Category Archives: Theology

Who’s in hell?

The solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is a good day to think about last things. No?

Most reasonable Catholics would agree that we don’t hear too much about the 4 last things. For some this is a good thing; for me I lament the absence. But why do we always have to avoid the last things that are a natural part of the Divine Plan? Are we THAT afraid of God? Are we THAT skeptical about the promises of Jesus? Do we really lack hope? Perhaps we are too comfortable in being self-contained to care.

You know what the 4 last things are: death judgment, heaven and hell.  Preachers, Catholic school curricula and CCD programs and parents don’t often address the 4 last things in their respective venues. Why? Likely because there’s a perceptible allergy against an honest look at the human condition and the supreme justice and mercy of God. Also, about the fact that we can and often do, turn our backs on God and His promises. We’d rather think of “good things” or “nice things” about ourselves and others than sin and the possible ugly. OK. I don’t relish looking at my ugly side either. At the same time I want an honest assessment of my soul and to live in a reasonable hope of what may or may not come of my relationship with God. At last I knew, the only person conceived without sin is the Mary, the Mother of God. Plus, I would hate to think I am going to heaven (or purgatory) when I really merited hell.
In case you need a fast primer on the 4 last things, see these links. I’d also suggest closely reading Avery Cardinal Dulles’ essay “The Population of Hell,” found in Church and Society unless you can get it for free on the First Things website (but I’d recommend buying the book for all the other excellent essays!).

Not long ago a friend sent me a blog where the blogger talked about a recent homily of Canterbury’s Rowan Williams where he wonders if Henry VII is in hell. Good question. What do you think? The Archbishop’s homily can be read here.

The Cross offers unlimited hope, Pope teaches

Cross GL Bernini.jpg

The Pope’s homily on the role of the Cross in our theology was a good reminder of who are as a people of faith: merciful, loving, and hope-filled. Sin and death don’t have the last word in life. It is sad that we don’t remember this more often, clergy and laity alike. This homily made me reflect back on an experience I had a few weeks back when I was told a priest in this particular parish preached that Catholics are “Easter people” and not a “Good Friday people.” Sorely misguided. On June 5th in Cyprus Pope Benedict celebrated the Votive Mass of the Holy Cross (praying
the various votive Masses is a good and noble tradition when there is no
specific liturgical memorial that particular day) when he acknowledged the work of
devoted priests, brothers, sisters catechists and the lay movements in preaching and teaching the Truth. In the
face of difficult and sometimes evil situations the Pope encouraged his
congregation (and us) to base their (our) lives on the Cross. For Christians, the cross is not
a failure but the symbol –the reality– of mercy, forgiveness, faith, hope and joy. And it is
the goal of priests and religious to conform their lives to their Cross because
it is at the foot of the Cross that we know the full power of the Trinity’s
love for us. Plus, the Pope reminds us that we are not the center of the faith, Christ is: it is His wisdom and salvation we communicate to others, not our own.

Here are excerpts from the Pope’s homily:

Beguiled by the serpent, Adam had foresaken his filial trust in
God and sinned by biting into the fruit of the one tree in the garden that was
forbidden to him. In consequence of that sin, suffering and death came into the
world. The tragic effects of sin, suffering and death were all too evident in
the history of Adam’s descendants. We see this in our first reading today, with
its echoes of the Fall and its prefiguring of Christ’s redemption.

As a
punishment for their sin, the people of Israel, languishing in the desert, were
bitten by serpents and could only be saved from death by looking upon the
emblem that Moses raised up, foreshadowing the Cross that would put an end to
sin and death once and for all. We see clearly that man cannot save himself
from the consequences of his sin. He cannot save himself from death. Only God
can release him from his moral and physical enslavement. And because he loved
the world so much, he sent his only-begotten Son, not to condemn the world – as
justice seemed to demand – but so that through him the world might be saved. God’s
only-begotten Son had to be lifted up just as Moses lifted up the serpent in
the desert, so that all who looked upon him with faith might have life.

Descent from the Cross BAntelami.jpg

wood of the Cross became the vehicle for our redemption, just as the tree from
which it was fashioned had occasioned the Fall of our first parents. Suffering
and death, which had been a consequence of sin, were to become the very means
by which sin was vanquished. The innocent Lamb was slain on the altar of the
Cross, and yet from the immolation of the victim new life burst forth: the
power of evil was destroyed by the power of self-sacrificing love.

The Cross,
then, is something far greater and more mysterious than it at first appears. It
is indeed an instrument of torture, suffering and defeat, but at the same time
it expresses the complete transformation, the definitive reversal of these
evils: that is what makes it the most eloquent symbol of hope that the world
has ever seen. It speaks to all who suffer – the oppressed, the sick, the poor,
the outcast, the victims of violence – and it offers them hope that God can
transform their suffering into joy, their isolation into communion, their death
into life. It offers unlimited hope to our fallen world.

Cross with Sts Bernard, Francis and Benedict.jpg

That is why the world
needs the Cross. The Cross is not just a private symbol of devotion, it is not
just a badge of membership of a certain group within society, and in its
deepest meaning it has nothing to do with the imposition of a creed or a
philosophy by force.
It speaks of hope, it speaks of love, it speaks of the
victory of non-violence over oppression, it speaks of God raising up the lowly,
empowering the weak, conquering division, and overcoming hatred with love. A
world without the Cross would be a world without hope, a world in which torture
and brutality would go unchecked, the weak would be exploited and greed would
have the final word. Man’s inhumanity to man would be manifested in ever more
horrific ways, and there would be no end to the vicious cycle of violence. Only
the Cross puts an end to it
. While no earthly power can save us from the
consequences of our sins, and no earthly power can defeat injustice at its
source, nevertheless the saving intervention of our loving God has transformed
the reality of sin and death into its opposite. That is what we celebrate when
we glory in the Cross of our Redeemer. Rightly does Saint Andrew of Crete
describe the Cross as “more noble, more precious than anything on earth […] for
in it and through it and for it all the riches of our salvation were stored
away and restored to us” (Oratio X; PG 97, 1018-1019).

Dear brother priests,
dear religious, dear catechists, the message of the Cross has been entrusted to
us, so that we can offer hope to the world. When we proclaim Christ crucified
we are proclaiming not ourselves, but him. We are not offering our own wisdom
to the world, nor are we claiming any merit of our own, but we are acting as
channels for his wisdom, his love, his saving merits
. We know that we are
merely earthenware vessels, and yet, astonishingly, we have been chosen to be
heralds of the saving truth that the world needs to hear. Let us never cease to
marvel at the extraordinary grace that has been given to us, let us never cease
to acknowledge our unworthiness, but at the same time let us always strive to
become less unworthy of our noble calling, lest through our faults and failings
we weaken the credibility of our witness.

B16 Pentecost 2010.jpg

In this Year for Priests, let me
address a special word to the priests present today, and to those who are
preparing for ordination. Reflect on the words spoken to a newly ordained
priest as the Bishop presents him with the chalice and paten: “Understand what
you do, imitate what you celebrate, and conform your life to the mystery of the
Lord’s Cross”. As we proclaim the Cross of Christ, let us always strive to
imitate the selfless love of the one who offered himself for us on the altar of
the Cross, the one who is both priest and victim, the one in whose person we
speak and act when we exercise the ministry that we have received
. As we
reflect on our shortcomings, individually and collectively, let us humbly
that we have merited the punishment that he, the innocent Lamb,
suffered on our behalf.
And if, in accordance with what we have deserved, we
should have some share in Christ’s sufferings, let us rejoice because we will
enjoy a much greater gladness when his glory is revealed.

Watch the YouTube clip on the teaching of Pope Benedict on the Cross

John Paul II and the Development of a “New Feminism”

Sr Sara Butler.jpgThe April 2010 issue of Inside the Vatican (18:4) published a special commemorative issue observing the papal death of John Paul II and the papal election of Benedict XVI. The editor asked various people to write their memories of one of the popes. Sister Sara Butler, MSBT, a professor of dogmatic theology at St Joseph’s Seminary -Dunwoodie, New York, offered her thoughts on Pope John Paul’s contribution to feminist thinking. Sister Sara is a published author and a member of the Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue and the International Theological Commission. Sister remembers:

Looking back over the papacy of the Servant of God John Paul II, I find myself especially grateful for the initiative he took in addressing the feminist critique. The Pope did this in his Letter to Women (1995), his apostolic letter On the Dignity and Vocation of Women (Mulieris dignitatem, 1988), and his ground-breaking catecheses on the “theology of the body.” He not only acknowledged the positive contributions of feminist scholarship and offered needed clarifications and correctives in response to their objections; he also spelled out his own appreciation of the “genius” of women and took steps to promote their increased participation in the Church and in the social order. Since the Pope’s death, we are already beginning to see the fruits of his recommendation that Catholic women undertake to develop a “new feminism,” consistent with Catholic doctrine (Evangelium vitae, par 99). In my opinion , it is hard to overestimate the contribution Pope John Paul II made to meeting this contemporary challenge.

Internal Forum: the priest’s confessional as a dialogue with salvation

Benedict XVI
addressed participants in a short course on the internal forum on March 11 hosted and organized by Archbishop Fortunato Baldelli and Bishop Gianfranco Girotti, OFM Conv., of the Apostolic Penitentiary. Next
to the celebration of the Mass, there is likely no other important work of a
priest than to reconcile sinners to God. This is a helpful teaching of the Pope’s since at the seminary dinner table these days there’s much conversation about the priest’s ministry of forgiveness. Note what I think are the important
points the Holy Father makes regarding the dialogue of salvation.

Your course is placed, providentially, in the Year for Priests, which I
proclaimed for the 150th anniversary of the birth in heaven of St. John Mary
Vianney, who exercised in a heroic and fruitful way the ministry of
reconciliation. As stated in the letter of proclamation: “All of us
priests must hear those words which regard us personally that he (the Curé
d’Ars) put in Christ’s mouth: ‘I will charge my ministers with proclaiming to
sinners, whom I am always ready to receive, that my Mercy is infinite.’ From
the Holy Curé d’Ars
we priests can learn not only an inexhaustible trust in the
sacrament of penance, which drives us to put it at the center of our pastoral
concerns, but also the method of the ‘dialogue of salvation’ that should be
carried out in it

hearing confession.jpg

Where do the roots of heroism and fruitfulness sink,
with which St. John Mary Vianney lived his own ministry of confessor? First of
all in an intense personal penitential dimension. The awareness of one’s own
limits and the need to take recourse to Divine Mercy to ask for pardon, to
convert the heart and to be sustained on the path of sanctity, are essential in
the life of the priest
: Only one who has first experienced its greatness can be
a convinced herald and administrator of the Mercy of God. Every priest becomes
minister of penance
by his ontological configuration to Christ, High and
Eternal Priest, who reconciles humanity with the Father; however, fidelity in
administering the sacrament of reconciliation is entrusted to the responsibility
of the presbyter.

We live in a cultural context marked by a hedonistic and
relativistic mentality, which tends to cancel God from the horizon of life,
does not favor the acquisition of a clear picture of values of reference and
does not help to discern good from the evil and to mature a correct sense of
sin. This situation makes even more urgent the service of administrators of
Divine Mercy.

We must not forget, in fact, that there is a sort of vicious
circle between obfuscation of the experience of God and the loss of the sense
of sin. However, if we look at the cultural context in which St. John Mary
Vianney lived, we see that, in several aspects, it was not so dissimilar from
. Also in his time, in fact, a hostile mentality to faith existed,
expressed by forces that sought actually to impede the exercise of the
ministry. In such circumstances, the Holy Curé d’Ars made “the church his
home,” to lead men to God. He lived radically the spirit of prayer, the
personal and intimate relationship with Christ, the celebration of Mass,
Eucharistic adoration and evangelical poverty, appearing to his contemporaries
as such an evident sign of the presence of God, as to drive so many penitents
to approach his confessional.

In the conditions of liberty in which it is
possible to exercise today the priestly ministry, it is necessary that the
presbyters live in a “lofty way” their own response to their
vocation, because only one who becomes every day the living and clear presence
of the Lord can arouse in the faithful the sense of sin, give courage and have
the desire born for the forgiveness of God.

Dear brothers, it is necessary to
turn to the confessional, as place in which to celebrate the sacrament of
reconciliation, but also as place in which to “dwell” more often, so
that the faithful can find mercy, counsel and comfort, feel loved and
understood by God and experience the presence of Divine Mercy, close to the real
Presence in the Eucharist.

The “crisis” of the Sacrament of Penance,
so often talked about, is a question that faces first of all priests and their
great responsibility to educate the People of God to the radical demands of the
Gospel. In particular, it asks them to dedicate themselves generously to the
listening of sacramental confessions
; to guide the flock with courage, so that
it will not be conformed to the mentality of this world (cf. Romans 12:2), but
will be able to make choices also against the current, avoiding accommodations
and compromises. Because of this it is important that the priest have a
permanent ascetic tension, nourished by communion with God, and that he
dedicate himself to a constant updating in the study of moral theology and of
human sciences.

St. John Mary
Vianney was able to establish with penitents a real and proper “dialogue
of salvation,” showing the beauty and greatness of the Lord’s goodness and
arousing that desire for God and heaven, of which the saints are the first
bearers. He affirmed: “The good God knows everything. Before you even
confess, he knows that you will sin again and yet he forgives you. How great is
the love of our God, which drives him to willingly forget the future, so as to
forgive us” (Monnin A., Il Curato d’Ars. Vita di Gian-Battista-Maria
, Vol. 1, Turin, 1870, p. 130). 

It is the priest’s task to foster
that experience of “dialogue of salvation,” which, born of the
certainty of being loved by God, helps man to acknowledge his own sin and to
introduce himself, progressively, into that stable dynamic of conversion of
, which leads to the radical renunciation of evil and to a life according
to God (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1431).

Dear priests, what an
extraordinary ministry the Lord has entrusted to us! As in the Eucharistic
Celebration he puts himself in the hands of the priest to continue to be
present in the midst of his people, similarly, in the sacrament of
reconciliation he entrusts himself to the priest so that men will have the
experience of the embrace with which the Father receives the prodigal son,
restoring him the filial dignity and reconstituting him fully heir
(cf. Luke

Saint Hilary of Poitiers

St Hilaire Poitiers.jpg

Saint Hilary worked tirelessly to defend the faith from wrong-thinking Christians, typically called heretics. What follows is Hilary’s teaching on God the Father.

It is the Father from whom everything that exists has been
formed. He is in Christ and through Christ the source of all things. Moreover,
His being is in Himself and He does not derive what He is from anywhere else,
but possesses what He is from Himself and in Himself. He is infinite because He
Himself is not in anything and all things are within Him; He is always outside
of space because He is not restricted; He is always before time because time
comes from Him…. But, God is also present everywhere and is present in His
entirety wherever He is. Thus, He transcends the realm of understanding,
outside of whom nothing exists and of whom eternal being is always
characteristic. This is the true nature of the mystery of God; this is the name
of the impenetrable nature in the Father.

(On the Trinity, Bk. 2, Ch.6; ML 10,
54; FC XXV, 39-40) 

The Liturgical prayer for Saint Hilary may be prayed here.

About the author

Paul A. Zalonski is from New Haven, CT. He is a member of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, a Catholic ecclesial movement, and an Oblate of Saint Benedict. Contact Paul at paulzalonski[at]
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