Ask a Franciscan

What about Limbo?

Q: Three years ago my unbaptized granddaughter was murdered. She was two years old. I know what the Bible says regarding Baptism, but the thought of her soul not ever being in heaven has taken control of my thoughts so much that I am frequently depressed. Are unbaptized souls in a state of eternal happiness outside heaven or do they go to hell forever? I pray for my granddaughter’s soul.

A: I am very sorry to learn of your granddaughter’s murder and your anxiety over whether she can be saved. Thanks for writing. I cannot imagine that a good and just God would allow a murdered, unbaptized two-year-old to be anywhere except in heaven.

The Order of Christian Funerals, approved by the Holy See for use in the United States, includes two prayers for children who died before Baptism:

“O Lord, whose ways are beyond understanding, listen to the prayers of your faithful people: that those weighed down by grief at the loss of this child may find reassurance in your infinite goodness….”

“God of all consolation, searcher of mind and heart, the faith of these parents is known to you. Comfort them with the knowledge that the child for whom they grieve is entrusted now to your loving care….”

The way we pray indicates what we believe. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “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 [people] should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward children which caused him to say, ‘Let the children come to me, do not hinder them,’ allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism.

“All the more urgent is the Church’s call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism” (#1261).

Even according to earlier Church teaching, your granddaughter would be not in hell but in limbo, a state of natural happiness without enjoying God’s presence.

Why was there a teaching about limbo, anyway? It filled a gap. If you believe that Jesus Christ came for the salvation of all people and if you believe that Jesus sent the apostles to preach the Good News inviting people to be baptized, then you might tend to think that only baptized people can be saved.

If you do that, then you need a place for good people who were never baptized. Limbo was that place. The 1992 Catechism, however, maintains a very deliberate silence about limbo. We should take note of that.

Your granddaughter has been at peace for three years now. I hope that you too can be at peace—even as you ache for her presence.

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