Category Archives: Last Things

Praying with the Dead

In a previous post, the supreme importance of avoiding personally canonizing those who have died was highlighted.  The “holy souls” in Purgatory depend greatly upon our prayers in order that they may be loosed from the lingering effects of their sins after their death.  Many of us grasp this and, out of charity, regularly offer prayers for the dead.  But there is a flip side to this coin—nearly every saint who has been canonized in the last two centuries was recognized because people began asking for their intercession.  In other words, rather than primarily praying for them, people began praying to them.  It seems that we must then exercise judgment as to whether the person is in Purgatory or in Heaven, the very thing I said not to do.  Stuck in a spiritual no-man’s land, we tend towards neither praying for them or to them.  The problem becomes theological rather than governed by the logic of love.  The rich relationship of the Communion of Saints becomes a sterile doctrine and our personal faith falters with it.  All of this seems unavoidable unless we can find a way around this spiritual dilemma.

A single paragraph in the Catechism, quoting an indulged prayer from Pope Leo XIII, helps part the clouds of obscurity.  The Catechism says:

“In full consciousness of this communion of the whole Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, the Church in its pilgrim members, from the very earliest days of the Christian religion, has honored with great respect the memory of the dead; and ‘because it is a holy and a wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins’ she offers her suffrages for them.’ Our prayer for them is capable not only of helping them, but also of making their intercession for us effective.” (CCC 959, emphasis added).

In summary, it is our prayers for the dead that not only help them, but also make their intercession for us effective.  What this tells us is that the holy souls in Purgatory, as members of the Church, have the power to intercede for the members of the Church Militant.  But this power comes in some way through our prayers for them.  How this works is obviously a mystery, but that it works is immediately relevant to the discussion at hand.  It gives us an immediate plan of action that will enable us to do both—pray for them and pray for their intercession.

Covering Our Bases

For some of us, this still has a Russian roulette type feel to it—like we are simply trying to cover our bases.  This only serves to make it more mechanical and less personal, the very antithesis of what prayer should be.  But this stems from a certain anxiety that our prayers may actually be wasted.  After all, if the person is in heaven and you are praying for their release from Purgatory, then your prayers have been wasted.

All of our prayer draws its power from the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ.  In other words, our prayer is caught up in the Eternal Now of Our Lord’s act of redemption where time and eternity met.  This means our prayer, although uttered in time, enters into the timelessness of God.  God knows “when” you will pray and He can apply the merits of those prayers as He sees fit.  More to the point, even if the soul of our departed loved one is in heaven, it is still your prayer here and now that got them there.  They may have even received the graces you interceded for just now while they were still on the earth.  Just as there are many natural causes that God uses to guide His providential plan, prayer too is a cause.  But because of its supernatural power, it operates outside of the natural constraints of time.

The Power of Prayer Over Time

Once we grasp this hidden power of prayer, we can see that our prayer, even if the soul has left Purgatory, is never wasted.  But it is still necessary because it is a power by which they have been or will be released.  It is also empowers them to intercede for the members of the Church Militant so that we should confidently ask for their intercession in our needs as well.  So our prayers for and to the dead are no different than they were while they were still living—praying both for them and asking them to pray for us.  Because “the prayer of a righteous man has great power to prevail” (James 5:16), we should go to them with confidence for our needs.  This also carries with it a rich experience of the true nature of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ.  It is a supernatural reality that spans Heaven and Earth and in between (Purgatory).

As long as we are speaking of covering our bases, how do we explain the prayers for the dead who are actually in hell?  Aren’t these wasted?  By now the answer ought to be clear that God wastes none of our prayers.  Our prayers obviously cannot lift them out of hell, but they could be applied to the person prior to their death.  They may lead the person towards conversion prior to their death (there is a beautiful account of the conversion of a despairing soul on the door of death who receives a final grace in St. Faustina’s Dairy #1486).  Or, perhaps it “only” kept them from further sin and, in a sense, lightened their suffering in hell.  Not knowing anyone’s destiny, we should confidently pray based on the overwhelming power of God’s mercy.  By praying, we become instruments of that same mercy.

A Death Like His

For those who have spent any time in school, it is a universal experience.  On the cusp of final exams, you perform the “what’s the worst I can do and still get an A?” calculation.  Or if you don’t have an A, you’ll ask “what will my grade be if I get 100%?”.   Crunching the numbers, the study plan develops accordingly.  Outside of the academic arena this approach can get us in trouble—especially when we apply a similar pattern of thinking to life’s final exam, death.  We assume that if we have performed well during the semester of life, then death will be a breeze.  Not only does this attitude ignore the tremendous temptations that await us, but it fails to discern the truly Christian meaning of death, or more to the point, the meaning of life.  For a Christian the meaning of life is dying well.

When St. Paul was being held captive in Rome, he penned his great opus on joy to the Church in Philippi.  Written during his first imprisonment in Babylon (c.f. 1 Pt 5:13), the Apostle reflected upon his own approach to death.  But rather than performing the “end of semester calculus” he “forgets what lies behind straining forward to what lies ahead” (Phil 3:14).  In other words, St. Paul eschews the cruise control and sprints all the way through the finish line.

This attitude is antithetical to the spirit of the world which confronts death in one of two ways.  First there is the mode of distraction.  It looms in the back of our minds, but as something we will deal with later.  Meanwhile we come up with creative ways to avoid thinking about it.  As Pascal maintains, “we run heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to stop us seeing it.”  We know it is inevitable, but we hope it catches us by surprise and “peacefully”.  Second there is the wisdom of pop-psychology which summons us to “accept it.”  Paradoxically this type of acceptance is a denial.  Like its proverbial doppelganger, taxes, we simply treat it as something to be planned around and cheated.

Planning for Death

Scripture on the other hand tells us to plan for death.  As the Book of Sirach tells us, “Remember the Last Things and you will never sin” (Sir 7:36).  Biblically speaking, to remember is not simply to keep it in the back of our mind or to “accept it” but to make it a present reality.  Knowing you are going to die is one thing, knowing how you will die is quite another.  Very likely we have no knowledge of the external circumstances but we can rehearse the interior dispositions that will accompany our deaths.  Just as we plan fiscally for our deaths with life insurance and a will, we should plan physically by preparing our souls, making death a testament.

In order to hit the target, we must first distinguish what we are aiming at.  The goal is, as St. Paul tells the Romans, to be united to Christ in a “death like His” (Rom 6:5).  Our own death, not surprisingly, finds meaning in His Passion.  Like a lamb being led to slaughter, Our Lord was silent in His sufferings.  The only time that Christ lets out a cry of anguish during His Passion is at the moment of His death.  The agony of His death is so keen that He could not remain silent.  The cry of anguish was proceeded by His last words—“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”  That is, Christ the Priest, has made a definitive offering of the pain of death to the Father.  A “death like His” is one that has been offered to the Father.

Life is not really pass/fail.  We run through the finish line because in death we have something, perhaps our greatest something, to offer to the Father.  Death ceases to be a punishment and becomes a true offering of our lives to God.  Death, when offered in union with Christ, becomes the pathway to Life.  It is when we receive the fullest share in the priesthood of Christ and in turn conform ourselves more fully to Him as victim.  It is only at death that we can truly offer our life to God—no other person, even Christ Himself, can do that for us.

A Priestly Annointing for Death

To prepare us for the greatest of our priestly tasks, the Church “completes the holy anointings that mark the whole Christian life…completing our conformity to the death and Resurrection of Christ, just as Baptism began it” (CCC 1523) in the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick.  This Sacrament, even though it is often touted as a Sacrament of Healing, is first and foremost a priestly anointing so that “the sick person receives the strength and the gift of uniting himself more closely to Christ’s Passion: in a certain way he is consecrated to bear fruit by configuration to the Savior’s redemptive Passion. Suffering, a consequence of original sin, acquires a new meaning; it becomes a participation in the saving work of Jesus” (CCC 1521).

A proper understanding of death as primarily a priestly occupation, enables the Christian, even when facing great bodily pains surrounding death, can remain spiritually joyful.  God loves a cheerful giver.  Unfortunately this aspect of death as a definitive offering has been lost to the prevailing culture.  We collectively accept the wine and myrrh thinking we can anesthetize death, depriving the person of their opportunity to give their life to God.  This is also why euthanasia is the very opposite of mercy, robbing the person of the only true gift they have to offer to God.

Seeing the Sacrament of the Anointing as an anointing for a good death also helps bring out another important facet of death.  The dying person often sees himself as a burden upon other people, especially his loved ones.  But the Church says that there is an Ecclesial grace attached to the Sacrament such that the “sick who receive this sacrament, ‘by freely uniting themselves to the passion and death of Christ,’ ‘contribute to the good of the People of God.’  By celebrating this sacrament the Church, in the communion of saints, intercedes for the benefit of the sick person, and he, for his part, though the grace of this sacrament, contributes to the sanctification of the Church and to the good of all men for whom the Church suffers and offers herself through Christ to God the Father” (CCC 1522).  By uniting themselves to Christ in a “death like His,” the sick man finds joy, able to say with St. Paul, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church…” (Col 1:24).  Far from being a burden, the sick actually lighten the burden on the other members of Christ body.

The great spiritual masters of the Church all speak of the art of dying well.  Like any art, it can only be done well when it is practiced and prepared for.  Remember death and you will do well in life.

Apostles of the End Times

As the liturgical year comes to a close, the Church’s readings focus almost exclusively on the end times and the return of Christ in power and might, revealing Himself as Christ the King.  With Advent on the heels of the Solemnity of Christ the King, many of us will flip a switch and turns our eyes to His first coming, when He mounted the throne of the Cross to reign from the Tabernacle.  But rather than hitting the reset button, we should see a principle of continuity between the two seasons, especially if we subscribe to the beliefs of the greatest prophet of the 20th Century, St. John Paul II.  A recurring theme during his pontificate, one that he emphasized in his first encyclical Redemptor Hominis, was that we are in a season of “a new Advent.”  This new Advent means “to accept with keen conviction the words of her [the Church’s] victorious Redeemer: ‘Remember I am coming soon’ (Rev 22:12).” (John Paul II, ad Limina Address to the Bishops of Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas, April 25, 1988).  Without succumbing to any distorted millennialism or fatalism, the saintly Pontiff nevertheless expressed a sober certitude that “We are living in the Advent of the last days of history, and trying to prepare for the coming of Christ…”(Angelus Address for World Youth Day, August 19, 1993).

While it remains always true that “you know not the day nor the hour,” the office of Supreme Pontiff carries with it a prophetic charism that invites us in a particular way to keep watch during our own time (c.f. Mt 25:13).  The Pope had a good reason for thinking that our own times were ripe for the return of Christ, one that he hints at in his encyclical Redemptoris Mater:

“For, if as Virgin and Mother she was singularly united with him in his first coming, so through her continued collaboration with him she will also be united with him in expectation of the second; ‘redeemed in an especially sublime manner by reason of the merits of her Son,’ she also has that specifically maternal role of mediatrix of mercy at his final coming, when all those who belong to Christ ‘shall be made alive,’ when ‘the last enemy to be destroyed is death’ (1 Cor. 15:26).”

The great Marian pope reasons that because Mary played such a key role in the first coming, she would likewise play an integral role in the second.  This is a principle that he borrowed from St. Louis de Montfort, a saint whom John Paul II admitted to having a particularly strong devotion.

Mary’s Role in the End Times

The words of the Polish saint echo St. Louis’ who, in his book True Devotion to Mary, says that

“The salvation of the world began through Mary and through her it must be accomplished. Mary scarcely appeared in the first coming of Jesus Christ so that men, as yet insufficiently instructed and enlightened concerning the person of her Son, might not wander from the truth by becoming too strongly attached to her…As she was the way by which Jesus first came to us, she will again be the way by which he will come to us the second time though not in the same manner” (True Devotion to Mary, 49, 50).

Mary’s greatness remained hidden at the first coming so as to cause no confusion as to the reason for her greatness—the Son of God come in the flesh.  Once the true nature of Christ was sufficiently known, the Holy Spirit wished that we come to know her more fully so that, made perfectly prepared for the first coming, she might prepare the world for the Second Coming.  Just as through her, He came, so through her, even if in a different manner, will He come again.  It is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Revelation 12 in which the Queen gives birth and the child is caught up to God and to His throne.  She returns to her place prepared by God and the devil takes out his wrath on her children.

Reading the signs of the times through a Montfortian lens, St. John Paul II likely interpreted the proliferation of Marian apparitions as a sign that the end is near.  Again, we do not know how near is near, but nevertheless Our Lady’s messages in each of the apparitions are marked by a spirit of urgency.  The “Fatima Pope,” deeply formed by these messages, invited the Church to a renewed vigilance in this “new Advent.”

Those consecrated to Jesus through Mary are, what St. Louis de Montfort, calls Apostles of the End Times (TD 58).  In describing these apostles, the 17th Century French Saint provides us with a blueprint for navigating this new Advent.  At the dawn of the Final Battle,

“Almighty God and his holy Mother are to raise up great saints who will surpass in holiness most other saints as much as the cedars of Lebanon tower above little shrubs…These great souls filled with grace and zeal will be chosen to oppose the enemies of God who are raging on all sides. They will be exceptionally devoted to the Blessed Virgin. Illumined by her light, strengthened by her food, guided by her spirit, supported by her arm, sheltered under her protection, they will fight with one hand and build with the other. With one hand they will give battle, overthrowing and crushing heretics and their heresies, schismatics and their schisms, idolaters and their idolatries, sinners and their wickedness. With the other hand they will build the temple of the true Solomon and the mystical city of God, namely, the Blessed Virgin, who is called by the Fathers of the Church the Temple of Solomon and the City of God . By word and example they will draw all men to a true devotion to her and though this will make many enemies, it will also bring about many victories and much glory to God alone.”

Becoming Apostles of the End Times

In short, these apostles will be identified by three particular marks—a love of the Cross, Apostolic Zeal, and a great Marian devotion.

These great souls, because they “carry the gold of love in their heart and the incense of prayer in their spirit” will love the Cross; a love shown by “carrying the myrrh of mortification in their bodies.”  They will, as Our Lady requested at Fatima, practice penance with great regularity.  In preaching devotion to Mary they “will make many enemies” (TD 48) and serving as Our Lady’s heel by which she will crush the head of the serpent, they will be “down-trodden and crushed” (TD 54) by all the children of the devil and of the world.

Not only will the Apostles of the End Times suffer for a love of God, but also they will be driven by an unquenchable apostolic zeal to save souls.  “Flaming fires” (TD 56) these apostles will spread the “the fire of divine love” everywhere.  Our Lady will use them like sharp arrows in her powerful hands and they will not only reform the Church, but will be instrumental in extending the truth of the Gospel to “the idolators and Muslims” (TD 59).

St. Louis says that “these great souls . . . will be exceptionally devoted to the Blessed Virgin. Illumined by her light, nourished at her breast, guided by her spirit, supported by her arm, sheltered under her protection” (TD 48, 55).  They will be marked by a profound humility which enables them to act as her heel that crushes the head of serpent.  Their militant spirit will imitate the spirit of Our Lady of Mercy, always willing to suffer to win souls from the clutches of the evil one. “They will have the two-edged sword of the word of God in their mouths and the blood-stained standard of the Cross on their shoulders. They will carry the crucifix in their right hand and the rosary in their left, and the holy names of Jesus and Mary on their heart. The simplicity and self-sacrifice of Jesus will be reflected in their whole behavior” (TD, 59).

Are we living in the end times?  Most assuredly, yes.  But we may still be separated by many years from the return of Christ.  Nevertheless, the Church needs to set the wheels in motion so that the Apostles of the End Times are fully formed when the time comes.  It is hard to imagine a better way to live in the “new Advent”, then by spending this Advent by becoming an Apostle of the End Times.  This Wednesday, November 29th offers yet another opportunity to spend the next 33 days preparing for a consecration to Jesus through Mary on January 1st.

The Terror of Demons

When St. Pius X officially sanctioned the Litany of St. Joseph in 1909, he acknowledged him to be both the Patron of the Dying and the Protector of Holy Church.  It was Pope Pius IX who first invoked him under the title of Patron of the Universal Church and he did so because dedicated his life to safeguarding the two most important members of the Church, Our Lord and Our Lady.  Tradition also names him Patron of the Dying because he died the most blessed of all deaths in the presence of the same two whom he had so vigilantly protected during his earthly sojourn.  But it is the title that bridges St. Joseph’s dual patronage, Terror of Demons, which constitutes his most active roles in the lives of individual Christians.  There is a danger of seeing the litany as merely a catalogue of things that St. Joseph can do; the carpenter who is the jack of all trades.  These last three titles have an interconnectedness that stocks our personal arsenal in times of great trial.  In truth, they arm us for the greatest of trial each of us will face, death.

All of the spiritual masters of old suggest that we reflect upon death regularly, not just to know about it, but to remember it.  They do so not just because it helps keep things in their proper perspective, but because it is the moment when our souls are in the greatest peril of being lost.  During our lives, the great majority of us see the devil as the Cheshire Cat but for all of us he will reveal himself fully  as the prowling lion intent on the ruin of our soul (1 Pt 5:8).  When his time is short, his wrath is greatest (Rev 12:12).

Why the Battle is So Fierce

Why this time of trial is so severe may not be entirely clear so that by adding some clarity we can steel ourselves for those inevitable moments.  Through His death and resurrection, Christ destroyed “him who has the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb 2:14).  But He did not take away death, but instead freed us from “the fear of death” (Heb 2:15).  Death itself is the last enemy to be destroyed (c.f. 1Cor 15:26) and still remains the playground of the Devil.  Just as in the rest of life, the devil is given power because it provides matter for our growth in the theological virtues.  On the cusp of death our faith and hope are sorely tried and through their fervent exercise provide a growth in our desire for God, “having a desire to be dissolved and to be with Christ, which is much better” (Phil 1:23).

By freeing us from the fear of death Our Lord not only gives us a share in His victory but empowers us to make the victory our own.  Thrust into spiritual combat with the devil, the faithful are enabled to defeat the “strong man.”  Our Lord’s victory on the Cross does not merely defeat the devil, but destroys him (c.f. Heb 2:14).  That is, He renders Satan’s power at the time of death ultimately ineffective.  To be defeated by the Word made flesh is one thing, but to be defeated by hairless bipeds is quite another.  Satan’s destruction comes about because he can no longer bind severely handicapped human creatures.  Through the mysterious action of grace each of us can truly say that the victory is mine.

Armed for the Final Battle

The Church was given the power to arm the faithful for this final battle through the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.  The Council of Trent says that among the effects of the Sacrament is the power to “resist more easily the temptations of the devil who lies in wait for his heel” (Council of Trent, Session 14).  While the Sacrament bestows this power ex opere operato, the effect within the individual believer depends upon his subjective disposition to receive the grace.

By anticipating the fronts on which the attacks are likely to occur, we can be better prepared for the ensuing battle.  It is our faith and hope that are put to the test during this final battle and so we need to examine how these two virtues are tried—faith through doubt and credulity and hope through despair and presumption.  In his book, Spiritual Combat, the 16th Century author Dom Lorenzo Scupoli examines these four areas and gives some tips to make us battle ready.

In his attacks against faith he will attempt to stir up anxiety about what is to come by planting the seeds of doubt about the faith of the Church in our minds.  The battle is not however to have a ready defense so as to argue.  Our Lord’s temptation in the desert reveals the Devil to be a liar and a sophist and able to twist and distort even the most blatant of lies.  Instead we must have the interior habit of faith—a firm clinging to the truth of all that the Church teaches.  The more ingrained that habit is, the stronger will be our defense.  In any regard we are to offer no pearls to the demonic swine.  As Scupoli says, “if the subtle serpent demands of you what the Catholic Church believes, do not answer him, but seeing his device, and that he only wants to catch you in your words, make an inward act of more lively faith.  Or else, to make him burst with indignation, reply that the holy Catholic Church believes the truth; and if the evil one should ask in return, ‘What is truth?’ you reply, ‘That which she believes.’”

The devil will also tempt us towards credulity through false visions.  Knowing the likelihood of an attack on this front, we should turn away from any visions in humility by seeing ourselves as unworthy of visions.  Even if they turn out to be true, God ultimately is pleased with our humility and therefore will not hold it against us.  Instead acts of trust are to be made in the mercy of Jesus and the prayers of Our Lady and St. Joseph.


The second front by which the demonic sortie is likely to come is by attacking hope.  Our past sins will be thrown at us all with the goal of despairing for our salvation.  Humility and trust in the blood of Christ are the weapons of choice.  Remembrance of past sins is a grace when it is accompanied by sorrow for having offended God and humility.  But when these thoughts unsettle you, they come from the Wicked One.  True sorrow is a gift of the Sacrament of Confession and will bear great fruit in this time of trial.  Genuine humility, borne out in the crucible of the humiliations of life is a steady shield.  To the extent that we develop these virtues now, they will be ready at hand in the time of trial.

Scupoli says that presumption is the final battle arena. Confronted with despair there is always the temptation to begin to list all of our merits.  In the face of this, Scupoli says we should “abase yourself ever more and more in your own eyes, even to your last breath; and of every good deed done by you, which may come before you, recognize God Alone for its Author. Have recourse to Him for help, but do not expect it on account of your own merits, however many and great be the battles in which you have been victorious. Ever preserve a spirit of holy fear, acknowledging sincerely that all your precautions would be in vain, if God did not gather you under the shadow of His wings, in Whose protection alone you will confide.”

The logic of the Litany of St. Joseph now comes into view.  If he is to be the Patron of a Happy Death, he necessarily must be a Terror of Demons.  It is his prayers specifically during our battle that make him the Terror of Demons, chasing them from us by the power of his mere presence.  By captaining the final battle of the members of the Church Militant, he is there to usher them into the Church Triumphant making the Church truly universal.  By fostering our own personal devotion to St. Joseph, we too may come to share in his inheritance.

The Boredom of Heaven

Perhaps it is because I am bald, but I cringe at the theological hair splitting that often goes on in the Church.  It is not just “professional” theologians that are guilty of this, but priests and ordinary lay folks as well.  Don’t get me wrong— I think making distinctions, defining your terms and the like are very important to coming to understand the truth.  But it is when the split hair itself becomes the answer that I feel the shiver in my spine.  There are two questions that immediately come to mind.  I will save the second for another time, but in today’s post I would like to look at the first—“how can a loving God send people to hell?”

To ask it is almost to reflexively answer it—“God does not send anyone to hell.  People choose hell.”  In most cases that is sufficient for the prosecution to rest.  But the better prepared interlocutor will demand a cross-examination.  In the parable of the sheep and the goats it certainly seems as if the wicked are being sent by God to “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt 25:41).  Even though it may not fit with the image of God we are trying to portray, the fact of the matter is that there are simply too many references to divine judgment to avoid the conclusion that God sends some people to hell.  There must be a more tactful answer.

Now, I have made the reader cringe.  God becomes not Father but harsh Judge, the exact image you are trying to overcome with your hair splitting answer.  The reflexive answer to the question really only serves to perpetuate two common misconceptions about heaven; misconceptions that are often stumbling blocks to our desire for Heaven.

Heaven May Not Be What You Think It Is

The first delusion embedded in both the question and the answer is that Heaven is a reward for being good and hell a punishment for being bad.  But that is not true.  Heaven is the (super)natural consequence of being holy.  Sure, everyone in Heaven is good, but only because they are holy.  No amount of goodness can make us holy, even though holiness makes us good.  The author to the Letter to the Hebrews says “without holiness no one will see God” (Heb 12:14).

One of the reasons why someone like Aristotle could only get so far in his thinking about God was that he could not conceive of a way for the gods and men to be friends.  Friendship can only occur between equals and since there was a great chasm between the two, while men might placate the gods, they could never enjoy their friendship.  What Aristotle didn’t consider is that the real God was Love and desired nothing more than to be friends with each man.  To make that happen, He would first become equals with us so that we might become equals with Him.

God makes us equals with Himself by filling us with the Divine life, what St. Peter calls becoming “partakers of the Divine nature” (2 Pt 1:4).  Catholics call it sanctifying grace or the Indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  Whatever you call it, it is the only thing which makes friendship with God possible.  We really must be “like God,” but only on His terms and not our own.

The problem with the answer is that it only feeds the “faith vs works” controversy.  Holiness is bigger than either faith or works.  It is accepting the invitation of friendship with God and then having that friendship grow.  This is why the authors of the New Testament repeatedly stress the necessity of Baptism and all the great missionary saints like St. Peter Claver saw it as their mission to enflame a desire for baptism in the natives (or in the case of St. Peter Claver, slaves) and then baptize them.  Baptism is the only sure way we know of to become friends with God.

Heaven, then properly understood, is the culmination of a lifetime friendship with God.  This leads us to the second delusion veiled in the question and answer and that is the tendency to see Heaven as the place where you finally get everything you ever wanted.  But Heaven is the place where you get the One Thing you really wanted—God.  Heaven is only heaven because God is there.  It is not a collection of the best things of earth.  There may be many other things there, but it is only God that matters.  All of the other things that are there are there simply to increase the enjoyment of Him.

Hell is hell because God is not there.  It may have many other things, but once God is removed their emptiness becomes apparent.  That is why the pain of loss, that is rejection of the free invitation to friendship, is considered to be the greatest pain of hell.  There is a diabolical corollary to the divine maxim “seek ye first the Kingdom of God and all these things will be added unto you”—“seek ye first all these things and the Kingdom of God will be forfeit unto  you.”

Medieval art often presented Heaven with cherubs playing harps on clouds.  For those operating under our two embedded assumptions this image of Heaven is not awe-full, but awfully boring.  While it remains just an artistic representation, these images contain a truth that Heaven is about being with God and nothing else.  For those who are interested in that sort of thing then the experience will be far beyond what we could possibly image (c.f. 1 Cor 2:9).  But for the worldly man it would seem boring.  He would soon get weary of heaven because he would continue to hear only about one subject which he has no real interest in hearing about.

Increasing the Desire for Heaven

This is one of the reasons Catholics have a decided advantage thanks to the Mass.  Mass really is training for Heaven.  It is Heaven with a Sacramental veil over it.  If you love the Mass then you will love heaven.  If you don’t love the Mass, then get to work on growing in love with it.  Pray for this singular grace and persevere in that prayer.  As Blessed John Henry Newman says, “‘Enter into the joy of thy Lord’ will sit with us the same way ‘Let us pray’ does now.”

Although the conclusion might not seem obvious at first based on what we have said, it is most certain that God “sends” people to hell because hell is not really the worst thing that can happen to someone.  The worst thing that can happen to a man who is not holy is to go to heaven.  Newman said, “Heaven would be hell to an irreligious man.”  Heaven is a place of happiness only for someone who is holy.  Otherwise it would be a place of eternal torment.  God is “a consuming fire” that burns hotter than the fires of hell.  Only those who have been clothed with grace can withstand and enjoy the heat of His Presence.  The thicker the cloak, the closer one gets.  That is why God does not cease to be merciful even to those in hell.  Returning to Newman once more: “even supposing a man of unholy life were allowed to enter heaven, he would not be happy there; so that it would be no mercy to permit him to enter.”

Death and the Three Judgments

“You are going to die.”  It is the best first line to a book I have ever read (Fr. Larry Richards’ Be a Man).  Not just because of its shock value, but also because of its truth.  100% of the people who read the book are going to die.  We can’t merely believe this, but it must be before our minds regularly.  St. Paul tells the Christians in Rome that the “wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).  In short, death was a punishment for the first sin of Adam.  To see it merely as punishment however causes us to miss an important point.  Man, because he is, even if not wholly, a material creature, is naturally subject to death.  Among the original gifts bestowed upon Adam and his posterity was a supernatural immunity to death.  By turning away from God, Adam rejected both God and His gifts.  Adam was expelled from the Garden without access to the Tree of Life and death would henceforth come to all men.  Death is then not just a punishment, but a consequence of being human.  Still death was not in God’s original “plan” for mankind and thus was taken up and trampled by Christ.  For the Christian death is not to be feared but to be seen as a necessary instrument for being conformed to Christ and sharing in His reward.

If death is unavoidable then, in the hands of a just God, it is not just a punishment, but also a judgment.  It is what we are when God allows death to visit us that determines our eternal destiny.  For those who have sanctifying grace in their souls at the time of death, death will be a mercy.  For those who do not, death will be a condemnation.  This is well worth meditating upon and many of the great spiritual masters have spent serious time contemplating their own deaths.  But the fact is that for most of us living in a culture where death has been sanitized, we think of death as something that will happen “later” even if it is ultimately inevitable.  It no longer creates a sense of urgency the way that it used to.

The Third Judgment

St. Peter well understood this tendency when he first preached the Gospel to the Gentiles and introduced Jesus as the “judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42).  Most of us tend to think in terms of two judgments—the personal judgment at death and the final judgment at the end of time.  But what St. Peter is telling Cornelius and his friends is that there is a third “moment” of judgment, namely the temporal or judgment of the living.  In other words, God does not merely judge us at the end of our lives, but continually throughout our lives.  The Catholic tradition has a term for the effects of our temporal judgment that we call the “temporal punishment for sin.”

Among the theological casualties of the last century is the notion of God as judge.  That is because we only see Him as judge of the dead and not so much as judge of the living.  This means He is seen merely as the Condemner or Rewarder.  But when we see Him as judging the living, that is punishing them in time, we can see how justly He judges the dead.  Of course this means that we have to see the purpose of Fatherly punishment correctly.

Punishment has two purposes, both of which are associated with the repairing the damage caused by the transgression.  First there is the damage caused to the order of things.  Sin unjustly takes pleasure from something that one should not take pleasure in.  Punishment removes the pleasure from some lawful good.  Second, there is the damage done to the perpetrator of the offense.  Our sins turn us into something (lying makes us liars, stealing makes us thieves, etc).  Only by cultivating the opposing virtue can the damage be undone.  Therefore, the purpose of punishment, according to Aquinas is “to bring man back to the good of virtue.”  It is the admission of guilt and sorrow that acts as a bridge between these two purposes of punishment.  Without it, punishment will remain merely retributive, that is reparative to the external order.  To be reparative to the inner order, it must be voluntarily accepted as coming from a just judge.  Only the patient who admits his sickness and willingly takes the medicine can be healed.

Although this seems obvious from what was said above, it merits pointing out that death itself is part of the temporal punishment for our sins.  The manner in which we approach death as a punishment as a tremendous bearing on our eternal destiny.  It remains somewhat mysterious as to how exactly death is reparative, we can take it as a given that it is.  Any punishment from a loving Father is medicinal.  This is why it is important that we accept death on God’s terms and not our own.  This is yet another reason why assisted suicide and euthanasia by omission remain harmful to the patient.  We cannot decide when God is done making the person ready for heaven.  The time of death is God’s verdict on the lives we have lived.

Death as the Meaning of Life

All of life then should be seen as preparation for dying well.  Those who habitually accept the temporal punishments will accept the final punishment of death in the spirit God intended and will move on to eternal life.  Short a special grace to see the punishment of death clearly, those who habitually despised God’s temporal judgments will despise death as the final punishment and be condemned.  It becomes clear then that when we speak of the Particular Judgment we are speaking of judgment only by analogy.  God needs no examination but instead at the moment of death the soul knows by intuition and is enlightened of all its merits and demerits. In a sense the soul judges itself in accordance with truth.

If the eternal destiny of each man has been decided at the particular judgment, then why is it necessary to have the Final Judgment?  St. Thomas gives three reasons for the last judgment.  First, there is the fact that men are often judged contrary to truth by history (both good and bad).  Margaret Sanger has been judged well by history and many Churchmen have been judged poorly.  The truth will be made known.  Justice is also vindicated in a second way in that the dead have had imitators in good and evil and thus their errors must be made known.  Finally, and this relates to the Particular Judgment, the effects of man’s action last long after death.  The good (and evil) that we do effects our children, their children and beyond.  Once history is winding down, we will all see the role we have played in it, even after death.  The hierarchy of heaven and the lowerarchy of hell will be set and our own place determined.

“When I was Hungry and Thirsty You Gave Me to Eat and Drink”

In the past few months our family has been confronted with end of life medical care for two close members.  In both cases, we had to fight to continue providing nutrition and hydration.  After hitting so close to home twice, I began to wonder about other’s experiences and found that nearly everyone who has had to walk this journey with a loved one did not know what to do and eventually deferred to “the experts” in the medical profession.  Already emotionally overwhelmed and lacking confidence in their medical knowledge, they trusted that the medical professionals would guide them to do the right thing.  If our experience has taught us anything, it is two things.  First, the culture of death is so deeply imbedded that even those medical professionals who are genuinely compassionate and of good will can succumb to it and that we were glad that we did not wait until the situation came up to learn about the importance of nutrition and hydration at this most vulnerable stage of life.

This is not meant to be a condemnation of those caregivers who devote their lives to walking with families through this.  This is meant to raise awareness that the current “best practice” in dealing with those who are actively dying is morally repugnant.  By arming yourself now with a proper understanding, you can protect yourself later when your thinking may be clouded because of the stress of the situation.

Medical Treatment and Ordinary Care

First, there is an important distinction to be made between medical treatment and ordinary care.  In general treatment would include those interventions that may cure a disease or aid one in returning to health. Medical treatment would include things like antibiotics, dialysis, surgery, chemotherapy, and the like.  One may look at these treatments and decide that their burdens outweigh their benefits and decide to forgo them in order to live the remaining days of his life with a certain quality of life.

Medical treatment is different than ordinary care however.  Ordinary care is simply routine attention given to the patient.  This would include bathing, providing clean clothes and sheet, keeping them warm, and providing food and water.  Each of these is essential to life and to withhold any of these, especially to those who cannot provide them for themselves, and assuming you have the means to do so, is considered cruel.  No amount of misguided compassion would say that we should leave a sick person outside in December exposed to the elements.  Likewise, no amount of misguided compassion would say that we should allow someone to starve and become dehydrated.

It was this important distinction between medical treatment and care that Pope St. John Paul II brought attention to when in a papal allocution in 2004 he said,

“I should like particularly to underline how the administration of water and food, even when provided by artificial means, always represents a natural means of preserving life, not a medical act. Its use, furthermore, should be considered, in principle, ordinary and proportionate, and as such morally obligatory, insofar as and until it is seen to have attained its proper finality, which in the present case consists in providing nourishment to the patient and alleviation of his suffering” (Address of John Paul II To the Participants in the International Congress on “Life Sustaining Treatments and Vegetative State: Scientific Advances and Ethical Dilemmas”).

Notice as well that John Paul II did not say nutrition and hydration must be given in all circumstances.  He said that they are only to be given for as long as they are “seen to have attained its proper finality.”  What he means is that they should be given in all circumstances until it can be definitively shown that they no longer can be processed or assimilated by the body.  It must be “seen.”  There cannot be mere medical conjecture or blanket statements like “we see that as the patient is dying their nutritional and hydrational needs are greatly diminished.”  Even if their needs are greatly diminished, this is an argument for giving less, not cutting them out altogether.  All too often this argument is put forth as a reason for omitting them altogether.  The only time they should be completely removed is when it is shown that the body no longer can make use of them.

Other Arguments against Nutrition and Hydration

The “diminished need” argument is not the only one that is commonly put forth.  There are two others.  The first is what I like to call the “argument from technology.”  This argument essentially says something like “75 years ago we didn’t have the ability to use feeding tubes or IV’s and we can now keep people alive longer because of these technologies.”

What makes the flaw in this argument hard to see initially is that it is true.  We did not have the ability to use feeding tubes and IV’s for nutrition and hydration in the past.  The problem with this argument is that we have a lot of things because of technological advances that we did not have in the past.  The refrigerator that allows us to feed sick people (even those who can still feed themselves) in a relatively recent invention.  Indoor plumbing, another technological advance, keeps the sick who can still hold their own cups (another technological advance) hydrated.  But we also did not have the pain killers we have now.  Should we remove those as well?  Certainly, we are prolonging their lives by controlling their pain.  In the past they would have gone into shock and died.

One can easily see how absurd this line of reasoning can actually become.  Where do we draw the line?  If we have the ability and the technology to provide care for someone and it is care that they have the capacity to receive, then we ought to provide it.  The fact that nutrition and hydration extends one’s life is true for all of us.  Remove those things from even the healthiest person and they will die.  More accurately, removing those things from the person would be to kill them.  Allowing someone to die is different than causing someone to die, even if you do so by an act of omission such as withholding care from them when you have the means to do so.

The second argument is that by providing nutrition and hydration, even when the patient is still able to tolerate it, we are “postponing the inevitable.”  Again the difficulty in seeing where this thinking goes wrong is that it is true.  We are postponing the inevitable.  Although again, by me eating lunch today, I also have postponed the inevitable.

What those who use this line of reasoning surely mean is that when death is imminent we should do nothing to stop it.  But doing nothing to stop it, is not the same thing as aiding it.  Why not, as my son with Autism suggested when we told him his grandmother was going to die, push them off the roof then?  The fact that death is imminent does not mean we should kill the person, even if it is by omission.

The fact is that human life, even when the person is suffering, even when the person is close to death is a good that ought to be protected.  Life is a gift, one that none of us earned.  Therefore we are never free to give the gift back or decide that we do not want it any longer.  We must wait on the decision of the One Who bestowed the gift.  Until such time, we should see the person before us and care for them.  Feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, and visit the sick—all corporal works of mercy that should never cease as long as a person is present before us.  Don’t allow anyone to take those acts of charity away from you.  Provided the person can still assimilate the food and water, you should never remove a feeding tube or a hydration IV.


Justice Scalia and Purgatory

There is a story of a young priest who was asked to preside over a funeral of a man he did not know.  He met with the widow beforehand in order to learn some things about the man.  In order to break the ice, he said “I am sure your husband is in a better place,” to which the widow replied “the hell he is!”  Whether this story is apocryphal or not, we have all had the uncomfortable experience of being around someone who is very quick to canonize a person once they have died.  In fact, this is the one thing that touched me most about Fr. Paul Scalia’s homily during his father’s, Justice Antonin Scalia, funeral mass.  He absolutely refused to canonize (some call it “eulogizing”) his father because it was uncharitable and deprived him of the prayers he still needed.  This was clearly something Fr. Scalia learned from his father because the only place in his homily where he quoted his father directly was a letter the Justice once wrote to a Presbyterian minister about why he hated eulogies.  The Justice thought that “[E]ven when the deceased was an admirable person, indeed especially when the deceased was an admirable person, praise for his virtues can cause us to forget that we are praying for and giving thanks for God’s inexplicable mercy to a sinner.”  This habit of canonizing the dead really stems from a refusal to take the existence of Purgatory seriously or to downplay its significance.  Not only do we deprive the dead of our prayers, but we do not allow the reality of Purgatory to shape our lives as it should.  The truth of the matter is that even though it is often said tongue in cheek, Purgatory is not something we should strive for; even if it is the “mudroom” of Heaven.

In order to see the necessity of Purgatory, we have to make sure we are viewing the redemptive act of Christ through proper lenses.  Christ was not a penal substitute for us on the Cross.  An innocent man dying as punishment for a guilty man is no act of justice.  Instead, like the first Adam, Christ, the new Adam was man’s representative upon the Cross.  As representative He makes redemption possible, but only to the degree that we participate. This is certainly the way that St. Paul understood his own redemption when he told the Colossians that he “rejoiced in his sufferings because they complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Col 1:24).  Christ’s representative sacrifice was perfect, what is lacking was his (our) participation.

While removing the eternal punishment for sin, Christ’s sacrifice leaves the temporal punishment for sin intact.  If Christ is only a penal substitute that paid the price for our sins, then the presence of suffering (and even death) in this world has no explanation.  Because sin really is our insistence to have things our own way, by suffering something that we don’t want, justice is restored in some way.  But the sin also causes imbalance in the person as well requiring that we accept the punishment freely as satisfaction for our sins to repair the personal disorder. This imbalance is felt in the sinner a way akin to rust which St. Thomas calls the “relics of sin.”   Because of these “dispositions caused by previous acts of sin…the penitent finds difficulty in doing deeds of virtue.”  It is this twofold dimension of the temporal punishment for sin that must be healed before one can enter the presence of God.

Suffering seen in light of temporal punishment shows forth the mercy of God.  The Catechism calls it “a grace” (CCC 1473).  St Thomas gives three reasons why God thought this fitting.  The first is that it helps us to understand the gravity of sin so as to help us avoid it in the future.  Because of the downward pull of concupiscence and the pleasure we derive from sin, we do not always recognize its evil.  By attaching temporal punishments to our sins, God mercifully keeps us from falling into further sin.

A second reason according to St. Thomas is that through His invitation to make satisfaction through the merits of Christ and by the grace of the Holy Spirit, God the Father makes us co-operators in our salvation.  God is raising up adopted sons and daughters not merely servants or slaves.  By participating in our own redemption, God treats us as He does His only begotten Son.

Finally, St Thomas says temporal punishments are necessary because sin in essence is a pampering of self.  When temporal afflictions are patiently endured, it teaches us not to pamper ourselves so as to be better prepared to make gifts of ourselves through our participation in the self-giving love of the Trinity.


If the temporal punishment for sin ultimately accrues because it is a means by which God makes us fit for heaven then the debt can remain after death but prior to entering the presence of God.  Even if Purgatory were not divinely revealed to us in Tradition and Sacred Scripture (2 Macc 13:43-46 shows the general Jewish belief in the doctrine and Mt 5:26 and 1Cor 3:13-15 show the Christian belief), reason would almost dictate that it be so.  One cannot reconcile the holiness, mercy, and justice of God without maintaining a place of purgation after death.

Ultimately one might not believe in Purgatory in this life, but will soon believe in it in the next life.  But it is equally damaging to not take it seriously enough during our pilgrimage on Earth.  No amount of suffering in this life can compare to the sufferings of Purgatory.  That is because in this life we can rely on the merits of Christ to increase the satisfaction for our sins.  The Holy Souls in Purgatory on the other hand can only settle their debt by what is called ‘satispassion’ or by suffering enough.  Because their only means of satisfaction is their own suffering, praying for the dead and obtaining indulgences for them becomes a supreme act of charity.  To not do so, amounts to an act of omission.

That is not the only thing however that makes Purgatory so hard.  The pains of purgatory are similar to those suffered by the damned in hell.  They suffer what is called the “pain of loss” which is the pain of being deprived of God, our true Good.  What intensifies the pain is the knowledge that it is venial sin and their punishments that could have been readily expiated in this life that separates them from God.  As the purifying effects are felt, the pain actually increases because their love is purified, making the loss of the beloved felt more acutely.

While not a definitive dogma of the Church, most theologians and Church Fathers (and the Council of Florence hints at it) also describe what is called the “pain of sense.”  This comes from the idea that St. Paul (1 Cor 3:11) says that some men will be saved through fire.

Since the souls in Purgatory are separated from their body, one might rightfully ask how something material like fire could cause pain.  What St. Thomas and the other Scholastics argue by way of analogy saying that the matter of the Sacraments, for example the water of Baptism, has a spiritual effect and therefore it must be possible.

Despite the suffering of the souls in Purgatory, the souls also are joyful.  Not only are they approaching God, but they know their love is being purified.  They are only too happy to make things right with their Beloved.  While there is still hope in the souls in Purgatory, it is different from the virtue of hope as we experience it on earth.  The holy souls in Purgatory are assured of reaching their heavenly homeland while the hope of those in the Church Militant is of one who is tending in the right direction.

By his carefully worded homily, Fr. Scalia did a great act of charity for his father.  He begged all those in attendance to pray for his final purification.  Because of the stage upon which this homily was spoken he really did the whole Church a great service.  No one could hear or read his homily and not re-examine their own views on Purgatory.  For that, there may be many souls who will be eternally grateful.

It Takes Only One?

In his Encyclical on Moral Theology, St. John Paul II cautioned against falling into the theological loophole that is commonly called the “fundamental option.”  The general idea of the fundamental option is that each person makes a basic choice to love God and as long as they do not consciously revoke that decision, they remain in His good graces.  In this way it becomes little more than a psychological game where as long as we say we love God, it is so.  Our actions do nothing to change our fundamental stance as long as we still “love” God in our minds.  With the adoption of this viewpoint throughout the Church, the idea of mortal sin has been lost and many people miss out on the opportunity to bathe in God’s merciful love.

Despite this, the Church still teaches that there is such thing as mortal sin and a single mortal sin can damn us to hell for all eternity.  The Catechism says “[T]o die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him forever by our own free choice” (CCC 1033). While this constitutes a truth of the faith, it is fruitful to look at why this is the case.  All too often people will view this teaching as “fire and brimstone” but it can have a bearing on our daily lives, especially those who truly want to love God.

There is a subtlety in the quote from the Catechism that is easy to miss. The choice of describing it as being in mortal sin, rather than “having committed mortal sin” or “with mortal sin on his soul,” reveals a deep anthropological truth and shows us how sin is more than just an offense against God.

Man, because he is free has the freedom for self-determination.  Man can become whatever he wants to become.  Now, this is not meant in a “you can do anything if you just believe in yourself” kind of way.  Instead it means that we are free everywhere and always to be a certain kind of person.  A man who desires to be honest, is always free to do the honest thing.  A man who desires to humble, always has the power to do the humble thing.  It is only on this level that man is authentically free and thus responsible.  Where the self-determination comes in is that by repeatedly performing acts of honesty or humility the man becomes honest or humble.  These habitual dispositions (we call them virtues) become almost second nature to us.  In other words, our actions determine the kind of person we are.  This can also work for woe.  The man who repeatedly lies out of fear becomes a liar and coward.

When we speak of heaven then we must first admit that there are only certain kinds of people that are fit to be admitted.   We shall return to the question of why it must be a certain type, but first it is necessary to make a further distinction.  While self-determination plays a key part in this, it is not the only thing (or even the most important thing).  The most important thing is whether the heaven life is alive in our souls.  Because God is “a consuming fire” we cannot enter into eternal friendship with Him without being “equals” with Him.  This is so important to understand any time we speak of Heaven or Hell.  Not everyone could stand in God’s Presence.  He gives us sanctifying grace to make us fireproof.  Without it, no matter how many good things we have done, the fire of His love would be more painful than the fires of Hell (this is why we can say that Hell is a sign of God’s mercy).

What this means is that this time of trial and testing is all about being made fit.  We must do everything in our power to keep the life of God that was freely given to us in Baptism (ordinarily) coursing through our souls.  This is where the notion of self-determination comes into play.  Our actions determine the “shape” of our souls and only certain shapes can hold the life of God in them.  Once the soul becomes warped from certain types of actions, then the life of God spills out them.

Nine Circles

At this point, one might be willing to concede all that has been said.  But how is it that a single mortal sin could so damage the human will as to make the person unfit for Heaven?  After all, we have been speaking of habits and one slip does not break a habit.  Perhaps this is best answered by way of analogy.  Suppose a man loves his country and strives to be patriotic.  He may have dedicated his life to serving out of love for his country.  This love certainly may not be perfect.  He may love her imperfectly by doing something like not obeying all the traffic laws.  While he would still be viewed as a patriot, he would not yet be a perfect patriot since the love of self that causes him to disobey the traffic laws impedes him from loving his country perfectly.  But are there certain actions in which he would cease to be a patriot?  Would a man who sold secrets to his country’s enemy still be a patriot even if he only did it once?  Everyone recognizes that a single traitorous action would undue all of his previous patriotic actions and he would no longer be considered a patriot.

So too it is with our moral lives.  We may love God imperfectly and commit venial sins, but there are certain actions which we can perform which are so contrary to the love of God that they deform our wills such that the life of God can no longer reside in us.  Just like the false patriot in our analogy, we still have the opportunity make amends for our transgression and have grace restored to us, but at a certain point that no longer becomes an option.  Benedict Arnold can no longer make amends for his act of treason, despite all of his previous acts of patriotism to the contrary.

This brings us to a second important point and that is that at the moment of death our souls become fixed.  We now enter into the realm of spirits and our manner of judging is immutable.  This is one of the ways we become “like the angels.”  Angels, because they are pure spirits, do not change their minds.  Because they can see all particulars attached to their decisions, their wills remain fixed once they have made a judgment.  So too we will do at the moment of death.  Because the soul is fixed in either good or evil by its last voluntary act, it continues to judge according to its inclination at the time of separation.  The will can only change when the judgment of the intellect gives new reasons.  This is why there is only one personal judgment at the time of death—the decision to choose for or against God has been made and cannot change.  This is also why the Fathers of the Church speak of the terrible temptations of the demons at the hour of death as they tempt us towards a mortal sin or away from repentance.  It is also why we pray regularly to St. Joseph, the Terror of Demons, for a happy death.

While we can see how reasonable this teaching is, it remains just informative unless it causes us to measure our actions more carefully.  If it is true that one mortal sin can cause us to lose Heaven then we must actively strive to grow in sanctifying grace.  The deeper the penetration of God’s life into our souls, the greater our protection against sin.  We truly become more and more like God, and it is only those who are truly like Him that can share His life in eternity.  Each day we do not grow in the love of God is a loss.

In closing, we may turn to Blessed Columba Marmion who seems to summarize our approach best:

We shall enjoy God according to the same measure of grace to which we have attained at the moment of our going out of the world. Do not let us lose sight of this truth: the degree of our eternal beatitude is, and will remain, fixed forever by the degree of charity we have attained, by the grace of Christ, when God shall call us to Himself. Each moment of our life is then infinitely precious, for it suffices to advance us a degree in the love of God, to raise us higher in the beatitude of eternal life. And let us not say that one degree more or less is a small matter. How can anything be a small matter when it concerns God, and the endless life and beatitude of which He is the source? If, according to the parable spoken by our Lord in person, we have received five talents, it was not that we might bury them, but that we might make them bear increase.  And if God measures the reward according to the efforts we have made to live by His grace and increase it in us, do not think it matters little what kind of a harvest we bring to our Father in Heaven.  Jesus Himself has told us that His heavenly Father is glorified in seeing us abound, by His grace, in fruits of holiness, which will be fruits of beatitude in Heaven. In hoc clarificatus est Pater meus ut fructum plurimum afferatis  . . . Can it be that our love for Jesus Christ is so weak that we account it a small thing to be a more or less resplendent member of His Mystical Body in the heavenly Jerusalem?


How Could I Be Happy?

“How can people be happy in Heaven,” my friend asked, “knowing that their unsaved loved ones are suffering in Hell?”  Although this question is often asked by atheists we should have more than apologetical reasons for examining it.   We have probably all been confronted with this question or even pondered it ourselves.  After all it is a valid question, especially when confronted with the fact that people we know and love are very far from God and it would hurt us deeply to know they ended up in hell.  A close examination is merited because the web is filled with responses from well-intending Christians  that make Christians look like unthinking sociopaths.  Never one to avoid the hard questions, St. Thomas Aquinas offers us an answer to this sticky question in the Summa Theologiae (Supp. Q.94).

In order to understand St. Thomas’ response, we have to first admit that the question seems unanswerable.  It seems that either we do not love both God and neighbor perfectly in Heaven or we are not perfectly happy there.  Seemingly, the only way out of this dilemma is to deny one of the two contraries.  This is why St. Thomas is such a master at these types of questions—because he lived and taught by the Scholastic dictum that we should “Never deny, seldom affirm, and always distinguish.”

His point was not that we should be wishy-washy about things but that when faced with a dilemma like this, the answer lies in “both-and” rather than not in “either-or.”  In that regard, it is not just a Scholastic principle, but an eminently Catholic one.  And, for the question at hand, St. Thomas makes an important distinction about the way we love in Heaven.

In asking the question as to whether the blessed in heaven pity those in hell, St. Thomas formulates the following response to the objection that because pity proceeds from charity and charity is perfect in heaven, the blessed ought to pity those in hell.

Charity is the principle of pity when it is possible for us out of charity to wish the cessation of a person’s unhappiness. But the saints cannot desire this for the damned, since it would be contrary to Divine justice. Consequently the argument does not prove.

It seems he does not answer the question.  But what he is doing is clearing up the misconception that love on earth and love in heaven are the same thing.  Love on earth causes not only joy, but also suffering.  The amount of our suffering is in proportion to our love of the other person—the more we love the beloved, the more we suffer (and the more we rejoice in their good).  This earthly love has both an active component in that we work to alleviate or share their suffering and a passive component in that seeing them suffer causes suffering in us.  This is when we “feel sorry for” them.  This is felt most acutely when the beloved is engaged in something that is particularly self-destructive.  We both want them to get better (active), but also feel sorry for them (passive).  In heaven, love is wholly active and the passive component passes away.  The blessed will still love the damned person from heaven, but the passive part of love will cease.  They will no longer “feel sorry for them.”  In other words, the blessed will not suffer because of the sufferings of the damned.


An analogy may help to clarify more fully.  The experience of many who do prison ministry is almost universal—they find themselves torn.  While they know the prisoner has done something that cries out for justice, they also feel sad for the prisoner’s loss (this is passive love).  This sorrow moves them to work for the prisoner’s conversion (this is active love).  Now in heaven, when the time to convert has passed and they no longer feel the passive love of sadness, all that is left is the joy of justice.

While the argument so far may seem to make sense, it seems awfully cold.  How can one rejoice in justice at the expense of the suffering of the damned?  St. Thomas puts the objection this way:

Now it is most reprehensible in a wayfarer to take pleasure in the pains of others, and most praiseworthy to grieve for them. Therefore the blessed nowise rejoice in the punishment of the damned.

And his reply

It is not praiseworthy in a wayfarer to rejoice in another’s afflictions as such: yet it is praiseworthy if he rejoice in them as having something annexed. However it is not the same with a wayfarer as with a comprehensor, because in a wayfarer the passions often forestall the judgment of reason, and yet sometimes such passions are praiseworthy, as indicating the good disposition of the mind, as in the case of shame pity and repentance for evil: whereas in a comprehensor there can be no passion but such as follows the judgment of reason.

What St. Thomas is saying here relates to our ways of knowing.  In our fallen state as wayfarers, our passions often run ahead of reason and either cause us to judge wrongly or judge slowly.  Using the prison minister being torn as an example is illuminative here as well.  Once he gets emotionally invested in the prisoner, justice seems to fade into the background.  Justice is seen merely as an abstract principle, while the prisoner is real flesh and blood (concrete).  He may eschew justice altogether or he may need to constantly remind himself the just reason for the prisoner’s incarceration.

In heaven, two things will change.  First, justice will no longer be something abstract but something concrete.  What this experience is like we do not know, but there are no abstractions in heaven.  Second, passions will no longer go ahead of reason.  This means the blessed will be able to separate the reasons for their joy from the causes of their sorrow.  In other words, they will rejoice because God’s justice is done while still having active charity and goodwill towards those who are damned.  What they will not do however is feel sorry for them.

In essence what St Thomas is saying is that the blessed do not take pleasure in the sufferings of the damned.  The pleasure that they take is in the goodness of divine justice.  Neither do they feel pity for the damned because they have no reason to.  Yet, they still actively will the good of the damned just as God does.

While this discussion may be philosophically satisfying, will it ultimately satisfy an atheist interlocutor?  Probably not.  The reason is because of their conception of happiness.  Without a proper understanding of what it means to be happy none of this makes sense.  To the modern mind, happiness is synonymous with contentment.  It is seen subjectively as a temporary feeling that is dependent on external circumstances.  That the word happy comes from the Old English word for “chance” is a perfect illustration of this.  Classically understood though, happiness is a translation of the Greek word eudaemonia which defines happiness as a condition of the soul that finds its ultimate fulfillment in the beatific vision.  The point is that this is a question that can only be answered satisfactorily from the inside.  Until one is convinced that having God means having everything and that not having God is nothing, it becomes little more than a red herring.  Best to turn the tables on them Socratically and ask them what they mean by “happy.”

The Consuming Fire

Who among us, at some point, has not been asked how a God Who is All-Good could ever send anyone to hell?  And who among us has not responded with the completely unsatisfying response that “God doesn’t send anyone to hell.  People choose by themselves to go to hell and God just gives them what they want”?  It is time that we reexamine this question and take a different approach; one that reveals more about the Goodness of God than merely explaining away a legitimate question.  This question truly needs to be reframed.  The question needs to be “how could a God who is All Good not send some people to hell?”

First of all, we must come to grips with the fact that some people will end up in hell.  Because of the emphasis in Vatican II on the positive aspects of our faith, certain theological schools have arisen which suggest a universalism in which all men are saved.  The truth however is that hell has more than just angelic residents.  While the Church has never engaged in negative “canonizations” declaring a particular person in hell, Sacred Scripture seems to imply (and most of the Fathers agree) that Judas ended up in hell.  In particular, Matthew (Mt. 26:24) declares that it would have been better never to have been born; which certainly would not be true if he were among the blessed.  Even if you do not accept that, the man who is the false prophet of Revelation (see Rev. 20:10) ends up in hell.  We also can make little sense of Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 if there is no actual separation between the two groups at the end of time.

While it is true that some people are in hell, this becomes little more than a theological exercise if I do not at the same time admit the real possibility that not only do I belong there, but there is also a real possibility that I will end up there as well.  This must be more than just a pious expression.  God sent His son on a rescue mission to break anyone out of prison that wants to come, but it will be dangerous and pious sentiments will not keep me from giving up.  The danger of an eternal Stockholm Syndrome confronts us all if we forget that we are still inside the prison walls.

Once we accept these two things as given, namely all of us deserve hell and some of us will get what we deserve, we can address the question as to why God cannot both be All-Good and there be no men in hell.  The first reason can be expressed as a syllogism.

Justice is an essential attribute of Goodness

God is all-Good

Therefore, God must also be just.


In other words, if some men deserve eternal punishment and God does not give it to them then God is not all-good because He lacks justice, which belongs to goodness.

Now, immediately I can see the objection arise in your mind—“but God is not only just, He is also merciful.”  To that I would respond that hell is not simply a result of God’s justice but the inclusion of some of mankind it is a sign of His mercy.  Yes, that is what I said—His mercy.

One of the other prevailing sentiment in today’s theological climate is the manner in which we can tend to tame God.  But the author of the Book of Hebrews says God is a consuming fire (Heb 12:29).  This image at the very least ought to terrify us.  What this means primarily is that God is so good that all that is lacking in goodness is consumed in His presence.  Anything that is sinful will be burned up.

For the righteous who die in a state of grace this means that all that is imperfect in them will be burned away prior to entering His presence.  On the other hand, those who are in a state of mortal sin cannot enter God’s presence because they would suffer the pain of annihilation.  To see this, we have to understand what mortal sin does to us.  It changes us into something else.  In fact it makes us into sin.  So then, rather than suffering the pain of annihilation that would come from being in the presence of God, the sinner is mercifully sent to hell (St Thomas cites Ecclesiastes 3:14 for why God will not annihilate anything He has made).  The reason why we say that the “sinner chooses hell” is because sin has so disfigured them and their wills have become so twisted that they could literally not stand to be in God’s presence.

Dante in his Inferno captures these two things points in a way that adds a great deal of clarity.  As Dante and Virgil descend the depths of hell it gets colder and colder (away from the fire of God) and in each ring of hell, the inhabitants have literally become their sins.


Now it is your turn.  Why do you think so many people struggle with balancing hell, God’s mercy and His justice?  Comment below…