A group of American tourists was visiting Mount Vesuvius, the great volcano east of Naples. The volcano was quite active, and from the lookout they could see a seething mass of lava and steam.
At the sight of this, one of the Americans cried out “It is just like hell!”
An Italian standing nearby turned to her friend and said “Dio mio! These Americans—they’ve been everywhere!”
And speaking of Italians, Americans and hell, there’s the story of the famous Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli who was appearing in a production of the opera “Faust” in Boston. The stage had a trap door that sank down as his character descended to hell.
Unfortunately, it was a small trap door and Gigli was not a small man. Half way to hell, he got stuck and could descend no further. This prompted a member of the audience who’d had one too many glasses of champagne at the intermission to exclaim “Thank God—I’m safe at last. Hell is full!”
Those are lighthearted stories about a very serious subject, but today’s second reading and Gospel are actually rather grim: both talk about eternal fire, and in pretty blunt terms.
The timing is interesting. I read the paper on Saturday morning, before I looked at the readings for this Sunday, and I was annoyed—as I so often am—by an ill-informed opinion column, even though it made a few good points.
What got my goat was this statement: “Sunday morning pulpits are reserved for fire-and-brimstone sermonizing.”
When’s the last time you heard a fire-and-brimstone sermon? Some of you have never heard one. Others maybe remember one from a Redemptorist parish mission in 1951. If the Sunday morning pulpit is reserved for fire and brimstone, the reservation must have been made a long, long time ago—and never claimed.
I’d go so far as to say that we do not hear enough about hell, considering that it is a truth of our faith, and one with pretty serious implications for all of us.
The other day I was chatting with someone who more or less apologized for keeping God’s law because of fear of God. That’s a perfectly good reason to keep God’s law! It shouldn’t be the only reason, since the law of God is the path to peace and many other good things. But God should be feared—over and over again, Jesus, in all his gentleness and meekness, lets us know that.
The Letter of the Hebrews puts it plainly: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31).
I came across a story this week about a priest who came to Mass with a Band-Aid on his chin. He explained to the congregation that he’d been thinking about his homily and had cut himself. After Mass a rather outspoken parishioner suggested that next Sunday he should think about himself and cut the homily.
With that in mind, I think I can wrap this homily up rather briefly. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reaffirms the existence of hell and its eternity. While we speak of hell as “eternal fire,” the chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone we can have the life and happiness for which we were created and for which we long. (CCC 1035)
Is this just bad news? On the contrary: it’s good news. We have a right to know the consequences of our choices. The Catechism says that the teachings of Scripture and the Church on the subject of hell are a call to responsibility. These teachings invite us to make use of our freedom in view of our eternal destiny. (CCC 1036) In other words, Christ and his Church have let us know what’s at stake in the choices we make.
At the same time, the teachings of Jesus about hell are an urgent call to conversion. He says “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (CCC 1036)
No matter what nonsense we may have heard in the sixties, no matter what we think is “fair,” hell is real… and it is not full.
And we shouldn’t need fire and brimstone sermons to help us figure out what this means for us as Christians—no matter what the religious ‘experts’ at the Vancouver Sun think.