And yet, without understanding this reality, what is left?
Fr Ignatius of St Paul (1799–1864), otherwise the Hon George Spencer, was a son of the 2nd Earl Spencer, and became (like many younger sons of the aristocracy) an Anglican clergyman. He was converted to the Catholic faith and entered the Passionist Order in 1847. He spent the rest of his life working for the conversion of England. In March 2007, the Church announced that the first stage of Fr Ignatius’s Cause for beatification had been completed and that all the necessary documents had been forwarded to Rome.
The story of his conversion vividly illustrates the extent to which what used to be considered an essential part of the Catholic faith has become virtually phased out of Catholic docrine as it is taught in our schools or preached about in our pulpits. At a performance of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni at the Paris Opera, he was so terrified by the final scene, in which the serial seducer Don Giovanni is dragged off to Hell, he was so terrified by this vision of the consequences of final impenitence that he had to become a Catholic. In other words, the Catholic faith was the only religion in which this nightmare was not only understood but convincingly addressed : becoming a Catholic was consequently the only alternative open to him.
It used to be customary for sermons on the four Sundays of Advent to be preached on the four last things: Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell. It was still the custom in the Catholic-inclined parish in which as an Anglican I served my curacy (“Last week, the vicar gave you ‘Heaven’. This week, it falls to me to give you ‘Hell’.”) “Well, really,” said one lady to me as she came out of Church; “that wasn’t a very suitable subject, so close to Christmas.” But what could have been more suitable? Our Lord became Man for our salvation; he died and rose again so that none of us need go to Hell.
But the possibility still exists if we die refusing his grace. Hell exists all right: how anyone who has lived during the hellish 20th century can disbelieve it, is beyond me. But that, I suppose, is one reason we can’t face the idea: in a world in which we have so repeatedly shown our capacity to create Hell on Earth, we have recast our religion to be one of entire warmth and consolation, and our doctrine of salvation as one in which all are saved and none lost.
And, in doing so, we have surely emasculated it almost out of existence. The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes it quite clear why this is:
We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves: “He who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. (1 John 3:15)” Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren. 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.”
This is something we need to understand, if we are to receive the faith in its fullness. And yet, how rarely it is preached from our pulpits or taught in our schools. How often do our bishops remind us of it? We no longer expect it. So I was greatly struck by the Lenten message to his people this year of Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury (who else?), who in a pastoral letter read at Masses in his diocese on the first Sunday of Lent suggested that meditation on the four Last Things might help the faithful to accept the invitation to conversion in their lives:
In his letter, the Bishop noted the observation of Blessed John Paul II in his book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, that many people today have lost the sense of the “Last Things”, the body of teaching that deals with death, judgement, the destination of our immortal souls and the bodily resurrection.
“Being aware of this limited time on earth and all that is to follow – our judgment, our purgatory, heaven or hell forever – becomes an urgent invitation to conversion in our lives,” the Bishop said.
“This is the urgency to which Lent and Easter now recalls us with the poignant mark of ashes. “It is the realisation of what the Psalmist calls ‘the shortness of lives’ which helps shape our priorities and gives each day a new urgency in the light of all eternity before us.”
Bishop Davies … also explained why the Catholic Church resists the temptation to simply look back in a “celebration of life” at funerals, saying that the focus is instead the final destination of the soul of the deceased in view of the pledge of eternal life promised by Our Lord.
“The Church always prays as she believes and so it is not because we disapprove of the lyrics of Frank Sinatra or the chants of the football terraces that we insist that secular songs find no place in the prayer of the Christian funeral,” the Bishop said. “It is that the Church prays only as she believes.”
Bishop Davies also reminded Catholics that besides the great hope of heaven, there is also the “terrifying reality” of hell of which the Gospel repeatedly speaks. Purgatory, the Bishop adds, is a “consoling hope” for us because it offers the assurance of salvation, that the soul might finally “rest in peace”.
The point is, I suppose, that the great decline in belief in the reality of hell has also brought a decline of belief in the reality and urgent necessity of salvation and in a faith which exists only sub specie aeternitatis, in the context of eternity. And if we have lost that, what is there left? This is the time of year the Church has given us to renew that belief within ourselves – and to our pastors to remind us of it.