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For the Church to Pretend Hell Does Not Exist Is Uncharitable and Irresponsible (20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, 2023-08-20)

Father THOMAS IDERGARD SJ

Homily for 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time

2023-08-20

Year A: Isaiah 56:1, 6-7; Ps 67; Romans 11:13-15, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28

St. Eugenia Catholic Church, Stockholm (English Mass)

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,

Jesus had a specific mission to accomplish during his earthly lifetime: viz., to fulfill the Old Testament prophecies that the faith in the one, true and living God, would be brought to the whole world by the people of Israel. In our first reading from the Prophet Isaiah, we heard about this promise of God to build “a house of prayer for all the peoples”, confirmed by today’s responsorial psalm from the heart of the Old covenant’s liturgy, asking God to move all nations and peoples to worship him.

The death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus fulfilled Israel’s faith. To convey the fullness of God’s truth and grace to the whole world is since then the task of the Body of Christ in the world, i.e., the Church, with Christ as her head. According to the teachings of the Second Vatican Council this Church of Christ, founded by the Lord himself, is identical with the Catholic Church, equipped with the complete means for salvation that have remained intact, as the Lord has arranged them, through the ages. For us Catholics, this fact should fill us with a sense of a greater responsibility. Never arrogance or pride.

In today’s gospel, we heard that Jesus and the apostles had retreated to an area north of Galilee, populated by the Canaanites, a people that the Jews had defeated as they returned to the Holy Land from Egypt. A people whose pagan religion and immorality were frightening to Israel and, for very good reasons, heavily criticised, above all for the diabolical practice of child sacrifice.

Hence, the first reactions to the Canaanite woman. But when she, unexpectedly to the apostles and the first century readers, expresses a faith in Israel’s God present in Jesus Christ, we face something we find throughout the Bible and perhaps also experience in our own lives: True and persistent faith can be found where we least expect it. In the dialogue that follows, Jesus consciously directs the woman to commit herself deeper to her faith in him. We perhaps react to the harsh language, but with his divine consciousness Jesus has already seen her rooted trust in God. He helps her to confirm that faith and simultaneously gives the apostles a first clue about their and the Church’s true mission: to proclaim Israel’s God to all peoples.

Our second reading, from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, reminded us how our basic, human need for healing is rooted in the fact that we all, no matter who or where we are, share in the effects of the fall of the first humans, so that an inherited inclination to separate ourselves from God in this life, destine us to an eternal separation from God. And the reading assured us, as we heard, that God therefore wants “to show mercy to all mankind”. I.e., no matter our sins, not even our killing of God’s own Son, we are offered reconciliation, forgiveness and salvation.

This salvation, eternal communion with God, is a process starting here and now with our voluntary acceptance and reception of divine mercy. Such a reception is indeed perfected in the bodily resurrection, which crowns a relationship already at hand. Our salvation thus presupposes our assent, our active “yes”, here in time. Active, in the sense of a living faith, as the Council of Trent labels it; a faith visible in action; God’s will being done with and through us.

For exactly this purpose, God has given us a free will. God never forces himself on us, neither in, nor beyond time. If that would be the case, God would speak against himself and de-humanize us. Which God would say to a soul: “You rejected me your whole life in time, but now, beyond time, you will have to have me in eternity”? Not the God giving us our will and becoming man who sacrificed his life for us, in order for us to understand how to use our will. In other words: the one to be saved must also want to be saved. God’s salvific grace in and through Christ of course has the initiative. But we have to do our part; small, but also decisive.

And this is the explanation to the existence of hell, a dogma of the Catholic faith clearly taught by the Lord himself and in the Bible. Hell is a state of eternal existence where conscious creatures, angels and humans, are permanently cut-off from God’s love and truth, and fully aware of that God’s love and truth exist, as consequence of an active “no”. When we give in to the devil’s lies and follow in his footsteps in a “no” or an “I don’t care”, which ultimately is at great risk of becoming a “no”, and refuse to convert and to allow forgiveness restart our friendship with God, we too risk sharing in the full nature of rejection of Satan and the other fallen angels.

Hell is not somewhere we send others, but instead a reminder of a possible, individual reality, a consequence of a freely chosen lack of truth and love, for us to do everything in our power to avoid – and to help others to avoid. The Church or a single pastor do not need to constantly talk about hell. There were certainly times when this was a fact. But today we risk the exact opposite if we want the Church also to be a provider of temporal and quick feelgood. To avoid talking about hell at all, or to pretend it does not exist, even with the best intentions behind it, in fact is both uncharitable and irresponsible.

But as long as we are in this life in space and time, we can continually adjust our choices as we increasingly, helped and guided by God’s abundantly given grace, change our whole mindset, i.e., as we convert and stepwise decrease our sinful choices, and increase our choices expressing God’s will. This is truly good news of hope, indeed!

As baptized, we are called to make good choices for ourselves and others, and therethrough also enable others to discover the Gospel and to say their “yes” to it. In the solid hope that death does not have the last word, and that an eternal separation from the Good, the Truth and the Beauty, i.e., God, existence, love and joy himself, can be avoided with a living faith in Christ.

So, why not for this forthcoming week make sure to make at least one conversation with, or to do something for, a person near you, be it a family member, a friend, or a colleague, testifying to your faith and hope in Christ? Trusting that God, as the Lord of the harvest, may allow the seed you plant to grow and bear fruit for eternal life. In the way that God finds best – and when God finds it best. Which always is the best. Amen.

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