Q. Human remains have been found that are 50,000 years old. But Christ came to earth only 2,000 years ago. Are all those “pagan” people before Jesus now in purgatory? And why did he wait so long to come? (Houma, Louisiana)
A. My first instinct is to quibble with your use of the word “pagan” to describe all those who lived on earth before Jesus. My dictionary defines “pagan” as “a follower of a polytheistic religion” or “one who has little or no religion and who delights in sensual pleasures and material goods.” I hardly think that definition fits the Jews — who fought to defend monotheism, had a strong commitment to prayer, and a strict code of personal morality.
But on to your question: Catholic theology has traditionally taught that the righteous who came before Jesus were in the “limbo of the fathers,” a sort of spiritual waiting room where they remained until “in his human soul united to his divine person, the dead Christ went down to the realm of the dead. He opened heaven’s gates for the just who had gone before him,” says the Catechism of the Catholic Church in No. 637.
As to why Christ “waited so long” to come to earth, that is a matter of perennial speculation — to be answered, I suppose, only in heaven when we can ask the Lord ourselves. One theory is that the Roman Empire provided the optimal setting, because by then, common roads and a common tongue united the known world and the message of the Gospel could spread more quickly. (By that same reckoning, though, others would argue that the present day would have been better, since Twitter offers a worldwide system of instantaneous communication.)
Q. Over the past few years, my husband has suffered a traumatic brain injury and, more recently, has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. I would like him to participate in all the sacraments, as he has done faithfully since he was a child. He attends Mass with me, but does not remember any prayers, cannot read them from the missal, and needs assistance when receiving the Eucharist.
I have taken him with me to confession during Lent — having him come into the reconciliation room with me, as he cannot be left unattended. The priests have heard my confession and then have given my husband a blessing. Is it appropriate for me to have him participate in the sacraments when he doesn’t fully understand their significance? (New Palestine, Indiana)
A. The answer to your question is a resounding “yes.” Your husband’s participation is absolutely appropriate. Despite his limitations, he should be encouraged to share in the sacraments for whatever spiritual blessings and personal satisfaction they might bring him.
The US Conference of Catholic Bishops has called repeatedly for broader integration of people with disabilities into the full life of the Church, particularly through the sacraments.
The canonical requirements for reception of the sacraments are quite modest. For Holy Communion, there is a requirement about the use of reason, but that is to be interpreted liberally. In a document entitled, “Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments With Persons With Disabilities,” the document notes in No. 20 that all that is necessary is that “the person be able to distinguish the body of Christ from ordinary food, even if this recognition is evidenced through manner, gesture, or reverential silence rather than verbally.”
As for confession, the same document states in No. 23 that “as long as the individual is capable of having a sense of contrition for having committed sin, even if he or she cannot describe the sin precisely in words, the person may receive sacramental absolution.”
My guess is that in your situation, the priests in the confessional have been giving your husband more than just a “blessing” and granting him absolution to whatever degree it is needed. If I were the priest, I would say to your husband, “Let’s thank God for his mercy and ask his forgiveness for anything we might have done wrong.” I would look to your husband for a nod or smile of recognition, dispense with any recitation of sins, act of contrition, or imposition of a penance and simply go on to pronounce the words of absolution.
I must say that I am edified by your care for your husband and for his continued spiritual nourishment. To me, it stands as a beautiful example of fidelity to the marriage vow.