Editor’s note: The following homily was preached by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., on November 12, 2017, at the Church of the Holy Innocents, Manhattan.
As the liturgical year winds down, you will find that the Scriptures increasingly focus our attention on what are traditionally referred to as “the four last things” – death, judgment, Heaven, Hell. Truth be told, we don’t hear much of any of those four last things at all anymore – and we are all the poorer for it. Now, we shouldn’t be obsessed by these concerns, but because they formed a fundamental part of Jesus’ preaching and teaching, they ought to form a part of ours as well.
Some years back, I was addressing a crowd of over a thousand people in the Miami area for a Saturday conference on the Faith. During the question period, a woman stood up and asked if the Church still believed in Hell because she hadn’t heard it mentioned from the pulpit in years. I turned the tables by pitching her question back to the audience: “How many people here this morning,” I asked, “have heard a homily on Heaven within the past five years?” Fewer than twenty hands went up. “Now,” I continued, “how many have heard a homily on Hell within the past five years?” Not a single hand surfaced. I think you would agree that something’s off when statistics like that emerge – and I wouldn’t be surprised if many people here today would have similar data to report. In fact, the problem is so widespread that the former Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict said that the greatest difficulty in the Church over the past four decades is a loss of a sense of eschatology – which is the $64,000 word for the four last things. In other words, if we lose sight of where we’re headed, not only is our eternal salvation jeopardized, but our earthly existence is likewise compromised. So, let’s try to remedy that situation a bit right now, taking the Catechism of the Catholic Church as our guide.
The goal of every human being ought to be Heaven. That realization prompted the priest who taught us seminarians Freshman English at Seton Hall to say: “Gentlemen, I know Heaven’s our true home, but I’m not the least bit homesick.” And believe it or not, that is a rather Christian attitude. What I mean is this: While we should regard life on high as our final destiny, we should also appreciate life here below because it too is God’s gift to us. Indeed, if we cannot appreciate the divine gift of earthly life, chances are we won’t be able to appreciate eternal life, either, because the two are intimately connected.
While observing that “in one sense bodily death is natural,” the Catechism also stresses that from the perspective of faith, death is seen as “the wages of sin,” as St. Paul put it to the Romans . “Death has been transformed by Christ,” we read, most especially because of his enduring it “in an act of total and free submission to the will of His Father.” Therefore, “the obedience of Jesus transformed the curse of death into a blessing” . This is seen most clearly in the Christian attitude toward death, crystallized in the funeral liturgy: “For your faithful people, Lord, life is changed, not ended.” The phase of pilgrimage thus ends and is taken up into man’s final goal – eternal life. The Catechism takes special aim at theological or philosophical theories which would fail to take account of the finality and irrepeatability of human life and death. Very bluntly, it says: “There is no ‘reincarnation’ after death” .
This reflection ends with an encouragement to avail oneself of all the aids of traditional spirituality in preparing for one’s death. Thus we are reminded of the petition of the Litany of the Saints that the Lord would deliver us “from a sudden and unprovided death,” as well our daily prayer to the Virgin to “pray for us now and at the hour of our death.” It also urges us to have recourse to the intercession of St. Joseph, “the patron of a happy death” .
This all leads to the logical question, “How do the dead rise?” First of all, what does it mean to “rise from the dead”? The Catechism explains that “in death, the separation of the soul and the body, the body of man falls into corruption while the soul goes for its encounter with God, all the while living in expectation of its being reunited to its glorified body. God in His omnipotence will definitively bestow incorruptible life on our bodies by uniting them to our souls, by the power of the Resurrection of Jesus” . All men will rise, we are told, while the “how” of it all “surpasses our imagination” and is open to us “only in faith.” The text goes on to note that “our participation in the Eucharist gives us even now a foretaste of the transfiguration of our body by Christ” , as preparation for the last day – Christ’s Parousia or final coming in glory . The emphasis on the real, bodily, corporeal nature of the risen body is important since some thinkers today have reduced the risen life to no more than a vague kind of shadowy existence; the ultimate and normal mode of existence for those possessed of a human nature is life in a body, to which the presence of Our Lord and His Blessed Mother in their glorified bodies in Heaven now attests.
Having met death, what has one to look forward to? Life eternal. But in what does that consist? Immediately upon death, each person experiences a “particular judgment” which seals his destiny for eternity. Yes, contrary to the wishful thinking of this age, there is a judgment. And if you want an artistic depiction of Christ the Judge, I suggest considering the one which looms large in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington or, better yet, Michelangelo’s in the Sistine Chapel. In that hour, we shall not be able to blame bad parenting or poor environment for our misdeeds; all the masks will be gone; all self-deception, laid bare. We’ll not be able to convince Christ that, in spite of all kinds of horrific sins (yes, sins, not weaknesses), “I am really a good person, Lord.” The time for repentance will be over, as will the time of mercy. This is not said to inspire fear because a true Christian does not obey God’s laws out of servile fear; he does so out of loving obedience. One who has lived according to the Gospel here below has nothing to fear on the day of judgment.
And so, we read in the Catechism: “Those who die in the grace and friendship of God, and who are completely purified, live forever with Christ” ; this occurs in the place we call heaven, which “is the final goal and realization of the most profound aspirations of man, the state of supreme and definitive happiness” . “To live in heaven is ‘to be with Christ'” . “This mystery of blessed communion with God and with all those who are in Christ surpasses all comprehension and all depiction” ; this experience of heavenly glory we call “the beatific vision” .
Next we consider “those who die in the grace and friendship of God, but not fully purified, although assured of their eternal salvation.” These souls “endure a purification after their death, so as to obtain the sanctity necessary to enter into the joy of heaven” ; “this final purification of the elect” is traditionally called purgatory and is “totally distinct from the punishment of the damned” . On behalf of the poor souls, we are advised to pray, especially through the offering of the Eucharistic Sacrifice. “The Church also recommends alms-giving, indulgences and works of penance on behalf of the dead” —in response to those who have argued for 35 years that such efforts are either useless or not in keeping with “contemporary” Catholic approaches.
Even less “modern” is the insistence on the reality of eternal punishment: “And it is this state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and with the blessed which is designated by the word ‘hell'” . “The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. The souls of those who die in the state of mortal sin descend immediately after death into hell. . . . The principal pain of hell consists in eternal separation from God” . Why does the Church adhere to such a teaching? First of all, because it is part of divine Revelation, but also to serve as “a call to responsibility” (for man to use his freedom wisely “in view of his eternal destiny”) and “a call to conversion” (following the lead of the Lord Who urged men to “enter by the narrow gate,” not the wide one which “leads to perdition”) . Finally, we read that “God predestines no one to go to hell; what is necessary for that is a willful turning away from God (mortal sin) and persisting in that until the end” . This position of the Church, then, is presented in a truly positive and holistic fashion, as is appropriate.
All too often we moderns are so unrealistic as we seek to pick and choose what tickles our ears, while sifting out messages that do not. Just because we don’t like something doesn’t make it cease to exist. I always find it fascinating and sadly amusing how stories of so-called “near-death” experiences are always filled with visions of light, happiness and peace. Has the National Enquirer ever found a single person who encountered the terror of Hell in such situations? Apparently, they never interviewed the three children from Fatima. No, wishful thinking keeps such “negative” thoughts at bay.
There is, however, one very valid question about the Christian teaching on Hell: How can it be reconciled with our equally strong doctrine of a merciful God. Well, think about these facts: Who is God? Saint John tells us: “God is love.” What is sin? A refusal to love or a rejection of love. What is Heaven? Possessing and being possessed by love for all eternity. Now, what kind of a loving God would force someone to be in a place and with people for which his entire earthly life made him unsuited? On the contrary, the very existence of Hell demonstrates the perfect balance between God’s justice and God’s mercy: Divine justice accuses the unrepentant sinner of being unworthy of eternal happiness, while divine mercy allows the sinner to choose forever the defective brand of happiness he has continually sought.
Perhaps a home-spun example might help: Let’s suppose that your favorite vegetable is asparagus, and you serve it at every meal because it is both healthful and delicious. A guest arrives for dinner and as you share the menu with him, he informs you that not only does he detest the taste of asparagus but is actually allergic to it. Would it be kind, considerate or merciful of you to force-feed him massive doses of the vegetable? Hardly. Similarly, Almighty God will never force His love on anyone, always allowing us to exercise our freedom, even in defective and damaging ways – so much does He respect our human dignity.
The month of November has a particular focus on eternity as we began with the Solemnity of All Saints and moved on to the Commemoration of All Souls the next day, keeping the Poor Souls in our prayers and Masses in a special way for the remainder of the month.
Following the general resurrection comes the final judgment. “The most Holy Roman Church believes and confesses firmly that on the day of judgment all men will appear together with their own bodies before the judgment seat of Christ to render an account of their works” . With the result that “the Kingdom of God will arrive in all its fullness. Then the just will reign with Christ forever, glorified in body and soul, and the material universe itself will be transformed. Then God will be ‘all in all’ [1 Cor 15:28], in eternal life” . This focus is especially valuable in a time when catechesis and preaching alike have failed to give adequate attention to a life for man beyond our present existence.
Our Christian goal ought to be nothing short of Heaven – not escaping Hell by the skin of our teeth, nor being resigned to “doing time” in Purgatory. Someone like Saint Thérèse set the goal of her life in childhood, as she mentioned so often: “I’ve always wished that I could be a saint.” And then she gives a final piece of advice, advice we would all do well to heed: “Believe me, don’t wait until tomorrow to begin becoming a saint.” Pope Benedict says, it’s “a journey that lasts a lifetime,” but we need to embark on that journey today. The French author of the last century, Léon Bloy, put our whole question into clear relief with stunning simplicity and depth: “There is only one sadness in life – not being a saint.”
Stay tuned as we hone in on Heaven next week.