Sunday, August 22, 2010

Good Things We Experience Because Hell Exists

(Twenty-first Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on August 22, 2010 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R. I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Luke 13: 22-30.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-first Sunday 2010]

I passed a pickup truck on the highway the other day that had a bumper sticker on it with a cartoon image of the devil (complete with horns, tail and pitchfork, of course!)—and next to the image were written the words, “I’ve been to hell and back.”

Since I was thinking at the time about what my topic would be for this week’s homily, I took that as a sign of what I should preach on—a sign from above, incidentally, not a sign from below!

First of all let me say that we know with absolute certitude that what that bumper sticker said isn’t true! It can’t be. Because anyone who goes to hell never comes back!

‘Tickets’ to hell are always ‘one way tickets’; they’re never ‘round trip’!

The glossary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines hell as (and here I quote): “The state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed, reserved for those who refuse by their own free choice to believe and be converted from sin, even to the end of their lives.”

Notice that the Catechism says that hell involves a “definitive self-exclusion” from communion with God. That means no one ends up in hell by accident! Hell is chosen freely by those who freely choose to commit mortal sins and who also freely choose never to repent of those sins.

And it’s “definitive”—which means final.

Now you might say, “Fr. Ray, why talk about hell this morning? It’s a very depressing subject!”

Well, on the one hand, it is. But on the other hand, it needs to be addressed directly at least every once in awhile in homilies and sermons, simply because our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ did it so often himself! In fact, Jesus spoke of hell (sometimes using terms like ‘Gehenna’) more than anyone else in the New Testament.

So obviously he thought it was pretty important!

He alludes to it, for example, in today’s gospel text from Luke 13, after someone says to him, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?”

He responds, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough. After the master of the house has arisen and locked the door, then you will stand outside knocking and saying, ‘Lord, open the door for us.’ He will say to you in reply, ‘I do not know where you are from.’ And you will say, ‘We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.’ Then he will say to you, ‘I do not know where you are from. Depart from me, all you evildoers!’”

Now, for reasons that should be obvious, we tend to see the existence of hell in purely negative terms. But I submit to you today that there are actually some blessings that we experience as human beings because hell exists! Now please do not misunderstand me here, I’m not saying that hell is good in and of itself; I’m simply saying that because there is a hell there are certain good things—certain blessings—that we experience in our lives that we would not experience if hell did not exist.

For example, the gift of freedom! Do you realize that if hell does not exist, then human freedom is just an illusion! Think about it—if I’m truly free, that means I must be capable of choosing for God or against God in my earthly life. If God is going to force me into heaven at the end of my earthly existence against my will, then I’m not really free! I’m just a pawn in a divine chess game—nothing more.

Secondly, if there is no hell, then true justice doesn’t exist either! If everyone gets heaven automatically when their time on earth is finished, then people who live like Adolf Hitler and never repent get the same reward that people like Blessed Mother Teresa get.

If God is a just God as well as a merciful God, then hell must be a reality.

Something else to consider: If hell does not exist, then ultimately life has no meaning or purpose. In response to the question, “Why did God make me?” the Baltimore Catechism said, “God made me to know him, to love him and to serve him in this life, and to be happy with him forever in the next.” Of course, being happy with God in the next life was understood to be contingent on whether we made the effort to know, love and serve the Lord here on earth. So it was clear from that answer in the Baltimore Catechism that life on earth has purpose and meaning. But if heaven is automatic for everyone—no questions asked—then it doesn’t matter what happens here on earth! Life here is meaningless.

This leads logically to the next point: If there is no hell, there’s no compelling reason to do good and avoid evil. So do whatever you want—or perhaps I should say, ‘whatever you can get away with’—since heaven will be yours in the end, whether you live like the greatest saint or the worst sinner.

And how about this one, which cuts to the very heart of our faith?—If hell does not exist, then Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, did nothing for us on the cross. Absolutely nothing! His passion and death were a total and complete waste of time! The teaching of Christianity has always been that Jesus died on Good Friday and rose from the grave on Easter Sunday to save us from eternal death (which, of course, is just another way of saying ‘hell’). But if there is no hell, then Jesus saved us from nothing! I can’t think of a bigger waste of time than that.

Let me close this morning by saying this: What’s really good is not that hell exists (although, as I hopefully have made clear in this homily, there are a number of good things that we experience because it exists). WHAT'S REALLY GOOD IS THAT JESUS HAS SAVED US FROM HELL! That means it’s possible for EVERYONE to avoid it by the Lord’s saving grace—even if they’re on the road to hell at this moment!

So yes, it’s scary even to think about eternal damnation (as it should be!); but the bottom line is that if we stay close to Jesus always—if we make our relationship with him our number one priority; if we’re faithful to Mass; if we read and try to live the Scriptures; if we examine our conscience honestly every day and get to Confession whenever we realize we’ve committed a mortal sin; if we seek to love God above all things and our neighbor as ourself—then we really have nothing at all to worry about.

Yes, we will get a one way ticket at the end of our earthly life, but that ticket will take us UP, not down!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

How To Deal With Our Many ‘Love Gaps’

(Assumption 2010: This homily was given on August 15, 2010 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Luke 1: 39-46.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Assumption 2010]

In this life, we all need more love than we receive from other people. That’s because we live our lives here on earth in the company of imperfect human beings, who love us sincerely, but also imperfectly. And so, within each of us there is what you might call a ‘love gap’: this is the gap between the love we need from others and the love we end up receiving from them. Actually, there are MANY love gaps inside of each of us—gaps which correspond to the many different people with whom we share our lives.

For example, if you are a married person, then you definitely have a love gap inside of you with respect to your spouse. Even if you have a good, stable, happy marriage—even if you love each other deeply as husband and wife— the fact is your spouse does not love you with a perfect love (nor do you love him or her in that way)—which really should come as no surprise, since both of you are sinners! Sinners, by definition, are imperfect!

Every teenage boy in this church right now has a love gap in his relationship with his parents. The same is true of every teenage girl. And every parent has a love gap with respect to each of his or her children, no matter what age they happen to be.

Think of a person in your life—any person in your life—and realize that you have a love gap of some size within you right now with respect to that particular individual.

Now I mention this today because this is one of the biggest reasons why we sin against one another so frequently! We long to experience a love from other people that’s perfect: perfectly selfless, perfectly pure, perfectly forgiving, perfectly patient, perfectly self-sacrificial—but what we actually get is something less than that (sometimes something MUCH less than that).

Spouses don’t receive perfect love from one another and so they fight (and may even cheat on one another, physically or emotionally). Teens don’t receive perfect love from their parents and so they rebel. Co-workers in similar situations harbor grudges; siblings don’t speak to one another for years—the list goes on and on.

Mary, our Blessed Mother, of course, was different—a lot different. By the grace of God—and by the free assent of her will in every circumstance of her life—she never sinned.

Not even once! And as a reward for her life of perfect faithfulness as the Mother of God, she was taken up to heaven—body AND soul—when her time on earth was finished. That’s the event we commemorate in the Church today on this Feast of the Assumption.

Now this occurrence in Mary’s life is important for us because it’s actually a foreshadowing of what will happen to the rest of the human race at the end of time. Remember, when the rest of us die our souls are separated from our bodies. Our souls then go either to heaven, hell or purgatory. (If they go to purgatory, they enter heaven when their final purification is completed.)

It’s only AT THE END OF TIME that our bodies will be raised up and reunited with our souls. At that point we will go—body and soul—either to heaven or hell for all eternity. (Once there are no more souls who need purgatory, it will cease to exist.)

In the preface of this Mass it says the following: “Today the virgin Mother of God was taken up into heaven to be the beginning and the pattern of the Church in its perfection.” In this sense, my brothers and sisters, “we” are the Church. Mary is called our “pattern,” because what happened to her at the end of her life—her entry into heaven, body AND soul—will happen to all faithful disciples of Jesus at the end of the world.

Now what’s interesting about Mary for the purposes of this homily is the fact that she remained sinless in spite of the fact that she received imperfect love from everyone in her life, with the exception of her divine Son! Even Joseph—as holy as he was—wasn’t perfect, so there was still a ‘love gap’ present in our Lady’s relationship with him (though, to be sure, it was probably a very small one!).

Someone obviously filled these ‘love gaps’ in our Blessed Mother’s heart, and that Someone was none other than God himself. The deep, intense bond that our Lady had with the Lord comes through beautifully in her Magnificat—which we heard in today’s gospel text from Luke 1: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant . . . the Almighty has done great things for me and holy is his Name!”

Now there’s a woman who knows God! There’s a woman who has a deep, profound, personal relationship with her Lord!

The lesson for us here is simple: Only God can fill the love gaps within us, as only God could fill the love gaps in the life of our Blessed Mother. No one here on earth is capable of doing the job, because no one here on earth loves perfectly.

This is why we need to make our relationship with God the most important relationship in our life! This is why we need to make Mass our top priority every weekend, and pray every single day.

If we don’t do those things, the love gaps in our heart will get the better of us and lead us to sin. Guaranteed!

Let me now suggest to you a great prayer. It will help you to seek God’s help in dealing with the love gaps in your life. You can say this prayer in a general sense, or you can say it with a particular person in mind. I came across it a few weeks ago in a book by Mother Nadine Brown, a great spiritual writer who spoke here at St. Pius this past May. For lack of a better title, you could call this “The Bridge Prayer”. It consists of one simple sentence and is very easy to remember. It goes like this: “Lord, bridge the gap in me between the love I received and the love I needed.”

“Lord, bridge the gap in me between the love I received from my parents, and the love I needed from them.”

“Lord, bridge the gap in me between the love I received from my son, and the love I needed from him.”

“Lord, bridge the gap in me between the love I received from my friend, and the love I needed from her.”

I have come across many prayers in my 25 years of priestly ministry, but that particular prayer is, without a doubt, one of the most powerful—and one of the most necessary! I recommend saying it often—even daily if you feel prompted to.

Because every day we receive less love than we actually need! In fact on most days we probably receive a lot less love than we actually need from others.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us, that we will follow your example and allow the Lord, by his saving grace, to bridge the gaps—the many love gaps—which are present in our hearts. Amen.