Hell? Yes!

On a quiet Thursday morning (today) in a 6:45 a.m. Mass in a small town (Merchantville, New Jersey), at a Roman Catholic parish (St. Peter’s), with small group of people (maybe 60) a parish priest (Fr. Tim Byerley), gave a homily on the feast day of St. Albert the Great.

The Gospel reading for St. Albert’s feast was from St. Matthew 13. I will highlight the first part of the passage and the portion from which Fr. Tim took his four-minute homily:

Jesus said to the disciples: “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.”

Matthew 13:47–50, Saint Paul Daily Missal 

What impressed me this morning is that our pastor did not waste words in getting to the point, nor did he avoid the importance of the message on a very early Mass audience. In a nutshell, Fr. Tim spoke about the subject that Jesus focuses on here and in many of his teachings: the reality of the final judgment and the possibility that due to our actions hell is one destination that could be reached.

Hell is not a popular topic as I have mentioned here before. Not only is it not popular, but it is also hardly mentioned, despite the fact that Jesus talked about it a great deal. Think back to the last time you actually heard hell mentioned in a sermon or homily. I’m thinking many of you dear readers under the age of 40 may never have unless you took part in a series on the “Four Last Things”—Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.

Fr. Tim so rightly pointed out that when final judgment, including the possibility of going to hell by the choices we have made, is excluded from our teaching and practice, then Christianity becomes just another philosophy that you try to live by, but in so doing, you choose what you want and what you don’t want. Since converting nearly three years ago I’ve learned there is a phrase for that: “Cafeteria Catholic.” Honestly, I believe there are not only “cafeteria Catholics,” but cafeteria “Christians” of all stripes.

Is it any wonder then, when the possibility of spending eternity in hell is removed from our hearts and minds, our lives and our practice, our homilies and our catechism, that we begin to live like the Israelites in the book of Judges: “every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25 RSV). The story of humanity is littered, maybe I should say “trashed”, with our rationale, excuses and defenses for why we do what we do. We alter our vocabulary to fit our chosen lifestyle and then we ask God to bless us and what we do. This can be anything from “blessing” an abortion clinic or seeking to redefine the timeless teaching of the Church in Sacred Scripture and Tradition regarding the Sacrament of Marriage. Once we throw out the doctrine of the possibility of our choices leading to eternal damnation, then the “sky is the limit” as to what we will adopt in our depravity.

Jesus makes it very clear: “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.” I would rather put my faith and confidence in him than in any “theologian” or “church leader” who teaches otherwise with an agenda.

On the Feast of All Saints, St. Albert the Great preached a sermon from Revelation 7:17

After portraying their beatitude, St. Albert explains this passage of the Apocalypse: “The Lamb which is in the midst of the Throne shall rule them, and shall lead them to the fountains of the waters of life” (vii. 17). 

“In God’s kingdom, there are five fountains, to which the Lamb will lead His elect. The first is the source of consolation; there the Lord shall wipe away their tears. The second is the fountain of repose; for after having dried up their tears, the Spirit, that is the Holy Trinity, will say: ‘Henceforth they shall rest from their labours.’ The third is the source of refreshment; for they who are at rest shall be refreshed and inebriated with the superabundance of God’s house. The fourth is the source of joy. The elect, by reason of the heavenly consolations, the sweets of repose and the most agreeable refreshment, shall be in jubilation. They shall sing their salutations with gladness in the courts of the predestined. The fifth is the fountain of love. How ardently will they not love Him, Who consoles them, Who gives them rest and loads them with every good? Isaias, speaking of this fountain, says: ‘You shall draw water with joy from the fountain of the Lord.'”

“On the other hand, in hell there are, five fountains, to which the infernal dragon thrusts the souls of the reprobate, that they may drink thereof. The first is called Styx. When souls drink of those waters, they conceive a mutual hatred of each other. The second is named Phlegethon. The property of its waters is to enkindle the rage of the damned, first against themselves, then against those through whose fault they are lost. The name of the third is Lethe: scarcely have the reprobate tasted of it than they lose the knowledge and recollection of past joys and pleasures. The fourth is Acheron. The damned on applying their lips to it immediately sink into indescribable sadness. The fifth bears the name of Gocytus. The effects of those waters are such that they who drink of them weep without ever experiencing the least consolation.”

St. Albert the Great, pray for us!

Hell? Yes!

The Bigger Agenda

Pope Francis has made one brief statement in response to the incriminating document released by former papal nuncio Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò on Sunday. He said:

“I will not say one word on this. I think this statement speaks for itself, and you have sufficient journalistic capacity to reach your own conclusions. When time will pass and you’ll draw the conclusions, maybe I will speak. But I’d like that you do this job in a professional way.”

I have admired Pope Francis even before I was Catholic. I cheered his election as someone from the Western Hemisphere who had served the Church in a Latin culture and understood the concerns and issues of those of the Southern Hemisphere where the Church is growing and more dynamic than the Northern Hemisphere. I have wanted to give him every benefit of the doubt, even when some of his statements seemed problematic.

However on the topic of sexual abuse, his actions have not matched up to his earlier commitment of “zero tolerance” for those who use their position of power to abuse children, adolescents and even adults, specifically seminarians.

The situation in the U.S. is not unique. And the seeming slowness to respond to those who suffer has surfaced in Chile and Honduras most recently.

Not only is Pope Francis silent. But while we all watch and wonder, a self-appointed spokesman for the pope, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, spoke up to defend Francis in an interview with NBC News. He stated:

“The pope has a bigger agenda. He’s got to get on with other things, of talking about the environment and protecting migrants and carrying on the work of the Church. We’re not going to go down a rabbit hole on this.”

Most faithful Catholics would agree that there is a time and a place to talk about the environment. And if we’re ranking issues, protecting migrants should be above the environment, in my humble opinion. However, the Church, especially her prelates will have no moral authority to carry on the work of the Church, protect migrants or worry about the environment, if first they do not in humility seek the truth, and root out the rottenness that allows this depravity to continue.

Thinking about Jesus, who is the founder of the Church, He has some specific words that seem to go to the heart of this:

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.” (Matthew 5:29-30, NRSV)

“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Matthew 18:6 NRSV)

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” (Matthew 23:15, NRSV)

In love it is time to speak the truth as Jesus did. It is better for those who have authority in the Church to excise that thing that causes sin–lose that–better that, than end up eternally in hell! If by your actions, actively or passively, you place a stumbling block before God’s children who look to you for spiritual guidance, Jesus has a special millstone that will have your name engraved on it. And finally, if you are saying one thing with your mouth, but living a lie and leading the flock astray, not only are you a child of hell, but hell will be your destiny.

For the love of God, for the love of Christ’s Church, for the love of the flock, and for the care of your soul–if you are living a lie–it’s not too late to confess and surrender yourself to the mercy of Almighty God. If you don’t, you are no good to us or to Jesus Christ and His Church.

The Bigger Agenda

“Scaring the hell out of me”

Mother Angelica foundress of EWTN used to say, “My intention is to scare the hell out of you.” She minced no words as she spoke the truth in love.

I have my own story of  a sermon I heard at church camp when I was 12 years old. The preacher was an “old-fashioned” man of God who wasn’t afraid to talk about hell. In the message he talked about the danger of missing heaven and if one did so, the eternal destiny was hell. The central point that I remember was how he described someone going to hell for all eternity. He painted the picture of a iron sphere the size of the earth and a tiny bird like a sparrow. The sparrow began his trek of circumnavigating the world walking without stopping. The bird’s little feet didn’t make a dint on the sphere, but who knows after how many eons the sphere begins to show some wear and a little path is carved into the ball. Eons more pass and the bird has made quite a dent in the sphere. Finally the bird is able to wear a path clear through the iron ball (remember it’s the size of the earth) and it breaks into two. And then God says, “Eternity has begun!” All the time I’m sitting there trembling, thinking about the absolute endlessness of the eternal torment one would never see the end of. He scared the hell out of me!

We might take issue with the preacher’s tactic, but I will tell you I am thankful! I learned that day there is a heaven to gain and a hell to shun. During the 30 plus years that I served as a pastor I preached my share of sermons, but I never preached one like that, perhaps to my shame. Hell was not something we talked about in “polite company.” We tend to focus more on God’s love, but to be honest, we don’t talk much about heaven either. Our focus seems to be more on making the world a better place. Now there’s nothing wrong with that—that too is our call as Christians. But unfortunately, that’s only part of the story—eternity is a long, long, long…

Jesus talked about a lot about heaven, but he talked even more about hell. The fact that there is more to life than what we know in the present helps us keep perspective. At the end of our life we will either spend eternity with God or separate from God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches this biblical truth:

1035 The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire.” The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.

I believe when we lose the vision of eternity, or believe that it really doesn’t matter how we live now, we lose our moorings, we lose restraint, and we decide what is right for us. Proverbs 29:18 says,

Without a vision the people lose restraint;
but happy is the one who follows instruction.

Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, gives that instruction that will make us truly happy.

“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few.

I venture to say in light of our current challenges in the Church there is a need to recover the teaching on eternal destiny—that there is something that follows our life here. I can’t help but think that when we have a healthy fear of hell, it will also increase our love for God and for the promise extended to those who love and serve Him.

You know what, I am thankful for the preacher that “scared the hell out of me!”

“Scaring the hell out of me”