producer said that it fulfilled a lifelong dream.  He had always dreamed of celebrating in film the discovery of fire, for it was the discovery of fire 80,000 years ago that saved the people on planet Earth from total extinction.  It was the discovery of fire that made it possible DSCF1884for them to make tools for survival and to protect themselves from the cold.

Today, people on the planet Earth are beginning to worry again that we are headed for total extinction.  Today, people on the planet Earth are beginning to worry again that we are teetering on the brink of a global disaster.  This time, the danger comes not from something basic like the lack of fire, but from something even more basic – the lack of Authentic Love, the kind of love that Jesus preached, the kind of unfailing, unconditional, self-giving love that Linda had for Peter.

This makes us wonder and ask ourselves a profound and frightening question.  Will someone 80,000 years from now make a movie to celebrate the rediscovery of Authentic Love in the 21st Century?  Will someone 80,000 years from now make a movie to celebrate the only thing that saved our planet from extinction?  Will someone 80,000 years from now make a movie to celebrate the outpouring for Authentic Love that came forth from the Christian community in the 21st Century and changed the world?  Only the future and only the Christian community will be able to answer that question.  Only you and I, and millions of Christians like us, hold the answer to those questions somewhere deep down in our hearts.

This gospel is an invitation for us to look into our heart-of-hearts today and see how we ourselves are answering that question by our own lives of Authentic Love – especially within our families, for we must begin to change the world in the family, or we won’t change it at all.  “I give you a new commandment.  Love one another, and love them as I have loved you.”

“Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of Authentic Love, and then, for the second time in the history of the world, man will discover fire.”      Teilhard de Chardin


Deacon Greg Ollick teaches sacred scripture for Saint Joseph’s College Online. He is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Atlanta and runs The Epiphany Initiative website.