Photo: Felix Carroll
Vatican II encouraged religious communities to go back to their roots and redefine themselves in order to be relevant for the current age. Father Donald Van Alstyne, MIC, was able to do that with his fellow Marians in September, at the beatification of the Marians' Founder, Blessed Stanislaus of Jesus Mary Papczynski, who cared deeply for the souls of the faithful departed. Father Donald, above, stands beside a statue of Blessed Stanislaus in Góra Kalwaria, the resting place of Blessed Stanislaus' mortal remains.
How Fear Turned to Faith for One Marian
He grew up next to a cemetery, its slightly tilted tombstones cropping ominously out of the earth. His boyhood imagination would sometimes get the best of him, and he'd have bad dreams about death and dying.
"I would almost be afraid to fall asleep," recalls Fr. Donald Van Alstyne, MIC. "I would dream that my bed was levitating and going out the window and going straight to the cemetery. I was so frightful — frightful about death."
Amazing to think how far he's come. The boy who was afraid of death became a military chaplain who has, at times, faced death on a daily basis. Not only that, he joined the Marians of the Immaculate Conception, which has as one of its charisms praying for the souls of those who have died.
How come the transformation?
Father Donald recalls that as a boy, he finally felt forced to take matters into his own hands. His fear at bedtime turned to anger, and his anger congealed into courage. He vowed that the next time his bed "floated" over to the cemetery, he'd "get the goblins," Fr. Donald recalls with a laugh.
There was no next time. The goblins vanished. He never had that dream again.
The whole experience was life altering. It prepared him for the future.
Father Donald, a priest who has come to know firsthand a lot about death and dying, was sharing all this just following the beatification in September of another man who knew firsthand a lot about death and dying: Blessed Stanislaus of Jesus Mary Papczynski (1631-1701), the founder of the Marian Congregation.
Like the Church's new blessed before him, Fr. Donald has served on the battlefield. And like Blessed Stanislaus, Fr. Donald understands that we are all called to holiness, but that we may not achieve it before our deaths and may therefore have to endure the purification process in purgatory.
After seeing soldiers dying on battlefields, Blessed Stanislaus began to offer Masses and special prayers for them. He was especially concerned about those who had died suddenly — whether through war or some other tragedy — without the opportunity to spiritually prepare for death. That's why he made praying for them a special part of the charism of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception.
The month of November — a month in which the Church dedicates for the remembrance for Holy Souls in Purgatory — has come and gone. But for the Marians, remembering them is part of their daily spiritual practice.
For Fr. Donald, praying for poor souls comes as second nature. He has that cemetery in his childhood in upstate New York to thank for it.
"I think that cemetery brought my attention to the fact that people all will eventually die," he says. "As a boy, I remember thinking about all those tombstones and all those dead people and thinking, 'What's this all about?' That was my early beginnings of thinking and reflecting upon this journey of ours in life and what our ultimate destiny is."
In other words, it's not to reside in the cold ground. It's to reside forever in Christ.
"I began to become aware of God and go to church and pray," says Fr. Donald, "and I began to experience a closeness to God. Death no longer was scary."
'Where the Need is Greatest'
Ever since Fr. Donald was drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War in 1966, he wanted to be a military chaplain.
"In the spirit of Blessed George Matulaitis, the Renovator of the Marians, I've always wanted to go where the need is greatest," he says.
Now a major in the U.S. Army, he has served in Bosnia and in Afghanistan, among other places. He's now serving in Germany at the U.S. Army Garrison in Mannheim, where he ministers to American servicemen and servicewomen who are either preparing for deployment or coming back from either Afghanistan or Iraq. He will soon be assigned to Ft. Bliss in El Paso Texas as the Garrison Community Chaplain.
Throughout the years and throughout his ministry, Fr. Donald has come to learn that praying for the poor souls in purgatory might quite possibly be the greatest deeds of mercy a person can engage in.
What is purgatory? The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: "All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after their death they undergo purification so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven" (1030).
Though we cannot see purgatory, with the help of some holy people near and dear to the Marians, we can gain an understanding of what it's all about.
For instance, it is believed that Blessed Stanislaus experienced visions of the Holy Souls in Purgatory. He was moved to engage in (and advocate for) prayer and penance on the behalf of the dead. After one vision, he told his confreres, "Pray, brethren, for the souls in purgatory, for they suffer unbearably."
But suffer from what? Saint Faustina, who also had visions of suffering souls in purgatory, learned "that their greatest torment was longing for God (Diary of St. Faustina, 20).
"The Holy Souls in Purgatory who are undergoing this purification cannot help themselves," says Fr. Donald, "but we can help them through our prayers and good works."
Cemetery are our reminders
Cemeteries everywhere serve as a reminder to Fr. Donald to think of all the people who have died. "And I cannot think of a better intention than to pray for them," he says "to remember them."
When he was in the seminary in Washington, D.C., he used to like to visit Rock Creek Cemetery. "That would be the place I would choose every day to say my Rosary, and the Rosary would be dedicated to those people who were buried in that cemetery and all souls in purgatory," he says. "That became a daily devotion — never to forget."
He brought that devotion with him to Afghanistan a few years back. In his experiences in Afghanistan, Fr. Donald confronted death every day.
"I was traveling from place to place by helicopter," he recalls. "Then we get to these forward operating bases, and they were like miniaturized Alamos, surrounded by mountains, and the mountains are where the bad guys are, and we could be rocketed, we could be overrun. But somehow or another, I never really had a fear. Instead, I was drawn deeper into prayer and staying connected with what my mission was about — caring for soldiers. So if I died that way, what a way to die!" he says.
He pauses, then reflects, "To go from fearing sleep to where I am today, it's opposite ends of the spectrum!"
Find out more about purgatory by purchasing the book A Pocket Guide to Purgatory.