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Relationships with the Damned

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I want to give my take on a few questions that were recently reflected upon online by Msgr. Pope. He does a great job but I wanted to share how I would approach them.

Relationship to God:  Do the damned hate God?

I have often spoken about how the devils and the damned hate God. This truth requires certain elaboration. Note first that “hate” here is not an emotion but a movement of the will. How do we encounter God? God can show himself in his essence as the supreme good or he can reveal himself by his effects. The latter is how we and those in hell experience God. God is the greatest or highest or supreme good from which all other goodness is derived. As such, even the angels probably encountered some sort of veil between themselves and God when they made their frightful decision to obey or to rebel. The same would apply to men. Otherwise, seeing God for who he is in his essence would logically eradicate any decision to oppose or to flee him. The supreme good by definition compels unity or communion. The angels were probably presented with the idea of beatitude but not immediately presented with the beatitude itself. Any who would have the beatific vision would be unable to forfeit it.

Human beings in this world experience the good through the intellect and will; however, our experience of the transcendent is limited by the conditions of our present life. When the saints see God, the gift of grace that accompanies the beatific vision makes this movement of the will immutable. In other words, those who see God in heaven (angels or men) will always see God in heaven. The value of freedom is realized, not destroyed. Those who would shy away from seeing God misuse and damage their freedom. They remain limited to “an idea of God” and his effects. Those in hell might hate God for their necessary dependence upon him (although not for their existence) and/or for the pain that accompanies their banishment. They do not see God for who he is in himself.

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Relationship to Themselves:  Just as the devil is behind our culture of death, would not the devils and the damned prefer absolute destruction to endless life and agony?

The devils would tempt men to spurn life, not because they hate life but because to renounce the good of life dishonors the Creator who is the author of life. Demons and the damned among humanity want no annihilation for its own sake even though they wish they could escape the suffering they endure. Further, it is wrong to imagine hell populated by sadists who find joy in pain. The biggest problem they seem to face is that they find pain in joy. It is a profound reversal. They have run away from the happiness that God had planned for them.

Relationship to the Saints:  Can the saints and the damned communicate or visit with one another?

I have already remarked that I do not believe the saints become amnesiacs about those who are damned. Rather, the overwhelming joy of heaven makes it impossible for them to experience sorrow about the damned and removes any capacity to be manipulated by them. It has been speculated that the damned might initially see or perceive those in heaven but not the glory that shines upon them and the source of that glory. This is reflected in the story of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus. But there will be no crossing over. The saints will neither have a desire nor the ability to visit damned family ones. The damned will be unable to take vacations in heaven. There is no respite. However, it has also been argued that the damned (at least by the Day of Judgment) will be deprived of this window to the blessed into heaven. It would seem to me that the nature of this separation of the unjust from the just would by necessity have to become absolute. The saints of God will then fully reflect the radiance of the one they look upon. I suspect the damned would find it like us trying to stare at the sun. The light would be too brilliant; stare long enough and you would become blind. That really says it all. The damned will become blind to the saints and to God— as prisoners of hell, what they see will be limited to the measure of their individual cells.

 

Can We Force Priests to Give Communion?

The Situation at Hand

Judge Sara Smolenski, a chief judge of the Kent County District Court, in Grand Rapids, Michigan was in the news this past Tuesday because her pastor Father Scott Nolan denied her Holy Communion at the church where she has been a parishioner for more than six decades. Why? As a lesbian she civilly married her long-time female companion, Linda.

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Attacking the Messenger

The priest is being attacked, not only by her but by sympathetic parishioners and a slanted media. They are demanding the removal of the priest who has served as the pastor of St. Stephen Catholic Church for the last three years. It sounds like the young priest has been under pressure for some time as we are told that he was compelled to include non-Catholic readers in liturgies. However, Church law stipulates that readers at Mass should be Catholic. Further, while it is the questionable practice of blessings being substituted for Holy Communion for non-Catholic children at school Masses; the Eucharist is reserved to “Catholics in good standing.” It is this last point that makes the demands of Judge Smollenski problematical.

Real Social Justice & Intimidation

The comparison is being made to the integration of the school back in 1966 when 40% of the student body was non-Catholic. However, the Catholic faith, while urging justice for all persons, would not equate racial equality or religious liberty with the acceptance of homosexual sin. This is the real divide. The judge makes mention that she has donated $7,000 to the church building fund. I am sure that the pastor and parish are appreciative for her generous donation; however, if such is intended as a bribe so as to keep quiet or to compromise Catholic moral teaching then I would suggest giving it back.

Condemnation of a Compassionate Priest

prI am certain the priest would not tell her (a parishioner for 62 years) to go elsewhere or that she is now unwelcome. Apparently, all he told her was that because she had publicly married another woman that she should not come up for the Eucharist. More than an issue of homosexuality, heterosexual couples married outside the Church should have their bonds regularized prior to receiving the sacrament. A spokesman for the Diocese of Grand Rapids stated that “This is a spiritual matter between her and her pastor.” That is where it should have been left. But Judge Smolenski insisted that it was time “to bring this into the light.” The judge has taken a public stance and this makes her reception of the sacrament into an act of dissent and political manipulation. The judge wants to step forward and speak the truth but it is not the truth of Catholic or traditional Christian teaching. The question is asked, why would the bishop send such a man with his views to this church? What? Literally the upset voices are perplexed that a Catholic priest with Catholic beliefs would be assigned to a Catholic church. This is nonsensical. Note that the priest did not seek to shame her in public. He proceeded as directed by canon law. He contacted her outside of Mass with a phone call. Given that he has shared similar concerns about others, she was not singled out. This reflected no personal enmity. The judge was the one who made this a “public” issue and he sought to avoid any “public shunning.” Further, as a learned priest who appreciates the effects of the sacrament, he knows that the Eucharist brings life to some and death to others. If not spiritually prepared, then the reception of Holy Communion can convict us of sin and leave us in a worse situation than before receiving it. The Eucharist is medicine to some and a poison to others. I suspect that the pastor was concerned for the woman’s soul and about the souls of others due to the scandal and miscommunication that her reception entailed. Failure in this regard can constitute a dereliction of his duty as a priest. However, the judge neither thanked him for his pastoral consideration nor for his spiritual instruction. She turned his confidential council into an opportunity for public dissent (which she said she did for others) and personal retaliation.

Fidelity or Dissent to Catholic Teaching

Nothing is said by the dissenters or the media reporters about the fact that both the Bible and the universal Catholic Catechism teach that homosexual acts are mortally sinful. She is the one who went to the press. The priest is criticized for firing teachers living a homosexual lifestyle and yet this is a general policy for dioceses across the country. Those who work in our parishes and schools should reflect or witness Catholic teachings and values. Such employment is more than a job, it is a participation in the missionary mandate given the Church.  Would the judge have the local church skip biblical passages in the lectionary for Mass that target the sinfulness and dire consequences for homosexual sin? Can she really paint herself as a good Catholic in sync with the faith given her by her parents?

Did the Pope’s Ambiguity Give Ammunition to this Priest’s Attackers?

A few nebulous remarks or a footnote in Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium does not override several millennia of Jewish and later Catholic doctrine and morals. The Pope writes [EG 47]:

“The Church is called to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open. One concrete sign of such openness is that our church doors should always be open, so that if someone, moved by the Spirit, comes there looking for God, he or she will not find a closed door. There are other doors that should not be closed either. Everyone can share in some way in the life of the Church; everyone can be part of the community, nor should the doors of the sacraments be closed for simply any reason. This is especially true of the sacrament which is itself ‘the door’: baptism. The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak. These convictions have pastoral consequences that we are called to consider with prudence and boldness. Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators. But the Church is not a tollhouse; it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems.”

As with so many other statements, the papal quote sidetracks serious elements and inserts a level of ambiguity. The doors of our churches are open. We welcome sinners. We ask donations but there are no ticket prices for attendance. Ushers and not bouncers stand at our doors. The Pope says that “the doors of the sacraments [should not] be closed for simply any reason.” This is true. But there remain reasons why some people should not receive. Catholicism practices a “closed-table” when it comes to non-Catholics. Reception is a sign of unity or communion with Christ and the universal Church. While many Protestants practice a so-called “open-table” it must be remembered that they often see the ecclesial community as a place of fellowship, not as a supernatural and sacramental mystery of saving encounter with Christ. While the Eucharist may be a means toward unity, it most essentially expresses a unity already realized.  We do not want to make liars out of people. Most Protestants would regard Holy Communion as simply a symbolic or representational presence or even just as a sign of nostalgic remembrance. Catholicism views the Eucharist as the REAL body and blood of Christ substantially present behind the accidentals of bread and wine. Our Eucharist is the risen Jesus, God come down from heaven. When we say, “Amen,” this truth is affirmed as well as our unity with the Catholic Church and all that she holds to be true. Reception by a non-Catholic (who does not believe what we believe) would not only be a broken or deceptive sign— many of the Protestant ministers would contend that it would be an act of idolatry (as they would deny the divine presence). The reception of the sacrament should affirm truth, both about the Eucharist and about what the communicant actually believes. Further, the Pope is right that the Eucharist is “a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” Yes, those who are in venial sin and struggling with temptation can find great healing benefit in the Eucharist. However, a person in mortal sin is forbidden to receive it. Why? Because that which would bring healing and sanctification to those in a state of grace, constitutes sacrilege and condemnation for those in serious sin and/or not spiritually prepared to receive it.

Was Anything Done Worthy of Censure?

The woman in the news story has committed two public acts that are deemed the matter of mortal sin: she has feigned the sacrament of marriage with a civil union and she has announced a same-sex relationship that is inherently disordered with implied intimate acts regarded as seriously sinful. As with former Vice President Joseph Biden recently denied Holy Communion due to his stance enabling abortion, Canon 915 in the Code of Canon Law applies here as well:

“Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.”

It seems to me that the judge’s problem is not so much with the priest but with Jesus and the Catholic Church in general. We need to keep matters of this sort in prayer. We should also be quick to forgive those who are angry, hurting and belligerent— all the while not renouncing the truths of the Gospel or what is right and wrong.  Pray that the priest will not be punished for what he knew in conscience he was compelled to do.  Pray that the judge and her friend will embrace a sisterly relationship and return to good standing with the Church.  Pray that other parishioners will realize what is truly at stake and humbly accept Catholic teaching.  Pray that this will be a teaching moment for the media and society around us about the conflict between the laws of God and a secular modernity at war with people of traditional faith.

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FULL STATEMENT FROM BISHOP WALKOWIAK

We appreciate Judge Sara Smolenski’s service to the community. We are grateful for her past generosity. These facts are not at issue in this matter.

As Pope Francis explains in Amoris Laetitia, “The Eucharist demands that we be members of the one body of the Church. Those who approach the Body and Blood of Christ may not wound that same Body by creating scandalous distinctions and divisions among its members.” (186) Lifelong Catholics would surely be aware of this.

Inclusion and acceptance have been a hallmark of Catholic Churches in the Diocese of Grand Rapids throughout the diocese’s history. They remain so. They presume, however, a respect on the part of individuals for the teachings and practice of the wider Catholic community. No community of faith can sustain the public contradiction of its beliefs by its own members. This is especially so on matters as central to Catholic life as marriage, which the Church has always held, and continues to hold, as a sacred covenant between one man and one woman.

Father Scott Nolan, pastor of St. Stephen Parish, has dedicated his priesthood to bringing people closer to Jesus Christ. Part of his duty in pursuing that end is to teach the truth as taught by the Catholic Church, and to help it take root and grow in his parish. Mercy is essential to that process, but so are humility and conversion on the part of anyone seeking to live an authentically Catholic Christian life.

Father Nolan approached Judge Smolenski privately. Subsequent media reports do not change the appropriateness of his action, which the diocese supports.

What is with the Eternal Pains of Hell?

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The question about pain in this world is reformulated in reference to the next: “Why would a good God inflict eternal punishment upon the damned?” How is this just? Would it not be better just to be annihilated? God will not deprive of existence what he has created. The economy of God and his providence would not logically allow such a prospect. We were made for eternity. The real question is will we spend it with God or in opposition to him? It might further be argued that the damned bring their punishment upon themselves just as our first parents through their sin damaged the human race for many generations to follow.

When we hear people deny the existence of hell or argue that such “eternal” punishment is unfair, we should remember that God has given us many opportunities for grace and salvation.

We read in Isaiah 55:7-9: “Let the wicked forsake their way, and sinners their thoughts; Let them turn to the LORD to find mercy; to our God, who is generous in forgiving. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways—oracle of the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, my thoughts higher than your thoughts.”

We suspect that even those whose lives are cut short or who die in ignorance will not be forsaken by God. But the terrible price remains for those who knew better and still failed to believe and love as they should have.

The issue remains that to live in heaven is to abide in the presence of God. The eternal nature of hell is based upon the simple fact that the damned want nothing to do with God. There is a failure to repent. This obstinacy is fixed at death. I suspect that part of the problem is that many have a false view of how heaven is constituted. The Muslims, for instance, imagine heaven in a material or earthly way where a man is rewarded with seventy-two virgins to despoil.

We read from the Koran (N. J. Dawood translation) Sura 56 verses 12- 39: “They shall recline on jeweled couches face to face, and there shall wait on them immortal youths with bowls and ewers and a cup of purest wine (that will neither pain their heads nor take away their reason); with fruits of their own choice and flesh of fowls that they relish. And theirs shall be the dark-eyed houris (girls of tender age with rounded large breasts), chaste as hidden pearls: a guerdon for their deeds… We created the houris and made them virgins, loving companions for those on the right hand. . .”

Cough . . . cough . . . really? A popular albeit secular vision of heaven is that it is a place where good people have everything they want, in a sense expanding upon earthly materialism and reducing God to a genie who grants wishes. The Christian view by distinction is highly spiritualized. There is no lust or animalistic eroticism and no more marriage. It is the banquet of the Lamb. We will be like angels and yet we are also promised restoration, body and soul. We will be the same but different. As with the resurrected Christ and the assumed Virgin Mary, we will put on immortality. The lot of the saints in heaven is not self-preoccupation but an eternal centering upon God almighty. We will join the dominions, powers and principalities of angels in giving eternal glory and praise to God. The damned want nothing of this orientation. Mercy cannot be accessed if there is no movement of the will toward repentance.

I have often thought that the pain to the senses in hell might be God’s last gift to the damned— to help distract them from the deeper pain of loss in shutting themselves off from God’s presence and mercy. They were made for friendship with God. The particular judgment at death is to human beings what the decisive decision of the angels was at the first moment of creation. They have rejected their ultimate end and that necessitates a distortion or corruption of the spirit. I suspect this is why we so often image the damned as mutilated and the fallen angels as with horns and a tail. Graces build upon nature. There is a divinization of the saints. A fallen nature has forfeited any such amplification. Instead of becoming something more it is reduced to something less. The devils and the damned get what they want but not what God had first offered them. The devils still have residual angelic powers but a condemned humanity does not even have full benefit of what was given before. There is something bestial and unclean about them. What becomes of creatures made in the image of God when this likeness is forsaken? There is probably less of a self-love as there is a persistent self-loathing.

If we now lament the possibility of men and women in hell; how do the saints remember their missing family and friends? One priest suggested that the saints no longer remember the damned as this would cause sadness which cannot co-exist with the infinite joy of heaven. I would argue differently. I suspect that the saints do indeed remember those who are damned. However, the saints of heaven no longer have a capacity for sadness or for any external manipulation by others or guilt over the damned. They belong entirely to God. There is no prayer for the damned because it is neither desired nor would it make any difference. They accept as does God that his children have signed their fate. They have made their decision. While there is an infinite quality to that eternal moment of Calvary where the sacred heart is pained by sin; Christ in heaven will never suffer again. Neither will those who join him in his house of many rooms. The “wailing and grinding of teeth” is for those in the darkness outside. They resent and regret but refuse to repent and change. The souls in hell are in a sense at war, not only with God but with reality, itself. The damned and the devils would have us on earth feel sorry for them but this is a devious trick. They want no aid from heaven or earth; rather, in their spite they would steal from those in pilgrimage to add to their number. I suppose this is the ultimate realization of that sentiment, “misery loves company.” The manipulation by the damned of the living is a temptation that must be resisted. Our sights must be kept on God with the awareness that he is good and that he gives to each soul what it truly desires.

Note:  The image above is actually a depiction of purgatory.

More Wailing & Grinding of Teeth

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Matthew 13:47-50 – “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea, which collects fish of every kind. When it is full they haul it ashore and sit down to put what is good into buckets. What is bad they throw away. Thus it will be at the end of the age. The angels will go out and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.”

Our Lord made his disciples into fishers of men so that men might know the truth and be saved; the angels will also be fishers of men but they will have an additional role as judges for Christ.

The bait on the hook of Christianity is the resurrection. The appreciation is that there is time to proclaim and to receive the Good News. Men might yet repent and believe. This is not the case on the Day of Judgment. There is an old expression that if a person is wicked or troubled, he is called “a bad fish.” These bad fish will be separated from the good. This imagery is not unlike that of the harvest and separation of the wheat from the weeds. Another image that is used in Scripture is the separation of the sheep from the goats. What comes to my mind is a film, (the name escapes me), where a guy is fishing. He gets all excited when he hooks something and he pulls it ashore. Unfortunately his joy turns to sadness when the big catch is not a fish but an abandoned tire. Instead of something good and alive, he gathers junk instead.  God would grant us value.  Apart from God, we would be reduced to junk.

Matthew 22:11-14 – “But when the king came in to meet the guests he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment. He said to him, ‘My friend, how is it that you came in here without a wedding garment?’ But he was reduced to silence. Then the king said to his attendants, ‘Bind his hands and feet, and cast him into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.’ Many are invited, but few are chosen.”

The analogy used in this passage is that of a wedding garment and being properly dressed.

Many of those initially invited made up excuses for not coming. Similarly, many among us make excuses for failing to be the saints they are called to be. They put off for an uncertain tomorrow the good that should be done today, imagining that there is still plenty of time. However, either upon our death or at the consummation of the world, there will be no more time for repentance, conversion and good works. Christ is rejected by many of his own and yet, by the movement of the Holy Spirit, many of the Gentiles come to believe.  Given that the original group in the parable turned down the king’s invitation, those on the streets are now invited. All are called so that his house might be full. He encounters one guest without the customary wedding garment. The king has him restrained and thrown out. The man fails to wear the garment, not because he is poor, as the garment is complementary and is offered at the door. Rather, he refuses to wear it as a sign of disrespect to his host. As believers we are offered the wedding garment of the Lamb of God. It is symbolized by a white garment at baptism. We also see something of it in the chasuble a priest wears at Mass. Finally, it is signified by the white pall placed over the casket. We are called to put on Christ. We do so knowing that the Father will thus see his Son in us.

Matthew 24:46-51 – “Blessed is that servant whom his master on his arrival finds doing so. Amen, I say to you, he will put him in charge of all his property. But if that wicked servant says to himself, ‘My master is long delayed,’ and begins to beat his fellow servants, and eat and drink with drunkards, the servant’s master will come on an unexpected day and at an unknown hour and will punish him severely and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.”

As believers we have been appointed sentinels or watchmen for Christ.

Like the wise virgins who await the coming of the bridegroom, they keep a supply of oil so that their lamps might not go out. The foolish ones abandon their vigil to find more oil and find themselves locked out. We must remain awake. Our faith must be active and alive. Note that the wicked servant is assigned a place with the hypocrites. These are the men and women who should have known better. Every sin a Christian commits constitutes hypocrisy. We claim to be one thing while we are another. This is the sin that most infuriates Christ who demands that we be either hot or cold.

Matthew 25:24-30 – “Then the one who had received the one talent came forward and said, ‘Master, I knew you were a demanding person, harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter; so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground. Here it is back.’ His master said to him in reply, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I did not plant and gather where I did not scatter? Should you not then have put my money in the bank so that I could have got it back with interest on my return? Now then! Take the talent from him and give it to the one with ten. For to everyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And throw this useless servant into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.’”

Do we make use of the gifts that God gives us or do they go to waste?

Christian faith is never playing it safe. It demands investment and risk. Our investment in the kingdom might cost everything that we prize in this world. That is the reason why the rich man invited to be a disciple goes away sad. Many today also think that the price of being a Christian is too high. That is why they compromise the faith. They are afraid when they should trust the Lord. The sadness about this parable is not just about a poor standing at the final judgment. There is a poignant melancholy associated with ordinary regret and loss. The person will never fulfill his or her potential. A life wasted or lived in vain is a terrible prospect with which a condemned soul will have to accept. This does not mean that we must be successful in our endeavors. Many have suffered and died for Christ while seeing little or nothing in the way of reward or benefits. Parents lament as much, even those who are faithful in forming their children in the faith. They are at a loss for words when children fall away. What happened? What could they have done differently? St. Mother Teresa appreciated the truth about this. She stated, “God does not require that we be successful only that we be faithful.” Failure in the sight of the world but fidelity before God means a share in the victory of the Cross. One can gain the whole world and yet forfeit his immortal soul.

Wailing & Grinding of Teeth

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Matthew 8:11-12 – “I say to you, many will come from the east and the west, and will recline with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the banquet in the kingdom of heaven, but the children of the kingdom will be driven out into the outer darkness, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.”

We should not presume that just because we are Catholics in the true Church that we are necessarily saved and all others are damned.

It is true that the Church is the great sacrament of saving encounter with Christ. However, there are too many Sunday saints who are weekday devils. Many have compromised the faith. Most Catholics fail to keep the precepts of the Church and rarely go to Mass. They pray when they want something but rarely offer prayers of praise, thanksgiving and contrition. They are formed more by the world than by the Gospel. As for those who attend Mass, yesterday on the celebration of Christ the King, I asked, “Do you belong to Christ as a member of his royal family and kingdom or are you owned by the world?” The values of the kingdom make believers into living signs of contradiction to the world. This is why so many are listed as martyrs of the pagan Roman Empire. Jesus tells his disciples that they must love those who hate them, forgive those who hurt them, and give to those who steal from them. (Rome thought the Christians were insane and dangerous for a military kingdom that preferred the fear of enemies over mercy.) The proclamation of the Gospel still makes the world nervous. The Church speaks for the dignity and rights of immigrants, even those so desperate that they cross our borders without authorization. The Church speaks for the sanctity of life for children from conception to birth; and yet there are so-called Catholics who rejoice over the legalization of murdering children ready to be born. The Church speaks for the stewardship of a planet that gives honor to the Creator and against any short-term exploitation that will have lasting dire consequences. The Church speaks for the poor and their advancement and value even when so many of their so-called champions secretly look down upon them and promote dependency. There are Catholics on both sides of the divide but it is more than differences of opinion or just partisan politics— to which kingdom do we really belong? One is affiliated with the communion of the saints in heaven. The other belongs to the “outer darkness.”

Luke 13:24-30 – “Strive to enter through the narrow door, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough. After the master of the house has arisen and locked the door, then will you stand outside knocking and saying, ‘Lord, open the door for us.’ He will say to you in reply, ‘I do not know where you are from.’ And you will say, ‘We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.’ Then he will say to you, ‘I do not know where you are from. Depart from me, all you evildoers!’ And there will be wailing and grinding of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God and you yourselves cast out. And people will come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the kingdom of God. For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”

Some seem to suppose that pretty much everyone will be invited into heaven.

There is way too much presumption about salvation. Given that I am more stout or rotund than two men put together, I have often joked that I seek to make as many friends among the saints as possible. Why? So that when I find myself at the narrow door I will have friends pulling me from within and pushing me from behind. Maybe that will be my purgatory? The narrow door is likened to the gate into Jerusalem known as the Eye of the Needle. It is low and narrow so that even the camels have to enter on their knees. That is the secret that Jesus tries to get across. What would be impossible can be made possible by the favor of God. The man rich in the world but spiritually bankrupt will have trouble entering the narrow door. What might save such men is a posture of genuine humility and sorrow for sin. I am reminded of the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18:8-14). The Pharisee lacks humility and takes self-righteous delight in his standing and virtue as compared to the tax collector who honestly acknowledges his sinfulness and beseeches God for forgiveness. Given the recent scandals, I have to wonder that even church leaders will stand before the Lord and hear those most terrible words, “I tell you, I do not know you.” St. Pope John Paul II speculated about an invisible church. Not denying the unique salvific value of the Catholic Church, God can save whom he wills and he knows human hearts. When it comes to social and moral efforts as with helping the poor and promoting the sanctity of life, we have many coworkers outside the Catholic Church. Indeed, Catholics who take their discipleship seriously are often surprised to find kindred spirits who love Jesus in other denominations while many fellow Catholics live as if there be no God.

Matthew 13:40-43 – “Just as weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all who cause others to sin and all evildoers. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears ought to hear.”

Are we wheat or weeds?  What have we planted in others?

The Lord gives us a powerful apocalyptic vision. I have imagined the sky opening up and angels bursting forth each waving a sickle to harvest souls. Every one of us needs to reflect upon his or her life and standing before God. Are we wheat or are we weeds? The wheat is food and has value. Do we feed others with our very selves in imitation of Christ who joins with to us and makes himself our saving food? We are commissioned to share the faith so that others might come to the table of the Eucharist. The Lord feeds us with his Word and sacrament. Discipleship means not only making sacrifices or giving up things; we must surrender something of ourselves. As churches announce in fiscal campaigns, we are called to give “time, talent and treasure.” We work with others for the common good. Jesus is the bread of life and grace will transform us into what we receive— the mystical body of Christ, a saving bread for others. The parable of the wheat and the weeds comes to mind (Matthew 13:24-30). An enemy plants weeds among the farmer’s wheat. Given that pulling out the one would hurt the other, the weeds and the wheat are permitted to grow together. When harvest time comes, they will be sorted and the weeds will be tied into bundles and burned. The wheat will be placed into the barn. The wheat or the righteous will have a lasting place in the kingdom. The weeds or the damned will know judgment and fire. Weeds are good for nothing. St. Augustine speaks about this as two cities living one within the other. As to which city we belong will not be disclosed until the harvest.

Notice that the weeds are likened to those “who cause others to sin and all evildoers.” There are many people today who enable or encourage the sins of others. They step back and say things like, “who am I to judge” when we should give voice to the commandments of God. (Each of us needs to judge right and wrong in conscience as informed by the commandments of God and the teaching Church.  However, we leave the ultimate judgment of individual souls to almighty God.) How many times have we heard people say that they were “personally opposed” to abortion or accepted Church teaching against “homosexual acts” but did not want to “impose” their faith and values upon others? Many couples cohabitate without marriage and many others live in irregular unions (adulterous relationships or same-sex bonds) and we either turn a blind eye or “accompany them” through life as if this is normative or pleasing in the eyes of God. (“Accompaniment” in its true sense means assisting brothers and sisters to walk in the way of Christ, sharing the truth about right and wrong and giving good witness.  It does not mean a passive tolerance for sin and/or silence when others need to hear the saving Word.) The righteous or holy person would be understood as those who do good works and inspire others to do so as well. The righteous will “shine like the sun.” This might be another hint that the fire that destroys the weeds will leave the wheat unharmed. As with the burning bush, we will be imbued with the fire of the divine presence but will not be harmed.

Hell is Never Saying You’re Sorry

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I was asked one time, “Father, do you think the damned in hell are sorry for their sins?”  Given the terms we use in the Act of Contrition, the answer is no.  The damned souls carry with them their malevolence or spite.  The animosity or ill will that precipitated evil acts has eternally infected them.  Perfect contrition would require loving God and regretting how they have dishonored him.  This love cannot enter hell.  The pain derived from the loss of heaven and the fear of hell in imperfect contrition might have saved them but they tarried too long in returning to the Lord.  This level of sorrow only has meaning outside of hell and in this life.  Death forever fixes a person’s spiritual state, either convicted of sin in hell or as one found worthy of heaven, albeit possibly after purgation.  The damned might not like the consequences of their sins but that is inconsequential.  It changes nothing.  It amounts to nothing.  Like the demons, they wear their sins; they become sin.  If there is any regret it is understood in terms of resentment toward judgment.  Popular depictions of hell are often heavily weighted toward sadism.  But it is probably wrong to assume that all the damned find satisfaction in suffering or giving pain.  The sense of loss is real and lasting.  There is a frustration that cannot be escaped.  They were made for God and yet they have denounced him.  They have damaged themselves.  They are irrevocably broken and can never be fixed.  They settled for less when they could have had everything that mattered.  Dante imagined that the regions of hell reflect the sins with which people most commit.  This bondage is made permanent after death.  Even in this life people tend to identify themselves by their sins.  They could be ever so much more.  Important questions arise for those still in pilgrimage here on earth:

  1. Do you love God and neighbor as you should?
  2. Do you hate sin and are you sorry for offenses?
  3. Have you repented and made an amendment of life?
  4. Have you sought God’s mercy and his absolution in the Church?

God is not capricious but time is quickly running out.  Too many have become comfortable living in mortal sin.  These are the living dead among us.  Yes, there is a tragedy for those who die in sin and are lost; however, there is a tragedy here-and-now for missed opportunities.  How many others might be lost because we failed to be the Christians we were called to be.  How many have been forced to suffer abandonment, oppression, poverty and pain because of our failure to care— our failure to love?  We do not know the day or the hour that the Lord will come for us.  That last moment we live in this world will be frozen for eternity.  What is our spiritual and moral orientation?  Are we molded by grace and discipleship so as to be transformed into saints?  Are we spiritually disfigured by vice and sin into something monstrous and shameful?

The measure for spiritual transformation is always charity.  Jesus tells us a parable about a rich man who ignores the needs of a beggar that lives on his doorstep.  His state is so lamentable that the dogs licked his sores.  Where there is a failure to love, people are often stripped of dignity.  The beggar Lazarus is walked over like a doormat; worst yet, he is reduced to dog food.  The rich man is aware of his plight but just he does not care.  Death balances the scales.  The beggar is translated to the side of Abraham in paradise; the rich man finds himself tormented in the abode of death.  He is literally in hell.  The rich man does not rejoice at the beggar’s good fortune.  There is no praise for divine justice.  Even in hell, the rich man remains locked in his preoccupation with self.  He cries from far off, “Father Abraham, have pity on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am suffering torment in these flames” (Luke 16:24).

The damned have neither a bucket nor a cup.  They cannot cup their hands as it looks too much like a gesture for prayer.  Jesus makes himself the great sin offering, dying in our stead.  Nevertheless, even on the crosses beside his, there is one who trusts Christ and another who curses him.  Jesus says, “I thirst.”  This thirst is a consequence of all the sins of the world, a burden that he takes upon himself on Calvary.  He would thirst for a moment so that those who believe in him might receive a living water and never thirst again.  Those in hell have rejected this refreshment.  Their thirst cannot be satisfied.  Yes, even if the water be brought to them they would still thirst.  Not only do the damned have no cups— they have forgotten how to drink.

Three Points about Hell

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A priest friend of mine wrote recently that given the current cultural climate any reasonable discussion about hell is difficult.  While I would admit that many wrongly deny the existence of hell or any form of external judgment toward what the Church deems as “sinful” behavior; I would disagree that this makes such a conversation difficult.  We live at a time in human history where certain sins cry out to heaven for judgment.  Millions of children are destroyed in the womb as unwanted and unloved.  Christians are suffering martyrdom at the hands of militant Islamic religious extremists around the globe on a scale that is staggering.  Women and children, in particular, are increasingly victimized by human trafficking, prostitution and pornography.  Much of the world is weighed down by oppression, wars and a crushing poverty.  While there may be jobs, too often people do not make a livable wage.

Whenever and wherever the theological virtues are assaulted, a window is opened to the reality of hell.  Dante understood this with his entry warning to those who would cross over to the Inferno, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”  Those who have despaired and lost hope are already beginning to experience hell.  The gift of hope is closely aligned to the mystery of love.  We do not live in vain.

We are loved by God and valued as precious and irreplaceable.  The growing atheism gives people a taste of the alternative, abandonment.  It is the price tag that comes with not believing.  The larger cosmos does not love us.  It does not care if we live or die.  Often people think that the opposite of love is hate and that it is hate that rules hell.  I suspect that it is not hate but an apathetic indifference that prevails.  We are not prized enough by the devil to even be on his radar.  Hatred at least would signify acknowledgment.  The devil hates humanity but individual persons are invisible to him— they are nothing and have nothing of value to him.  He couldn’t care less what happens to us.  Note that while the Church speaks of the communion of the saints in heaven, we do not mention any appreciable community in hell.  It is as if there be as many hells as heads, each soul locked in a cell of its own making— shut off from God— cut off by inward looking selfishness from any other person, human or angelic.

In addition to hope and love, we are called to keep faith in Christ, our saving Lord.  Deliberately turning away from Christ, plants us on the road to perdition.  We cannot save ourselves.  We are made for God.  Separated from the Lord and we are eternally frustrated, unable to be what we are called to be.  The pieces of the puzzle that make up our existence are assembled and yet when all is said and done, the damned person finds that a piece is missing.  He or she will never be whole or complete.  Only God can fill the emptiness inside.  Without God, flame or no flame, the darkness consumes us.  If there is a good God then there must be judgment.  Given the gravity of sins around us, divine justice demands it.  The scales must be balanced.  If heaven and purgation are expressions of the Divine Mercy, then hell is the full and necessary realization of divine justice.

The active will of God seeks our salvation.  The mystery of sin and hell can only be understood in terms of God’s permissive will.  God created the human race, not to be mere animals of instinct or remotely controlled robots.  God gives us a profound and terrible freedom.  This freedom is abused by our first parents and their rebellion is confirmed by the sins of men and women throughout history.  It is only in Christ that we can respond to God as we are commanded.  God does not directly intend evil.  He would have us rightly use our freedom; but, he will also not stop us from misusing it.  Divine providence will prevail as we see with the resurrection of Christ after having endured at our hands his passion and death.

1.  What God creates, God creates.

The divine economy will not permit the annihilation of souls.  This teaching is challenged by the Seventh-day Adventists and by the Jehovah Witnesses.  God by knowing us keeps us in existence from moment to moment.  He will not destroy those who refuse to love him in return and reject a place in his kingdom.  He will not forget us.  The mystery of Christ teaches us that love is stronger than death.  It is in Jesus that divine love conquers the grave.  We are made in the image of God.  While bodies without souls are corpses, our souls have no parts and cannot break down or die.  We are promised restoration, body and soul.  Jesus tells us that in his house there are many rooms.  He will not force us to enter his house.  The damned refuse the invitation to make a home with God.  If heaven is fashioned by God; hell is built brick by brick by the damned, themselves.

2.  God’s love for us is unconditional and eternal.

God is immutable and can no more stop loving us than he can deny himself as personified love.  God loves everyone, including sinners who reject his love. This teaching is rejected by the Calvinists and Jansenist churches.  They would insist that God hates unrepentant sinners as well as the damned in hell.  It is a tenet of Jansenism that God wills for the damnation of most; only a certain few are predestined for salvation and that only they would be moved to repentance and to receive divine grace.    By contrast, we as Catholics speak of Christ dying for all while only the many would make the redemptive offering of Christ their own and thus embrace salvation.  Salvation is a gift that must be accepted.  It requires a disposition of openness toward God and his love.  Our Lord wants us to imitate divine love and mercy.  He tells us to love those who hate us; and to forgive those who hurt us; to give to those who steal from us.  Indeed he says that we must be made perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect.  The soul that rejects Christ, either in venial or mortal sin, is the perpetrator for the passion and death of Christ.  Some of our number will reject the overture of redemption.  They will play the part of Judas and Herod.  Christ dies on the Cross loving those who murder him with their sins.  There is an eternal dimension to this love.  This is the measure of meaning behind the Sacred Heart devotion.

The theme of love and life are joined in the Christian faith.  The love of Jesus makes possible our redemption and share in eternal life with God in heaven.  Eternal death is not annihilation but damnation in hell.  Just as we are commanded to love our enemies; God loves his and sustains them in existence. The damned suffer but God withdraws as much as possible knowing that their hatred and his love is a tormenting combination. He draws away all but a spark of his loving presence so that the damned souls may remain in existence.

Perhaps at the very first instant of creation, God veiled something of his infinite goodness and allowed the angelic hosts a decisive moment that either perfected or corrupted their nature forever.  The good angels remained in heaven, always seeing the face of God and giving him glory.  The demons fled to hell, fleeing the divine presence so as to hide their shame and spite.  Our own first parents failed their test in the primordial garden.  They were cast out of paradise.  There would be no preternatural gifts.  They had broken off their friendship with God.  But God would not give up on them.  He promised a messiah and a future reconciliation.  That is realized in the saving work of Christ.  At the moment of death, like the angels before us, our stance before God is made permanent.  God loves us but he will not force us to love him.

3.  Hell is not the opposite of heaven.

Nothing compares to heaven.  The saints find their communion in divine love.  They are invited to live within the Trinity forever.  They see God who is the perfection and source of every good.  The saints possess God but they can never perfectly envelop him.  The distance between the creature and the Creator is infinite.  The divine mystery can never be exhausted.  Hell is defined not so much by what it has but by what it is missing.  Except for the spark of God’s love that torments the damned and keeps them in existence, God has withdrawn his face.  The master of hell, if it has one, is not divine but a creature.  Satan or Lucifer may have been a great archangel, likely a Seraph although some have speculated that he might have been an uppity Cherub.  He epitomizes the old saying, “the bigger they are, the harder they fall.”  He loses everything.  It may be that a third of heaven rebelled with him.  When speaking of Hell, the late Catholic evangelist Frank Sheed spoke of it as doctrine but said that we can hope that the devil is “lonely” even if unlikely.  Where heaven has joy; in hell there is pain to the senses (fire) and the pain of loss.

Hell is an abode of evil but there is no such thing as pure evil.  Evil is defined as the privation of a good that should be present.  What goods can we find in hell?  There is life or existence, even if there is pain or unhappiness.  The damned are aware.  Their wills are corrupted but still operative.  Angels and men in hell also have working minds. Unfortunately, fallen angels and damned men, alike, have forfeited saving grace.  God is not a monster.  He does not want us to suffer.  Art and literature often depicts the demons and damned as having make themselves into monsters.  Just as our Lord speaks of many rooms in his heavenly house; I suspect that there are various levels of hell depending upon the depth of one’s rejection of God and sinfulness.  However, it is difficult and probably unhelpful to reflect upon what constitutes commensurate suffering among the damned.  When I have pondered how the damned might keep busy it seems that all that really remains is the employment of the intellectual life.  But I would not want to take this too far and speculate about the nature of discourse or debate in hell.  When I mentioned this to one critic, he said, “Great, you would put the theologians who wrestle with God’s truths in heaven where they can find absolute certitude and you would deposit the philosophers in hell where they can endlessly debate the meaning of life with its decisions, actions and consequences.”