Friday, September 29, 2017

26th Sunday, Year A (Gospel: Matthew 21: 28-32) Fatima and the vision of Hell

The vision of the children at Fatima

This year is the 100th anniversary of the apparitions of Fatima, where Our Lady appeared six times to three young children: Lucia (10), Franciso (9) and Jacinta (7). Last week I had the privilege of visiting Fatima with 16 other pilgrims from our diocese. One of the things that Our Lady showed the three young children was a terrifying vision of hell. Many questions came up about this vision and why Our Lady would show these children such a dreadful thing. So I would like to try and address this event.

Today, as you know, many people scoff at the idea of hell, as if it were some sort of medieval idea which we no longer need to believe; after all, everyone goes to heaven, right? I have no doubt that one of the reasons why Our Lady showed the children this vision—and it has happened in other places of apparition too—was to make us realize that hell is real and we should not be na├»ve to the idea. If this is the case, should we be afraid? I think the answer is both yes and no.

First of all, if heaven is real and we have free will, then it is completely logical that hell must be real too. To lose all that God wants to give us, God’s destiny for us, is hell. Heaven is total fulfillment in God, light, beauty, happiness, peace, joy and the love of God and those who have gone before us. We would never be in want of anything again. As yet we have never experienced this, so it is hard for us to grasp that such a place could exist. To lose that, or reject that, would mean to get the opposite: the loss of God, darkness, hatred, isolation and the eternal pain of knowing we have rejected the one thing that could bring us happiness. Images of fire are often used for hell, as this is an image we can easily understand, but the reality is that the eternal loss of God would be far worse, as it is the only thing that would fulfill us. If we have the free will to accept God and all that He offers us, then we must also have the free will to reject it, or otherwise it would not be free will. The vision of hell that Our Lady granted the children, is a reminder to all of us that hell must be real and we should not presume that all of us will go to heaven regardless of how we live. Our actions have consequences and we must take them seriously.

The shrine of Fatima today

Does that mean that those who do not go to church will go to hell? Of course not. Those who do not go to church have just as much hope of eternal life as we do, depending on how they live. Many people who do not go to church cannot understand or relate to formal religion. If I grew up in a family that never practiced religion, or where I was constantly told that the Church is corrupt and evil, then I cannot be blamed for not going to church. What is important is that I do my best to live a life where I continue to choose what is right. God guides us through our conscience, so that even those who have never heard of God still have the chance to live as God calls us to.

Just because we do go to church doesn’t mean that we are guaranteed go to heaven either. It depends completely on how I live from day to day. I have two good friends who are in the Poor Clare sisters in my home town. They dedicate their lives to God through prayer. People often say to me that they must be so holy and they probably are, but just because they are in a convent, any more than me being a priest, is no guarantee of being holy. It depends completely on how they live and on how I live.

So is there any advantage to being a Catholic? Absolutely! We are privileged to have been shown the way that God himself has revealed to us through Jesus. Jesus is the path to heaven and God has made this known to us. He has given us the gift of his Body and Blood in each mass and the Scriptures to guide us. This is a great blessing and honor for us and helps us to be faithful to the path that leads to God as we have been shown it. So we are truly blessed, but it doesn’t mean that we have a better chance than anyone else because it still depends on how we live from day to day. Going to mass each Sunday will not help me if I spend the rest of my week cheating, stealing and exploiting other people.

Lucia, Francesco and Jacinta around the time of the apparitions
By our own strength none of us could ever be good enough to reach heaven. No matter what we do, we will always be sinners, but it is the death and resurrection of Jesus that makes it possible for us to get to heaven, if that is what we choose. In one sense heaven will always be just out of our reach, because of our own sinfulness. But Jesus reaches down and lifts us up the rest of the way. That is what the death and resurrection of Jesus means and that is why we focus on it so much. Without his self-sacrifice we could not get to heaven no matter how much we tried. So from that point of view we need never be afraid of not being good enough, as it is God himself who makes us good enough, through the death and resurrection of Jesus. So long as we choose for God by the way we live from day to day, then we have nothing to be afraid of. Jesus assures us of his mercy, so long as we make the slightest effort to do the right thing. Falling into sin is not a problem so long as we are prepared to get up again and ask his mercy.

God has created us all to be with him in heaven. That is what God wants for us and God will make that happen unless we consciously and deliberately reject God by the way we live. God will not force us to love him and if we reject God’s love then there is nothing that God can do for us, because He has given us free will.

So going back to the question of whether we should be afraid of hell or not. We should be aware that it is real and that we could lose heaven if we reject God. At the same time we need never be afraid that we will not be able to reach heaven, because it is God himself who makes it possible. It is for us to continue to try and do our best. The Lord is asking us for effort not perfection.

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