I have lived almost 53 years on this earth and just now I think I am really starting to “get it.” I don’t mean I truly understand everything about God, but I think a lot of what we were taught as kids about heaven and hell by well-meaning but misguided folks is untrue.
Catholic Stand columnist Cecily Lowe recently wrote a great piece entitled “What Is the Purpose of the Church?” It was a confirmation for me of what I have been meditating on for some time now, about Heaven and who gets there, hell and who goes there, and why. I don’t intend to expound on her essay; I thought it was perfect. However, I saw it as a confirmation of what I believe God has opened up to my heart.
Cecily wrote: “…all of the damned, not just some, are, simply put, the souls who are at eternal enmity with God. They die without any real love in their hearts whatsoever. Christ said, ‘He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.’ …
“Christ also said, ‘All that the Father gives me will come to me; and him who comes to me I will not cast out.’ Furthermore, His Church offers opportunities for Confession to anyone, regardless of how many evils they may have committed, since the greatest transgressors have the greatest need for forgiveness. All souls, whether they end in damnation or beatification, will be judged according to their desire, and if they truly love and desire God they will receive Heaven, for with Him there is no concept of ‘not enough love.’ God in His mercy can do anything, even raise our poor, imperfect human love to what it ought to be.”
Of souls, she wrote, they “will be judged according to their desire,” that is, their desire to love God. What I and so many of my contemporaries were taught is that we were taught among other things that unrepentant mortal sin will get you to hell, period. That is true; but we must be careful not to use that doctrine as a measuring stick in judging particular souls. We can never know the state of another person’s soul.
Mortal sin is more than simply doing a seriously wrong action. Such an action, also called “grave matter,” is one necessary element of a mortal sin; but understanding of what is done and full consent are also necessary (CCC #1857), and these are interior. We cannot know, and should not attempt to judge, another person’s spiritual condition, because we have no way of gauging what has gone on inside him.
For example, when I was in Catholic elementary school, a girl in my class stole the teacher’s watch. We were all told to empty our pockets and the young lady was caught. What I never knew until recently was that her father was a violent alcoholic who abandoned the family and her mom had issues too. She was a young kid caught in a bad family situation that negatively influenced her life, her behavior, her very being.
This is just one illustration of why we need to be compassionate to straying souls. I do not know how she turned out or where she is now, but I do know that if she is not “living in the Lord,” Christ is pursuing her relentlessly. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, Who will leave the 99 sheep and go look for the one who went astray.
The Good Shepherd
Cecily’s article highlighted to me what I believe the Lord has been putting on my heart for some time now: that we ourselves choose heaven or hell based on our disposition toward God. Our love for God is all He asks of us.
There are many saints who speak of souls falling into hell like snowflakes and say that most people are going to hell. Well, isn’t that encouraging? But is that true? Have we as Catholics been so focused on guilt and self mortification, on the destructive desire for self-condemnation and condemnation of others, that we forget Jesus’ own words, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13)? One translation reads: “Now go and learn the meaning of this Scripture: I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices. For I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.”
I like this translation because of the last line because it readily describes so many faithful who are quick to judge and condemn others, while all the while thinking themselves above reproach. The non-Catholic Christians often say “God is no respecter of man.” That is true. Who can stand before God and declare himself guilt free (other than Our Lady)?
Our job as believers is to bring Jesus to our brothers and sisters. Who are our brothers and sisters? Everyone, not just those who agree with us, go to our parish church or live the way we think they should live. No, it is the world at large to which we are commissioned to bring Christ. The biggest obstacle people have to accepting Jesus is condemnation by believers. Spiritual pride among believers is a great obstacle to themselves and to the world we are to evangelize.
Cecily rightly describes love as the key to a healthy spiritual life. Jesus Himself said the greatest gift is love. Our hearts must not be hardened toward God nor people. This does not mean we should make light of sins themselves, but that we should extend kindness and mercy to others regardless of what they may have done; we may thereby draw them to the Divine Love that seeks to heal them. When we put ourselves in the judgement seat, we not only drive souls away, but arrogate to ourselves the role of God. That is the biggest sin of idolatry, and the one least confessed, if at all.
The Power of a Simple Kindness
Welcoming people starts with each one of us. There is a video on Linked-In that shows a little kid greeting his classmates in the morning as they enter the classroom. He shakes everyone’s hands and in many cases the other kids bend down and hug him. It is beautiful to see such love.
Even such small and simple gestures of kindness have power to draw souls in. We used to have greeters at my parish. I was a greeter and I would hug people as they entered. Almost everyone seemed to enjoy and welcome the hug except one guy who snarled at me “don’t hug me.” It was too late; I was already in the process of hugging him. Perhaps just a handshake would have been better, but the sentiment was one of welcome and love to God’s house and to the gathering of the family of the faithful. That particular noon mass was a Charismatic mass and it was very well attended. The personal touch, the greeting, the smiles and welcoming words made people feel connected and a real part of the parish.
One man, Frank, a great friend of mine, told me on several occasions that it was my hug and my invitation to participate in parish life that actually brought him back to participate fully in the life of the Church. He is now an Extraordinary Minister of the Blessed Sacrament, has a hospital ministry, assists at men’s gatherings and is the head usher for the noon Mass among his other works of mercy. He is full of love and I am sure he is responsible for reconciling hundreds of people to the Lord by his hospital ministry alone. He doesn’t know now how many people he has assisted and brought back to the Lord, but God will continue to reward him and his family for all the good he is doing—all because of a welcoming hug. We, too, may bring about marvels of grace, if we extend these little tokens of God’s love to others.
Mercy Toward the Dying and the Dead
We can even extend this principle of universal charity to the dying and the dead. Padre Pio once stated: “I believe that not a great number of souls go to hell. God loves us so much. He formed us in his image. God loves us beyond understanding. And it is my belief that when we have passed from the consciousness of the world, when we appear to be dead, God, before He judges us, will give us a chance to see and understand what sin really is. And if we understand it properly, how could we fail to repent?” Note that this is not a chance to repent after death. Once a soul has left its body, it no longer needs to ponder and decide; its mind is made up. This would be a grace given to someone in his last moments of life, a final aid offered for his crossing over.
We need to encourage the sick and the dying especially. When a person leaves this mortal flesh, his mental disposition towards the Lord may be an obstacle for him when he crosses over. This is my perception, not Catholic dogma. People who die in fear of judgement may not be so disposed to run toward the Lord. It is important to encourage everyone at their deathbed to trust in God’s unconditional love and mercy.
We can pray for our deceased loved ones and any who have died, even if a thousand years ago, as if we were praying for them at their deathbed. I have been doing this for years. I imagine myself at the bedside of dying relatives—great grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles, people I never knew—and I pray the act of contrition for them and beg God to save their souls. My reasoning is that God is outside of time and space, so that all time is present to the Lord at once. It stands to reason that God knew I would pray for my great-grand-parents at the hour of their deaths a hundred years after they died, and perhaps would allow my prayers now to assist them at the time they died.
This is what I believe the Lord inspired me to do; I am not stating this as dogma. However, Padre Pio did the same thing. I found this out recently and took it as a confirmation from the Lord. It was recorded that one day Padre Pio told his doctor, “I’m praying for the good death of my great-great-grandfather.” “But he died more than one hundred years ago!” “Remember that for God there is no past and no future, and everything is present. So God made use at that time of the prayers I’m saying now.” When I read this, I was floored. If the great saint Padre Pio was doing this and the Lord inspired me to do it, there is definitely merit in it.
Bearers of Christ, Bearers of Hope
There is hope in Christ. None of us know the breadth and length and height and depth (Ephesians 3:18-19) of His mercy and love for us. The black and white notion of who is going to heaven and hell is really not so black and white. Padre Pio also told people they will be surprised at who they see in heaven and who will not be there. As we enter the Advent Season, let us be Christ-bearers to all we meet, sinner or saint, Catholic or atheist, friend or foe. Christ wants to lead all souls home to the Kingdom of God. Pax.