FR KEVIN HEGARTY
The Catholic Encyclopaedia of 1912 states that ‘all who depart this life without baptism are perpetually excluded from the vision of God’. From this teaching arose the conclusion that babies who die without baptism go not to a heaven but to a state called limbo. The word conjures up an image of an airless, antiseptic spiritual ante-chamber.
An indication of the pain caused by this cold theology came in a recent letter to The Irish Times by Anthony Redmond of Dublin. He outlined the experience of his mother who, in May 1945, gave birth to a child who lived for a few minutes and, in November 1946, to a stillborn child. When she realised that her first child had died she enquired of a nurse whether burial had taken place. “Yes,” came the icy reply, “but not in consecrated ground.” The baby had died before it could be baptised. The second child, being stillborn, was also left without the sacrament.
Mr Redmond wrote that his mother spoke about these two babies almost every day till she died in 2003. To the natural agony of losing her children was added the spiritual anguish caused by her Church’s view that they were consigned forever to limbo. “Surely God could not deprive these little children of eternal happiness in Heaven,” she often forlornly enquired.
A further indication of the pain caused by the theology of limbo comes in a new book on Connemara, by Tim Robinson, subtitled ‘Listening to the Wind’. Robinson is a Yorkshire man who has lived in Ireland since 1972. Since his arrival he has illuminated for us, in books and maps, the wonders of Connemara and the Aran Islands. He has plumbed depths, however, beyond the awesome physical grandeur of fragile landscapes. He has become a cartographer of the Irish spirit.
In his new book, he reveals that when making his map of Connemara in the 1980s, he discovered 40 children’s burial grounds, or killeens, where unbaptised children were laid to rest. What a patchwork of private pain!
He tells the story of Mary Salmon, whose campaign to have consecrated the children’s burial ground at Rusheenduff, Renvyle, where her two stillborn children lie, succeeded in 1994. Mary’s experience was particularly traumatic: “I felt very let down by the Catholic Church…I remember one priest saying to me, ‘surely you did not cry for that baby’, to which I replied, ‘I did cry for that baby and I think there’s no God in Heaven to take him away from me’. “I told him that my baby was not in purgatory or limbo and that I did not believe in such places.”
The concept of limbo was an invention of medieval theologians. They used it to bolster their literalist understanding of the belief that outside the Church there is no salvation. In recent times the Church has modified this narrow position. Pope Benedict in 1984, expressed his ‘purely personal belief’, that the concept had outlived its pastoral value. How it could ever have had pastoral value escapes me.
The 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church takes a positive view: “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.”
In the past month it has been reported that the International Theological Commission of the Church has reached the conclusion that the concept of limbo is neither essential or necessary. Archbishop Forte, a commission member, has stated that in the case of children who are not baptised through no fault of their own, ‘then it would seem that the saving power of Christ ought to prevail over the power of sin’. This elegant intellectual dance is, no doubt, fascinating for theological anoraks. It is welcome but what is missing from his statement is a recognition of the pain that the concept has caused and an apology to those who suffered because of it.
It may be some years, however, before that International Theological Commission pronounces officially on the matter. Official theological bodies move with a motion that, in comparison, would qualify a tortoise for an Olympic Sprint.
Thankfully, pastoral practise has moved ahead of theological deliberation. Here, in Mayo, we have made some attempt to acknowledge the pain of those who were treated so brusquely. On Claggan Island, on the north eastern corner of Blacksod Bay, there is a killeen. As part of the Tír Sáile Sculpture Trail in 1993, the Westport sculptor Marian O’Donnell designed an installation for this little graveyard, called ‘The Acknowledgement’. On it are inscribed the words of the poet Derek Mahon:
“They are begging us as you see
in their wordless way
To do something or speak
on their behalf
Or at least not to close
the door again.”