When nothing else works, people will sometimes call a priest. Once these parents were concerned because their son had fallen into a self-destructive lifestyle. Much of his time was spent in drinking and pornography. He was just not motivated to do anything with his life.
After some small talk the priest asked him, "Do you believe in God?"
The young man responded, "Yes, Father, I do believe in God."
So the priest continued, "Don't you know that you will have to stand before God and he will review your whole life?"
"Yes," he said, "But God will accept me no matter what I do."
The young man had gone thru twelve years of Catholic schools. He had some vague ideas about people sitting around in heaven, but he had never considered the possibility of not getting there. Heaven just seemed automatic. Even tho he had heard about hell he thought it could only happen to some famous evil person like Hitler or Lenin. After all, he reasoned, "I haven't done anything so bad. I haven't hurt anybody."
Now, the sad part of this was not just that this young man had missed one of Jesus' teachings, but in the process he did not grasp the seriousness of this life. The tremendous importance, really the eternal importance, of each and every decision we make. This life is the one chance we have. It might be nice to think, for example, we will have a whole series of reincarnations where we can do better, but that is not what Jesus teaches.
Jesus has no time for wishful thinking. He tried to wake people up, not lull them asleep. Jesus talked to people about heaven, but he never said to anyone, "here's a free pass; now go ahead and do whatever you want." In today's Gospel Jesus makes it crystal clear that besides the beautiful hope of heaven there is also the terrible reality of hell. That doesn't mean you or I can say this person is destined for heaven and another for hell. Leave it to God to sort those things out. Jesus says He will send his angels one day to separate the good grain from useless plants. The wheat, the plants that produce something edible, will be taken into heaven. The weeds--the plants that choke others--will have a different fate. (see Mt 13:30) In some ways it is so fearful I shrink from saying it. Yet the words are not mine, but from Jesus' own lips, "they will throw them into the fiery furnace where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth."
I'll be honest with you. I do not like talking about hell. I do not even like thinking about it. I wish that I could tell you it is just something they made up in the Middle Ages to scare people and that we don't need to worry about it today. But the doctrine of hell did not begin in the Middle Ages. It was taught by Jesus himself. Today's Gospel is just one example. Jesus alerts us about the danger of hell and he does so in the most vivid language. He speaks about a fire which cannot be put out.
Eternal fire is an awfully frightening image, but Jesus' followers did not try to brush it aside. St. Paul, for example, mentions specific sins which keep a person out of heaven. The Catechism does not downplay the doctrine of hell. It says, "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." (#1033). The Catechism defines hell as the "state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed."
The key word here is obviously "self-exclusion." Sometimes people worry they are going to hell and there is nothing they can do about it. Hell is self-exclusion. It depends on our own choice. St. Paul mentions certain ones who cannot enter heaven: fornicators (that is, sex before marriage), adulterers, practicing homosexuals, drunkards and robbers. (I Cor 6:10) But while St. Paul gives a strong warning, he also makes it clear in the very next verse that it is possible for any of those people to repent. "Such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus."
What we are talking about here is grace. God's free gift. The fact someone has indulged in self-destructive behavior does not necessarily mean they are destroyed. If we simply turn to God, he can pull us from the path of destruction, set us on the road to life. That is what happened to the young man I told you about at the beginning. It wasn't that he went on to become a monk or that he never had any more problems. But he did do something that day: he made a heart felt prayer.
Now I know even that the thought of praying seems hard for some people. I have had people tell me, "Father, I do not know what to do. I don't know how to pray." I have to tell them in all frankness, "neither do I."
St. Paul says as much in today's reading from Romans, "The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought."
An Italian journalist asked Pope John Paul how he prays. The Holy Father responded that "the pope prays as the Holy Spirit allows him to pray." (see Crossing the Threshold of Hope). Then he went on to cite Romans 8:26, "The Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings." In other words, when we pray it is the Holy Spirit who prays in us.
Franciscan father Michael Scanlan tells about being in the chapel with the pope during morning meditation. At first he thought something was wrong. There were sounds coming from the Holy Father like muffled groans. Then Fr. Scanlan realized he was actually praying with the unutterable groans that St. Paul refers to.
The Mass has some of that. Not that we make physical groaning sounds--that would be very distracting to our neighbor. But we know that our neighbor might be bringing tremendous inner burdens - as do you and do I. But we lay them at Jesus feet and in the Spirit he lifts us to the Father.
When we draw near to Jesus we have nothing to fear. Nothing in ourselves, in the world outside of us or the world to come. As one song puts it, "In him we find a dwelling place secure."
See also: An Eternally Unbridgeable Chasm
The Fiery Furnace
Jesus Teaching Concerning Heaven
Some Good News on Teen Pregnancy and Abortion
Hitler's Pope: Comic Book Approach to Church History
He Approached the Victim: "It's much more likely one of your relatives will lose his life by surgical abortion than by heart attack."
Germaine Greer on Birth Control
Human Cloning: A Catholic Perspective (How the Unthinkable Became Inevitable)