August 27, 2017 (Edward J. Barr, Guest Contributor) – I heard it! I actually heard it during the homily! So, what did I hear? H E double hockey sticks! That’s right, I actually heard the homilist speak the word hell. Now he didn’t really expand upon the concept too extensively, yet he did mention it! And from my experience attending Mass during the last decade, that is a move in the right direction.
I was an average Catholic in the mid-2000s. Average in the way that while I never abandoned the faith, I would attend mass whenever I felt like it, and obeyed whatever rules I thought were best for me. Thankfully, a conversion of heart led me back to explore my faith with a vengeance. Yet what I found was confusing. I didn’t hear many of the topics preached that I heard as a youth. Having attended elementary school taught by wonderfully strict Sisters of Mercy, and having attended a Dominican University, I thought I remembered most of the teachings of the Catholic Church. Yet there was one doctrine that I have never heard since my return to an active faith life. Hell.
Now the Sisters of Mercy made certain that we were aware of the “four last things”. After death comes the judgment, and then either heaven or hell. We didn’t think much of them back at old St. Brendan’s, but we did know about them. Yet for over a decade I heard nothing from the pulpit concerning hell. For a time, I felt that maybe the Church had changed its teaching. Maybe they felt that the number three is more theologically perfect than the number four, and changed the teaching to the “three last things”, death, judgment, then heaven. This made sense. I have been to a good number of funerals, or in the modern parlance, end-of-life celebrations, and I have never heard anyone mention hell, or even the need to pray for the deceased. At both Catholic and non-Catholic services alike, the common mantra is that the deceased is in heaven, or at least “a better place”. Now I would call purgatory a better place, but I don’t think that is what most people mean by the phrase.
Next, I decided to check the Scriptures. Yup, Scripture speaks of Hell on numerous occasions, both in the Old and New Testament. There are too many to list, but this one kind of explains things – They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” 2 THESS 1:9. Yet why doesn’t anyone in the church speak about hell anymore? Have they changed the interpretation? Are they pretending that hell doesn’t exist? That all Scripture talk about hell is just symbolic? Kind of like many Christians ignoring the reality of John chapter 6?
Thankfully the teaching of the church is not changed regarding the “four last things” in general, and hell in particular. Paragraph 1035 of the Catechism pulls no punches concerning the reality of hell: “The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire.”617 The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.”
What has changed is the courage of the shepherds to speak the truth as taught by Jesus and his Church. The desire to “protect” the flock from topics that may upset them, or be controversial in some way, is misguided compassion. Pretending that the wolves are not stalking the sheep only can benefit the demonic predators that “prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls.” So, the next time I hear that four-letter word spoken from the pulpit, I’m going I cry out an enthusiastic, hell yeah!
Edward J Barr is an attorney, a Marine, an intelligence officer, and a university faculty member.