JUST LAST WEEK, a parishioner approached me after mass and earnestly declared that hell does not exist any more. The Pope said so, he claimed. It was on the paper.
Sure enough, when I checked the local paper, there it was …. “After decades of minor and major wrongdoings, they have just found out that hell does not exist….”. Even on the local TV, there was a coverage on hell!
It may be the millennium bug. Without doubt however, the Pope again hit the imagination of the media. On these last three successive Wednesdays, the Pope spoke of heaven, hell and purgatory in his usual General Audience at the Vatican. This sparked great interest in the international media.
Between Terror and Silence
What did the Pope really say? The Pope said what the Church has always taught and which we, perhaps, have been afraid to speak about. Vittorio Messori, the Italian writer who interviewed the Pontiff for his best-seller, “Crossing The Threshold of Hope,” affirms that if the Pope’s teaching has made so much news, some of the blame belongs to us priests, who seem to remain silent on what is essential: eternal life.
“Hell is not a punishment from God inflicted from outside,” affirms calmly the Pope, “but the result of positions taken by man already in this life….”
God respects our decisions. He is not an authoritarian despot, a Hitler-like God. The African theologian, Saint Augustine, put it beautifully in his famous phrase, ‘Although God created you without you, He cannot save you without you.’ If one chooses to close Himself to God’s love and remove himself forever from joyful communion with Him, God respects him. This is hell.
“God is not waiting with a gun to send someone who commits a sin to Hell,” the Jesuit publication Civilta Cattolica comments in one of its recent editorials. Human freedom is precisely what explains the existence of heaven and hell.
“God does not inflict eternal suffering on man,” continues the Jesuit magazine, “man inflicts it on himself by rejecting the salvation God offers. God is always and forever only love, and his activity is always and forever saving … God however does not want to compel anyone to love him, because love cannot be forced. But by rejecting God’s grace, man condemns himself to the privation of God, which is exactly what Hell is.”
“God is absolutely opposed to man’s condemnation, and He uses all his omnipotence to prevent a person from being eternally lost; but, having created the human person free, and wanting him to freely choose his own destiny — because only free choices are worthy of man — God respects human liberty.”
No Doctrinal Changes
Then the Pope goes to this other point which provoked all this hype. “More than a place, Hell is the state of the one who freely and finally removes himself from God, the source of life and joy.”
A state not a place. Just an illustration. Because of my constant travels, I sometimes had to live in repulsive, shabby dwellings. That is a place. A state is different. A state is a condition or mode of mental or emotional being. Your wife has just left you and you feel devastated – this is a state; your son has just died in a car accident and you feel shattered – this is a state. Hell is the state of mind, where the sinner lives eternally the despair of not seeing God’s face.
“Improper use of Biblical pictures must not create psychosis or anxiety”, underlined the Pope. It is not a question of cave-like rooms with hot coals for floors and lava blasts for washbasins. Or ugly demons with pitchforks and nasty smell. We have to express ourselves in some way but these images only try to portray an emotional and mental condition which is beyond graphic description. But which is very real.
The same thing about heaven. Paradise is not a place where one can fly to and hear the angels play instruments. We must not let the imagination run wild!
“Painters have shattered the heavens magnifying terrestrial joys, pure skies, green fields, peaceful people,” Professor Carlo Molari, leading theologian at the Pontifical Urban University of Rome, notes.
Paradise is the fullness of an intimate relationship with God. Our body will reach an unheard of dimension, “like the fetus, which fully flowers at birth,” Professor Molari explained.
Linked with paradise there is Purgatory. Having reviewed rapidly the Scriptural basis of purgatory, the Pope explained how “for those who are open to God, but in an imperfect way, the road to perfect happiness requires purification, which the Church’s faith illustrates through the doctrine of Purgatory.” Purgatory is not invention of Bishops or Popes.
Neither is it a second chance to change one’s destiny. A time arrives in the life of every person when what I am, I shall continue to be forever. Whereas in life I can change for better or worse, be converted or perverted, at a certain point this way of living stops: it is the leap to eternity. I go where I will to go.
A mysterious leap and, in certain aspects, terrifying. But reassuring, knowing His immense love for us sinners.
That is why, rather than be concerned with describing and analyzing ultimate realities, perhaps it would be better if we prepare ourselves for our final destiny. Life has meaning only if it flowers itself into heaven. We have a choice to do with our lives. We can either throw it away for ever. Or we can enjoy it eternally. Starting now.
Whoever loves God is already in Heaven.
(c) Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, provided that the content is unaltered from its original state, if this copyright notice is included.