15 Nov 2020

St Mary’s Basilica, Sydney, 15 November 2020

One of my Dominican brothers, long since gone to God, wasn’t great at picking his audience or occasion. He was legendary for preaching on contraception in nursing homes. He used also to promise to “give ‘em hell” at Christmas, as he thought (rather uncharitably), that it was the likely destination for those who attended only annually! Well, I can promise you I won’t be preaching about hell this Christmas…

Nonetheless, in this November ‘month of the dead’, I’ve reflected with you on death, heaven and purgatory.[1] This week we look fair and square at hell, that state described in our Gospel parable as being “thrown into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and grinding of teeth” (Mt 25:14-30). Our epistle about the Day of the Lord (1Thess 5:1-6) and our Gospel about the final accounting, invite our reflection on what makes us fit for heaven or for hell.

In Jesus’ day a talent was the equivalent of 16 years’ salary for a labourer.[2] To receive five talents or even two was to be extraordinarily graced; even one was no small gift. When God created man in His own image, sharing His powers of intellect and freedom, creativity and love, He was investing in us big-time. But it was a cosmic gamble: for we can do noble things with our freedom, or else wreak hatred and destruction.

The Parable of the Talents, Stained glass executed by Clayton & Bell, London, for St Edith’s Church, Bishop Wilton

In today’s parable most recognise the gift for what it is and take the path of appreciation and aspiration. When the Master returns for the great accounting, they thank Him for the talents, recount the good they’ve done with them, and are rewarded with heaven. But one section of humanity respond in a passive-aggressive way, describing talents as a burden and taking the way of fear, apathy and resistance, to their own destruction.

Details from Jan Van Eyck, The Last Judgment, ca. 1440–1441 and Hieronymous Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, ca. 1490-1500. Wikimedia Commons.

Many people are uncomfortable with talk of hell. These days preachers rarely broach the subject. Fair enough: we should be uncomfortable with the thought of hell – it is a terrible fate, to be avoided at all costs – and we are right to concentrate on heaven. Some artists and hellfire preachers got rather too excited about the gothic horrors of hell, leading others to write the whole thing off as myth invented to frighten people into compliance.

Problem is: the Biblical authors spoke repeatedly of hell,[3] Jesus did too,[4] especially in that Gospel of Matthew we’ve been following all year,[5] and Catholic tradition is equally convinced.[6] Well, some respond, it’s logically possible to go to hell, but hopefully there’s no-one at home. The merciful God, who is the premise of our faith in heaven and purgatory, wants no one to be separated from Him forever.

One traditional answer to this paradox has been to say that if salvation is testimony to God’s mercy, damnation is testimony to His justice. The blood of innocents cries out for vengeance against the likes of Cain, Judas, Hitler and Stalin. Some guys are just so wicked that it would be unjust to everyone else – and even to them – to reward them with eternal bliss. But this answer seems to suggest there are two gods, or one with a split personality, soft and loving enough to receive most into heaven, but hard and demanding enough to consign some to hell. How are we to reconcile these?

Well, for the past two Sundays we’ve considered together the merciful doctrines of heaven and of purgatory. Today let me dare propose ‘the merciful doctrine of hell’. What, you say, how could he think of hell as a mercy?!

Well, consider the alternatives. God could have set things up so heaven is inevitable, discounting any good or evil we’ve done in this life and requiring everyone to join Him in heaven. But when God created us, He entrusted us with an extraordinary talent: freedom. He will not force us to love Him, join Him, obey Him. That would be to make us puppets, slaves or pets, and be no love at all. It would be like Henry Ford saying you can have any colour of car you like, as long as it’s black. God does everything He can, short of denying our dignity and freedom, to draw us to Himself. But in the end, like a parent anxious for their child leaving home, He loves us enough to treat us as free agents. “We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him,” says the Catechism (CCC 1033). If we freely choose not to love him, it will break the Sacred Heart, but our choice is respected.

©Smith Catholic Art

In that case, wouldn’t it be better if God annihilated the damned, put them out of their misery? Euthanasia of the soul might attract some in culture that increasing condones euthanasia of the body. But God created us not just free like Himself, but also immortal, with souls promised continued existence and bodies promised resurrection. A merciful God keeps His promises; if He didn’t, we couldn’t rely on any of His promises, nor predict or plan, commit or choose. If He gives us the talent of immortality, it’s ours to invest how we will, but He will never take it away. He loves us too much to say, “Do as I want or I’ll scrub you out!”

My thought for you today, then, is that divine love requires that we neither be forced to choose heaven nor be annihilated if we don’t. Which leaves us with only one other possibility: that we are free, in fact, to choose hell. Hell, as the Catechism observes, is “a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself” (CCC 1861). This is what Pope Benedict XVI meant when he spoke of “the terrifying thought” that some people “totally destroy their desire for truth and readiness to love” so that all is “beyond remedy and the destruction of good irrevocable”.[7] Hell is thus not so much a punishment by the divine judge as it is “definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the saints” which God permits with heavy heart out of loving respect for us.[8]

Likewise Pope Francis, who seems to speak about the devil and his realm every other week and far more than his two predecessors put together. He warns against explaining evil away, as if it were just myth or bad human structures. Evil, he insists, is very real and exists precisely in angelic and human persons freely choosing to act against God’s will.[9] We are shaping our eternity right now, in our daily choices and, generally speaking, people die as they have lived. In his recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, the Holy Father names evil 16 times, including ‘the forces of evil’, ‘the abyss of evil’ and the ‘personal evil’ at work in hearts and so destructive of fraternity.[10] He’s all too aware of evil in the world, also, in those greater-than-human evils such as Auschwitz and Hiroshima, both premonitions of hell.

As so, as we come to the end of our liturgical year – and what a year it’s been – we face a stark choice. We can, like the damned servant, renounce God’s gifts and resist His every attempt to save us. We can make ourselves impervious to grace and forgiveness, turning not only justice against us, but mercy also. We should be under no illusion about the consequences: the frustration and emptiness of eternal separation from God.[11] Much better, then, to take our talents of freedom, immortality and more, with them make our bit of the world a better place, and ready ourselves for the heavenly banquet.


Before Genuflecting

Because current circumstances continue to impede attendance at Mass and reception of Holy Communion, I invite those who are joining us by live-streaming to ask God that by spiritual communion you might receive the graces of sacramental communion. Offer this Mass and your hunger for the Eucharist for the safety of your loved ones, of yourselves and of our world.

[1]    Homily for the Solemnity of All Saints, St Mary’s Basilica Sydney, 1 November 2020 https://www.sydneycatholic.org/homilies/2020/homily-for-the-mass-of-the-solemnity-of-all-saints/; Homily for the 32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A, St Mary’s Basilica Sydney, 8 November 2020 https://www.sydneycatholic.org/homilies/2020/homily-for-the-mass-for-32rd-sunday-of-ordinary-time-year-a/

[2]     “Talents”, The New Interpreters’ Dictionary of the Bible, S-Z, Vol. 5 ((Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009)

[3]     E.g. Num 16:33; Isa 5:14; 14:9; 38:18; 47:14; 66:24; Jer 7:31; Ezek 18:4; 28:8; 31:14,17; Job 7:9; 10:21-2; 38:17; Ps 86:13; 139:8; 145:20; Prov 9:18; 15:11,24; 23:14; 27:20; Eccles 9:5,10; Dan 12:2; Acts 2:27,31; 4:12; Rom 6:23; 2Thess 1:8-9; Heb 9:27; 10:26-31; 2Pet 2:4,17; 3:9; Jas 3:6; Jude 1:7,12-3; Rev 1:18; 2:11; 14:10-11; 19:20; 20:1-15; 21:9.

[4]     E.g. Mk 9:43-48; Lk 3:17; 10:15; 12:5; 16:19-31; Jn 3:16-18,36; 5:28-9.

[5]     E.g. Mt 3:12; 5:22,29-30; 7:13-14,21-23; 8:12; 9:45; 10:28; 11:23; 13:41-2,50; 16:18; 18:8-9; 23:15,33; 24:51; 25:31-46.

[6]    St Simplicius, Cuperem quidem (476); Pseudo-Gelasius, Epist. 42 De recipiendis et non recipiendis libris (495); Synod of Constantinople, Canon 9 (543); Pelagius I, Epist. 26 Adeone te (560); Pelagius II, Epist. 1 Quod ad dilectionem (585); Hadrian I, Pastoralibus Curis (785); Council of Valence III, On Predestination: Against Scotus (855), can. 4; St Leo IX, Epist. In terra pax hominibus (1053), ch. 7; Lateran Council II, Can. 22 (1139); Innocent III, On the Effect of Baptism (and the Character) (1206), 410; Council of Lyons I, On the Rites of the Greeks, 24 (1245); Council of Lyons II, Profession of Faith of Michael Palaeologus (1274); John XXII, Nequaquam sine dolore (1321); Benedict XII, Benedictus Deus (1336); Iam dudum: Errors of the Armenians (1341) 4 & 18; Clement VI, Super quibusdam (1351) 2 & 15; Council of Florence, De novissimis (1439); Council of Trent, Session III on the Creed (1546); Decree on Justification (1547), ch. 4; Holy Office, Decree on Perfect and Imperfect Contrition (1667); Decree on the Errors of Michael of Molinos (1687), 7 & 12; Decree on the Errors of the Jansenists (1690) 14 & 15; Vatican Council I, Dogmatic Constitution I on the Church of Christ (1870), into, chs 1 & 4; Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno (1931), 144; Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus (1950); Vatican council II, Lumen Gentium (1964), 48; Ad Gentes (1965), 3; Gaudium et Spes (1965), 37; St Paul VI, Altissimi cantus (1965); Credo of the People of God (1968), 12; CCC 1033-37,1056; Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi 45; etc.

[7]     Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, 45.

[8]    CCC 1033.

[9]     E.g. Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium: Apostolic Exhortation on the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World (2013), 64; General Audiences 20 February 2019; 1 May 2019; 1 March 2020; 8 September 2020; Homilies for Mass, 11 March 2020; 24 March 2020; 9 May 2020 etc. See also Alan McGill, “What does Pope Francis mean by his references to the Devil as a being?” Heythrop Journal 60 (2019), 769-82. Also “Pope Francis’ strongest statements on hell and the devil” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R3PDfBoyrSY

[10] Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti: Encyclical on Fraternity and Social Friendship (2020).

[11] John Paul II, General Audience, 28 July 1999; CCC 1033 & 1056.

Welcome to St Mary’s Basilica in Sydney, whether physically or virtually, for the Solemn Mass of the 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, as our liturgical year winds to its close.

During today’s Mass we will celebrate the Investiture of a Knight of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. The Order is made up of 30,000 lay faithful in 40 countries and 60 lieutenancies. They are devoted to building up the faith and practice of the members in fidelity to the Pope and magisterium of the Church; to sustaining the spiritual, charitable and cultural works of the Church in the Holy Land, particularly those of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem; and so, to assisting the financing of 68 parishes, 40 primary schools, 33 secondary schools, a university, and several hospitals, dispensaries and welfare centres. I’m pleased to acknowledge the Lieutenant, Chancellor, other Office-holders, Chaplains to the Order, Dean Don Richardson, concelebrating with me, Fathers Tom Carroll, John Knight and Paul Smithers in choir. I also recognise all the office-holders, knights and dames, and friends of the Order present this morning. To prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries…