Apologize and Don't Be Sorry!

A site dedicated to thinking through the common objections to the Catholic Faith as well as questions of a general religious nature.

Location: Prague, Oklahoma, United States

Just your basic 21st century priest trying to bring the Gospel to everyone who will give it a fair hearing.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Dear Father:
What is the Church’s teaching on what can lead to eternal damnation, hell? Most practicing Catholics if not all, when they die, usually have a Mass of Christian burial. Also, many of these Catholics have Masses and prayers offered for them after death. Does this imply that all these Catholics have been spared from eternal damnation, if not, are these prayers wasted since once in hell there is no redemption?
Salvador Borrego
St. Phillip Neri Church, Oklahoma City, OK

In the Gospel of St. Matthew we read, "Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few (Matthew 7:13-14)." This is only one example of the many times where Christ speaks of our eternal destiny. There are only two outcomes of this life: eternal life or eternal death, a way of destruction. While the outcome is clear for those who follow or reject Christ, we need to know what makes the road narrow.
The Church teaches that one guilty of committing mortal sin and unrepentant of that sin receive the punishment of Hell. This means going to Hell is our choice and not some form of malicious predestination by God. Because we have been given, not only the fullness of Truth as revealed by Christ and which is taught by the Church, but also the freedom of the sons of God through Baptism, we have a profound responsibility to live by the way of Christ. Furthermore, the punishment of Hell is eternal. In our life on earth, it is possible for us to change and to return to Christ. We live immersed in the swirling tides of time itself. At the moment of death, the time for choosing Christ ends. We move into the realms of eternity, where there is no time. The person we are as we cross that spiritual line of demarcation is the person we are for all of eternity. It follows then that those who live a life where even in one aspect was turned from Christ, they are not fit for Heaven. It also suggests that God treats us with great mercy for He gives us time to learn and to assent to His way (CCC #1033-1037).
This insistence on the reality and the eternity of Hell speaks to the profound depth of human actions. Because we have been given a free will, we can freely choose to love God and serve Him or to turn from Him. It further shows that the choices we make, make us into the people we are. The virtues and goodness of virtuous people radiate from them because these good choices have become "second nature" to them; they will them without having to fight their fallen tendencies as strongly. The viciousness taints and clouds those who surrender to it so much so that we can often sense that something is off.
Your second question raises some interesting issues. In the history of the Church, I can find only one person (or persons) whom the Church teaches are definitely in Hell. This is Satan and His fallen angels. Otherwise, no one else has made the list, not even Judas. It would seem then that we should hold out hope that our loved ones are in Heaven, but at the same time, remember that even those who are fit for Heaven, may have some purification to undergo before entering that blessed state.
Through the Funeral Mass and Christian burial, the Church re-states her firm hope in the Resurrection of the Dead and the firm hope that our loved one is at rest in Heaven. But to hope for something doesn’t make it so. Certainly, funeral homilies should avoid saying that someone is definitely in Hell or in Heaven because quite frankly, it’s God’s task to judge the living and the dead, not ours. Instead we should be encouraged to pray for the dead and to remember them through having the Holy Mass said for the repose of their souls.
If the person in question were in Hell, the prayers and sacrifices wouldn’t be wasted, as they go to build up the Body of Christ, the Church. The Catechism puts it this way: "In this solidarity with all men, living or dead, which is founded on the communion of saints, the least of our acts done in charity redounds to the profit of all. Every sin harms this communion (CCC# 953)." Even if our prayers and sacrifices don’t liberate another from the suffering of Hell, it can help to strengthen the Body of Christ as a whole. We should also take note that our sins have the opposite effect. Our actions are not isolated moments; they reach out to all our brothers and sisters, both in this world and in the world to come.

Dear Fr. Tharp,
Could you please explain Fridays as a day of Penance? What should we be doing?
Jim H.
Hometown Withheld

The question of penitential practice appears in the Gospels in a form of a conflict between the disciples of John the Baptist and the Pharisees on one side and the Lord’s disciples on the other. While His disciples should not fast while the Lord is with them, our Lord does note that "the days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast" (Mt. 9:15, Mk. 2:18-20; Lk. 5:33-35). In another place, the Lord corrects the means by which the disciples will fast rather than removing fasting from their religious practice (Mt. 6:16-18). Hence, this brief aside suggests that Our Lord intended penance and mortification to be part of our life in Him.

On the positive side, our desire for mortification comes from a profound love for the Lord Jesus Christ. Through our mortifications we are made more like Him who suffered for us. On the negative side, we recognize that not everything we do is in conformity with the will of God. We desire to make amends for the wrongs we have committed and to free ourselves from the slavery of sin. We long to put to death in ourselves those things which draw us back to sin. We achieve this by denying ourselves those things which either contribute to the sin or leave us too attached to the material creation that surrounds us. While we, as Catholics, would affirm that creation is good, we must remind ourselves that this life is fading away and that we do not live for this world alone.
Penance, then, is part and parcel of being a Christian. It is not an extra thing done or special action reserved for the particularly pious. As the Code of Canon Law directs, "All Christ’s faithful are obliged by divine law, each in his or her own way, to do penance" (canon 1249). Furthermore, our penance occurs not only private but corporately since we belong to one Body, the Body of Christ. The previously quoted canon goes on to say, "However, so that all may be joined together in a certain common practice of penance, days of penance are prescribed." It follows then that to be a faithful Catholic, there is a communion of Faith, of Worship in the Sacraments, and of Life in the forms of Morality and Penance.

Fridays naturally draw our minds to penance because it is the day of Our Lord’s Passion. The Code of Canon Law enshrines this ancient practice when it states "The days and times of penance for the universal Church are each Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent" (canon 1250). The expectation is stated clearly. Catholics are to practice some form of penance on all Fridays and on all the days of Lent, essentially from Ash Wednesday to Good Friday. As Sundays are like a "mini-Easter," one could be excused from penance on those days (cf. Canon 1251).

In a general sense, penance comes in many forms: prayer, works of piety , acts of self-denial, being more faithful to one’s obligations, and of course, fasting and abstinence. The obligation to abstain from meat on Fridays was not lifted in the new Code. Rather, it modified the obligation so that if a Bishops’ Conference wanted to substitute some other food they could (cf. Canon 1251). The obligation to abstain from meat binds all Catholics from the age of fourteen, the obligation to fast from the age of eighteen until the age of sixty. After that, it is up to the individual person to participate but it is not specifically obligatory. Our own Bishops’ Conference strongly recommends us to this practice of abstinence from meat on Friday as well as encouraging us to other forms of penance as well.

I would say then that the most basic Friday penance should be abstinence from meat and then add something that applies to your particular spiritual need. So if you have been meaning to beef up your spiritual reading, fast from television on Fridays and use the time for spiritual reading. In the end, these Friday observances are really for our benefit. Isn’t it funny that many people will climb over broken glass to get the latest fad diet book so that they can have a trim and lean body, but they won’t take the same effort to grow strong in the Lord?

The Eucharist is both the source of ecclesial unity and its greatest manifestation. The Eucharist is an epiphany of communion. For this reason the Church sets conditions for full participation in the celebration of the Eucharist. These various limitations ought to make us ever more conscious of the demands made by the communion which Jesus asks of us. It is a hierarchical communion, based on the awareness of a variety of roles and ministries, as is seen by the reference to the Pope and the Diocesan Bishop in the Eucharistic Prayer. It is a fraternal communion, cultivated by a "spirituality of communion" which fosters reciprocal openness, affection, understanding and forgiveness.
John Paul II, Mane Nobiscum Domine #21

In my childhood, on Saturday mornings, as a bumper between shows, one network would show educational vignettes called "School House Rock." In the segment on how to multiply by 3's, the first line we heard was "Man and woman have a little baby / yes, they did / they have three in their family / it’s a magic number." Now, I don’t think it was the intention of the creators to a.) make a pro- or anti- traditional family statement or b.) promote a Trinitarian vision of the world. However, they did hit on a basic fact of existence. Alone, we are diminished; gathered together we discover the magic, the supernatural dimensions, of being human.

Beginning from its Latin roots, communion is union with another. It a particular type of oneness. Many things are one merely because of what they are. So, all cats are animals or all cars are machines. That is unity. Communion goes one step further. Communion implies that those who are in union want to be in that union and have taken some action to make this union explicit. You don’t have to ask your cat, "Do you want to be in union with other animals?" It simply is. Compare this to when someone gets married, even if only according to the natural law. There is a public acknowledgment that this union has begun. Communion lends a perfection to union, grounding union upon knowledge and the act of the will. Communion is a gift and an act of giving.

Our Catholic Faith revolves around communion. Each Sunday, most of us, if not of all of us, process forward to receive Holy Communion. The great majority of Catholics live out the Faith in one of the two sacraments based in communion, Marriage or Holy Orders. Our life in Christ begins when we are baptized thus entering into union with Christ and His Church. To be in Christ, therefore, is both receiving the gift of union from Christ and returning that gift to Christ in order to perfect the union between myself, God, and my neighbor. The Church transcends all we know of union for it is a union of condescension. In the previous examples given, the parties involved were all creatures, limited and contingent. The Church rests upon communion given by one who is infinitely greater. We should stand with jaws agape at this truth. God has deigned to treat that which is closer to oblivion as though it were His equal! Being a member of the Body means that neutrality and indifference to the gifts and responsibilities of communion are most offensive to the very best which God has embedded in our souls.

It should be clearer now why we don’t just admit anyone to Holy Eucharist. For Catholics, there is a presumption that you are in fact practicing what you proclaim. This means that those who are in the state of mortal sin are not to receive Holy Communion until the reception of Sacramental Confession. Objectively speaking, mortal sin kills the life of Grace in us and represents our departure from communion with God. Also, Catholics who are divorced and remarried without having received an annulment for any previous marriage are not to receive the Holy Eucharist.

For our non-Catholic Christian brethren, we certainly recognize that a degree of communion exists due to common belief in Christ and the sacrament of Baptism. At the same moment, sadly, we have to point to real divisions between our fellow Christians. It is these divisions which prevents the sharing of Holy Communion. Each of these divisions represents a "no" to the totality of what the Church professes. It would run counter to the very nature of the Blessed Sacrament as the sacrament of unity to admit those who are in fact not in complete union. Under exceptional circumstances, a non-Catholic Christian may be admitted to Holy Communion but only if the non-Catholic is baptized, asks of their own accord, professes the same Faith as the Church concerning the Most Holy Eucharist, and is without the ministry of their own minister (Code of Canon Law #844).

Groucho Marx once quipped that he didn’t want to belong to any club that will accept him as a member. The membership of any organization says volumes about its direction and purposes. When we look at the Church, we should see the ragged, world-weary, storm-tossed remnant who longs to find their home. Amongst the models of sanctity, the success stories, so to speak, the heart-sick, wounded in sin and suffering sin’s effects, gather to be healed. The Holy Eucharist is a medicine of salvation because it brings us to the true Physician of our souls. As ignoring our doctor’s instructions means our condition’s worsening, so not combating sin and striving to be perfect means we undermine the work of Christ who desires us to have life abundantly, life everlasting.