In Rainbow Valley, the seventh book of L.M. Montgomery’s famous Anne of Green Gables series, young Faith Meredith sets out to convince crotchety heathen Norman Douglas to come back to her father’s Presbyterian church. The girl is after both his tithe and his soul, and rich old Norman makes no bones about what will induce him to attend:
“About this church business now—can your father preach?”
“He is a splendid preacher,” said loyal Faith.
“He is, hey? I’ll see—I’ll watch out for flaws. He’d better be careful what he says before me. I’ll catch him—I’ll trip him up—I’ll keep tabs on his arguments. I’m bound to have some fun out of this church-going business. Does he ever preach Hell?”
“No-o-o—I don’t think so.”
“Too bad. I like sermons on that subject. You tell him that if he wants to keep me in a good-humor to preach a good rip-roaring sermon on hell once every six months—and the more brimstone the better. I like em’ smoking … I’ll give an extra ten dollars every time you get your father to preach on hell.”
Pastors, I’m beginning to feel like ol’ Norman. I want a good, fiery sermon on Hell. In my 30 years as a Catholic, spanning four parishes and probably fifteen priests, I have never heard a homily on Hell. Liberal or conservative, modern or traditional. Not one. In fact, aside from a few radical rip-roarers on the internet, I can’t recall a priest even saying the word. And now that we’ve got grievous sin leaking out of every orifice of the Body of Christ, I want that homily even more. But I still hear crickets. So, damn it all to hell, I’m going to write it myself.
Pastors, let’s talk about the bad place. No matter how long you avoid preaching on the topic, some of you are going there. I won’t put myself in God’s place by speculating who. But it’s very clear to those of us in the pews that not everyone in this wicked business is innocent. Not all of you are telling the truth. Not all of you are being unfairly persecuted by whatever convenient buzzword-boogeyman you’re talking about this week. Not all of you have repented. How do we know? There is a broken, bleeding trail of victims paving the way to chanceries all over the world, banging on your doors, begging for justice and truth and reparation. What they hear instead are crickets, or worse, the pitiful, mewling voice of deflection and blame.
Do you believe in Hell, pastors? You should. There are at least a hundred references or allusions to it in Holy Scripture. The saints talk about it at length. The Catechism some of you helped write says, “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.’ The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God …” Those are some pretty authoritative voices. But still, I have my doubts that some of you believe. How can you lie, when the Lord says the Devil himself is the Father of Lies? How can you meet evil with silence, knowing that St. James says, “Whoever knows the right thing and fails to do it, for him it is sin?” How can you go along to get along, when the Catechism says in plain print that “Every word or attitude is forbidden which by flattery, adulation, or complaisance encourages and confirms another in malicious acts and perverse conduct”? Do you believe your silence is righteous? Do you believe your blame is just? Maybe you’ve just stopped feeling the hot breath of the Devil on your neck. Maybe you’ve just stopped believing in the awesome wrath of that tiny little Host.
You might remind me that God is infinitely merciful. You might say that while we are bound to believe in Hell, we don’t have to believe anyone is actually there. I used to hope for that too, in my selfishness, because my sins are great. But then I read about decades of unspeakable things done to children and women and impressionable young men. I heard about churches desecrated and seminarians violated and beatings and burials and blackmail and blame, blame, blame. I listened for an answer, and I heard … crickets. In that silence, I wondered: What justice can there be for those who have been plunged into hell on earth? What reparation can be extracted from those who are unrepentant to the end? What is a fair punishment for those who vest and crown themselves in the name of Christ, but use that holy name to bring pain to His people? What can He do for those who declare, “I will not serve”? You gotta serve somebody.
For some of you, an empty Hell would seem merciful indeed. But for some of your victims, it would be the cruelest punishment of all.
Yes, pastors, there is a hell. I don’t know who is there. I don’t know what it’s like. I haven’t seen the souls that fall like snowflakes or smelled the sulfur myself. I pray I never do. But I believe in Holy Scripture. I believe in the Catechism. I believe in the Church and her teachings, even if you don’t. And if you do, I’d think about doing a sermon on hell. At the very least, we need to hear that you fear God.
“I do not speak rashly, but as I feel and think, I do not think that many priests are saved, but that those who perish are far more numerous.” -St. John Chrysostom