Laying Limbo to Rest

At Galilee Spirituality Centre, we have a remembrance tree for babies who have died before or around the time of birth. The plaque which marks it reads:

The value of life is not measured by the span of its years (Wisdom 4:8)

We blessed the tree in the company of several parents who had come to spend a day remembering in the company of Rotunda Chaplain, Ann Charlton. This was to be the first of an annual event, but of course, by spring the next year we were in lockdown. Now that we are opening up, parents who have stayed in touch tell me that they will visit the tree when they can get there.

Years ago, when asked to speak to Church groups about Baptism, I began to notice a pattern. Within a short time of beginning to open up the subject with the group, or into the tea break, a participant would ask about Limbo. I began to realise that the question was coming from someone whose baby had died before Baptism and who had spent a lifetime wondering where that little baby was, if not in Heaven. Some of these children had been buried at night, in unconsecrated ground, or in cillíns. Often the mother herself had not been present at the burial. I discovered that I was uncovering a deep well of grief and distress. I made the decision that when this came up I would pause the progress of the evening and give this time and priority and, inevitably, when I did, other group members also shared their own family stories.

Now, when this happens, two things are different. The first is that the questions come from siblings of the baby and not parents. Time has moved on, but many of these siblings lived with this sadness until the death of their parents and beyond. The second thing is that I now take with me an extract from the Statement of the Church regarding babies who die before Baptism, (April 2007) which states that Limbo was never really official Church teaching and that there are theological and liturgical reasons to hope that infants who die without baptism may be saved and brought into eternal happiness (Introduction). The language of this seems half-hearted but it provides reassurance to many people that their beloved family member is where he or she belongs – in the arms of God, and reunited with parents and family members who are now deceased.

I remember a conversation with a friend following a miscarriage. She told me that she imagined her baby floating in outer space: never anywhere; never belonging; never held. She felt terrible guilt that she had failed her child in this way. Church teaching had created this extra grief for her. I told her I felt differently about my babies who died early in their gestation. I felt that they had lived their entire life in the safety of my womb and in the echo of my heartbeat. They had completed their days and gone to their greatness. While they were truly missed, I had no worries for them.

The teaching of Limbo has done terrible damage. It is a teaching which emerged from a legalistic way of thinking. It is miles away from the experience and faith of parents, and miles away from a true theological grasp of Baptism. Let us now make sure it is laid to rest, and, with it, the anxiety and suffering of generations of families.

Author: realmofsparks

Anne Francis is a Pastoral/Practical theologian and spiritual care practitioner. She has a Pastoral Supervision practice and is author of 'Called: Women in Ministry in Ireland.'

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