Hell and mercy

During Holy Week, when many in the media enjoy running oddball stories about Christianity (although some journalists do write some very edifying pieces during that holy period, as they also do at Christmas), a headline appeared that Pope Francis had denied the existence of hell. Rather quickly the Vatican press office issued a statement explaining that the pope had been in dialogue with an Italian journalist, who does not take notes (somewhat odd, especially for a journalist), and had not denied this teaching of our faith.

Doing a search on the Vatican website, one can find a number of references to hell from the teachings of Pope Francis.

At the centennial Mass at Fatima on May 13, 2017, he said, “Our Lady foretold, and warned us about, a way of life that is godless and indeed profanes God in His creatures.  Such a life — frequently proposed and imposed — risks leading to hell.”

A few years earlier, on March 21, 2014, the pope gave an example of that way of life, when he spoke about Mafiosi. “Those absent but central figures: the men and women of the mafia. Please, change your lives, convert, stop, cease to do evil! We are praying for you. Convert, I ask it on my knees; it is for your own good. This life you are living now, it won’t bring you pleasure, it won’t give you joy, it won’t bring you happiness. The power, the money, that you possess now from so many dirty transactions, from so many mafia crimes, is blood-stained money, it is power-soaked in blood, and you cannot take it with you to the next life. Convert, there is still time, so that you don’t end up in hell. That is what awaits you if you continue on this path. You had a father and a mother: think of them. Cry a little and convert.”

Another example of a life which risks hell the pope described in his message for Lent in 2016, when he made reference to the parable Jesus told of the poor man, Lazarus, and the rich man, who ended up in hell. “The danger always remains that by a constant refusal to open the doors of their hearts to Christ Who knocks on them in the poor, the proud, rich and powerful will end up condemning themselves and plunging into the eternal abyss of solitude which is hell.” Here again, the pope didn’t write that they would just cease existing.

In a daily Mass on Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2016, the Holy Father spoke about how we are taught in “catechism — four things: death, judgment, hell or glory.” He then rhetorically mentioned how people might object, “Father, this frightens us.” The pope then responded to this straw man: “It is the truth. Because if you do not take care of your heart, [if] you always live far away from the Lord, perhaps there is the danger, the danger of continuing in this way, far away from the Lord for eternity. This is very bad!”

Repeatedly the pope has made reference to Jesus’ elevating the hurling of insults to be direct violations of the Fifth Commandment (Thou shalt not kill). At daily Mass on June 9, 2016, he said, “[Jesus] uses a prime example, ‘You have heard that it was said to the men of old: You shall not kill,’ it is one of the Commandments of love of neighbor, ‘but I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council, and whoever says “You fool!” shall be liable to the hell of fire.’”

In a daily homily on April 17, 2015, the pope spoke about the Apostles being punished by the Sanhedrin, but then set free. “What did the Apostles do? Did they shout at them? Did they say to them: you are bad, you are going to hell? No. [They] left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name [of Jesus].”

Repeatedly one can see in the pontiff’s teachings that he is not trying to get people to follow Christ out of fear of damnation, but out of a response to Christ’s merciful love for us sinners. This is a theme which the pope expounds upon much more so than about hell (but without denying hell).

On May 8, 2013 one can see an example of this approach in his daily homily, talking about St. Paul in Athens, where the Apostle found altars to various “gods.” Pope Francis preached, “He (Paul) did not say: Idolaters! You will go to hell. [Instead he] tried to reach their hearts. Paul is a pope, a builder of bridges. He did not want to become a builder of walls. This was Paul’s outlook in Athens: build a bridge to their hearts, and then take a step further and proclaim Jesus Christ.”

In this homily the pope acknowledged that at times condemnation must be proclaimed, but he noted how Jesus and Paul would dialogue with people for quite a while. The pontiff said, “Jesus listened to everyone and when He said a word of condemnation, it was at the end, when there was nothing left to do.”

Pope Francis in that homily said that the “condemn first” approach is ineffective and shows a lack of trust in God. He said that Paul had patience in Athens “because he was sure, sure of Jesus Christ. He had no doubt in his Lord. [W]hen the Church loses this apostolic courage, she becomes a lifeless Church. Orderly, perhaps — nice, very nice — but barren, because she has lost the courage to go to the outskirts, where there are so many people who are victims of idolatry, worldliness, and weak thought.”

In a general audience on Feb. 3, 2016, the pope said, “The Lord continually offers us His pardon and helps us to accept it and to be aware of our wrongdoing so as to free us of it. For God wants not our condemnation, but our Salvation. God does not want to condemn anyone! One of you might ask me: ‘But Father, didn’t Pilate deserve condemnation? Did God want that?’ No! God wanted to save Pilate as well as Judas, everyone! He, the Lord of Mercy, wants to save everyone! The difficulty is in allowing Him to enter our hearts. Every word of the prophets is a passionate appeal full of love which seeks our conversion.”

May the Holy Spirit guide us to accept this invitation to receive God’s mercy and then to be witnesses of it in a sinful world. 

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