Fr. Roger J. Landry
Putting Out Into The Deep
November 23, 2012
During the month of November, which begins with All Saints’ Day and the Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed, Catholics are called to meditate on the last things, death, judgment, Heaven and hell.
This is something that Catholics are doing far less of today, not only because of a phobia of death, but also because many no longer think death and hell are relevant. Most people think, rather, that everyone gets to Heaven — except perhaps serial killers, public smokers and those who gulp soft drinks larger than 16 ounces in New York City.
But this is a very dangerous error — in fact a heresy, universalism — that carries with it potentially the most serious of eschatological consequences.
Jesus once was asked how many would be saved. He didn’t respond by giving a number or even a relative percentage, because He hadn’t come to die on the cross to satisfy our curiosities. He replied by answering not how many would be saved but how to be saved: “Strive to enter through the narrow door, for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and not be able” (Lk 13:24).
The word translated as “strive” is the Greek word to “agonize.” To get to Heaven, in other words, we need to agonize, like Jesus did in the Garden of Gethsemane, to conform our will to the Father’s. We need to work harder than an undrafted free agent gives everything he’s got in Patriots’ training camp to make the cut. The width of the narrow door to Heaven is the span of a needle’s eye, the girth of the cross, something that is anything but easy to pass through.
Jesus told us that many will seek to enter through the narrow door but not make it. They will be left outside the door, pleading, “We ate and drank in Your presence and You taught in our streets,” and remembering, ‘Did we not prophesy in Your name, and cast out demons in Your name, and do many miracles in Your name.” Jesus says that God will then reply, “I never knew you” (Lk 13:25-27; Mt 7:21-23).
Jesus is emphasizing that it’s not enough to have heard Him speak. It’s not sufficient to have eaten and drunk with Him, even the Holy Eucharist. It’s not adequate to proclaim the Gospel in His name, do exorcisms or even work miracles. After all, Judas Iscariot did all of these things, but he never really knew Who Jesus was. We need to enter into intimate friendship and communion with Him. We need to follow Him not just on the outside, but on the inside. We need to become His true friend.
Jesus never answered the question of how many would be saved, but He did give us a snapshot of how many are heading in the direction of Heaven and how many on the path to hell. After stressing the need to enter through the narrow door, He added, “For the door is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction and those who enter by it are many. And the door is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Mt 7:13-14).
This is not necessarily a picture of the way everything ends up — because the whole mission of the Church is to try to rescue people from the broad, easy, congested “highway to hell” and lead them to the narrow, uphill, way of the cross that leads to life — but it is a striking image, given to us by Jesus Himself, about the way the vast majority of people are trending.
A quick glance at the practice of the Beatitudes, the Sacraments, and the Ten Commandments shows us why Jesus’ point is as valid today as two millennia ago.
The world says we need to be rich to be happy; Jesus says we need to be poor in spirit and treasure God’s Kingdom. The world says we need to be laughing and having a good time; Jesus says we need to be so sensitive we mourn over other’s misfortune and sins. The world says we need to be strong and pulverize whoever gets in our way; Jesus says we need to be meek, merciful and peacemakers. The world says happiness demands having all our sexual fantasies fulfilled and living like Hugh Hefner; Jesus says blessed are the pure in heart. The world insists we need to be popular and respected by everyone; Jesus says we’ll be blessed when we’re reviled, persecuted, calumniated and killed on His behalf. How many are really walking with Jesus on the narrow road of the Beatitudes, and how many are on the very easy boulevard leading away from Him?
Likewise, how many Catholics seriously agonize to meet Jesus in the Sacraments He’s founded? Are there more Catholics coming to Mass each Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation or not? Regularly receiving His mercy in the Sacrament of Penance or not? Passionately spreading the Gospel in response to the Sacrament of Confirmation or not? How many are agonizing to remain on the moral path of the Commandments that Jesus said leads to life versus how many are regularly, unrepentantly and mortally breaking one or more of them?
When we consider these relative trends and note how many times Jesus in the Gospel preached about the judgment and about hell, does it make any sense at all that many presume that the final exam of life is an easy-A and almost everyone goes to Heaven?
One of the most common things people say today after someone has died is that the deceased is “now in a better place,” regardless of the way the person lived or died. Those who say such things normally mean well, but they have no grounds whatsoever for making such a statement. Jesus told us emphatically not to judge and to leave all the judging to Him. This certainly means, most people recognize, not to judge people to be in hell, because no matter how wicked their deeds may have been — and Jesus clearly wants us to judge deeds like murder, adultery, and lying to be evil — we cannot see the person’s heart and soul.
But Jesus is also saying that we cannot judge someone to be in Heaven, because no matter how good a person’s external deeds seemed to be, we likewise can’t see the heart and soul. The only exceptions to this would be a baptized infant and a canonized saint, someone whose presence in Heaven God certifies, so to speak, by the working of miracles that God alone can do in response to prayers made through that deceased person’s intercession.
So we can certainly hope that someone who has died is in a better place — namely in the best place of all, with God in Heaven — but we can’t judge a person to be there and we shouldn’t say it. Not only is it possible that we could be dead wrong, but we just contribute to the universalist heresy that all roads — including the broad, easy road to perdition — end up in the same place. And we make it less likely that people on perdition alley will agonize to convert and to follow Jesus along the only path that we can be sure leads to life.
God loves us and indeed wants all to be saved, but we need to love Him back and work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12). November is a month to remember this central truth and recommit ourselves to what it takes to pass through the narrow door that leads to life. May God help us all!