The Church has a nasty little secret. And, no, I am not talking about the sex abuse crisis and all the homosexual priests shuffled from here to there, although that certainly is a nasty story. No, I’m referring to a doctrine of the Church, one that is rarely preached. Our shepherds: both priests in their parishes and bishops in their dioceses apparently don’t like to talk about it. Even the pope mentions it so rarely that he made headlines in 2007 when he brought it up and said it’s a real place and is eternal. You’ve probably guessed but I’ll give you a hint anyway. The place could use air conditioning even in the dead of winter because it’s as hot as…HELL!
The failure of our shepherds to preach about hell is ironic since Jesus talked about it so often.
A word count is tough because he used so many different ways to address the subject. He referred to Gehenna and the place of “unquenchable fire.” In the sermon on the mount Jesus warns against actions that make one “liable to judgment” who “risks the fires of Gehenna. He told them to pluck out the eye and hand that sins rather than enter hell with a whole body. He warned that the “gate that leads to damnation is wide and the road is clear, and many choose to travel it.” Chapter 5 and 6 of Matthew’s Gospel are filled with the discussion of hell and the sins that lead one there along with exhortations to choose the “narrow path” that leads to eternal life.
In the parable of Dives and Lazarus, Jesus used a conversation between Father Abraham and the rich man to illustrate the chasm between heaven and hell. Dives begs for relief because he is “tortured in these flames…a place of torment.” But Abraham refuses. There is no relief from the unquenchable fire.
Over and over throughout the Gospels Jesus speaks of hell. He used the image of Gehenna as a grapic representation. Gehenna was a valley near Jerusalem where followers of Baal and Molech performed their grisly human sacrifices. Later it was the city inferno where corpses and garbage were burnt. It was a place of horror and death. Jesus, an expert at drawing graphic images to touch the heart offered Gehenna as one of them.
The Blessed Mother also speaks of hell often during her apparitions. She told Jacinta, one of the three little shepherd children of Fatima, that “More souls go to hell because of sins of the flesh than for any other reason.” She also showed the children a vision of sinners “falling into hell like snowflakes.” It so terrified them they said they would have died on the spot had they not been assured of going to heaven. It also inspired them to heroic sacrifices. They often gave their lunches away to poor children and wore coarse ropes around their waists, a child’s version of a hair shirt. Mary, always the tender mother, told them not to wear the ropes to bed but encouraged their penance.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly teaches the doctrine of hell: “To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called ‘hell’….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.’”
The problem is many people don’t believe it. They’ve bought the lie of universal salvation and believe God offers cheap grace: sin with no punishment, heaven without repentance. It’s up to the shepherds to correct this false idea and instill their people with a healthy “fear of the Lord,” the beginning of wisdom. People need to know and understand the love of God reflected in the Father of the prodigal son who is always watching for his son’s repentance and return. But they also need to know the God of justice who separates the sheep from the goats. Those living the goatish life are in danger of hell. Who will love them enough to warn them.
Everyone receives fire on Judgment Day. Those who love the Lord and served Him on earth will receive the fire of His love. Those who served the evil one will receive the fire of His justice. Our shepherds need to speak that hard truth for the sake of the salvation of souls.
From the Spring 2010 issue of the Les Femmes newsletter