Pope Francis has something of a cuddly image with the general public and with many priests. The Association of Catholic Priests (ACP), for example, wants the incoming Papal Nuncio to Ireland, Archbishop Jude Thaddeus Okolo of Nigeria, to seek out bishops in the mould of Francis. I’m all for that, so long as they are truly in Francis’ mould because he is more realistic and tough-minded than we think.
It is true that Pope Francis strongly emphasises mercy in his preaching and wants the Church to do the same. But it is also true that Pope Francis, although he speaks about the issue of abortion less than his two immediate predecessors, still talks about it far more than the average priest or bishop.
He also draws attention to the ‘global war’ on the family far more than the average priest or bishop. He condemns ‘gender ideology’ far more than the average priest or bishop. (Did you know that under Irish law the sex you are has absolutely nothing to do with the sex of your body? Under Irish law you can choose your sex (‘gender’) irrespective of what your body says you are.)
In addition, the Pope speaks about the devil and about Hell a lot more than your average priest or bishop. So, if bishops are to be truly like Pope Francis, then they must be willing to speak about these things as well. Is that what the ACP truly wants? I see little evidence of it in their utterings.
In any event, when Pope Francis was in Fatima last weekend to canonise siblings Francisco and Jacinta Marto, the youngest of the three Fatima seers, he spoke directly about Hell, which features in the Fatima visions.
Pope Francis said: “Our Lady foretold, and warned us about, a way of life that is godless and indeed profanes God in his creatures. Such a life – frequently proposed and imposed – risks leading to Hell.”
He has spoken about Hell several times during his pontificate. For example, he also did so only last November speaking during his morning Mass at the Vatican.
Referring to his childhood, he said: “I remember when I was a boy, when I’d go to catechism they taught us four things: death, judgment, Hell or glory – that after judgment there’s this possibility” of going to Heaven or to Hell.
The children didn’t believe this, he remarked. They thought the priest was only trying to scare them.
Pope Francis continued: “No, it’s true! Because if you do not take care of your heart so that the Lord is with you, and you always live far from the Lord, perhaps there is this danger, the danger of continuing to be distanced from the Lord for all of eternity.”
It is apparent, therefore, that the ‘Four Last Things’ referred to by the Holy Father, are an integral part of his teaching. To this extent, he is much more ‘old-fashioned’ and traditional then we’ve been led to believe.
In fact, to jettison belief in Hell would be to jettison something that is integral to Catholic teaching because it is hard to see how you can believe in God and in free will without also believing in Hell.
As Christians, we believe that we are free to accept God or reject him. This is what the Pope meant when he said in his Fatima homily that a life “that is godless and indeed profanes God in his creatures [that is, treats his creatures badly]” can lead to Hell, to separation from God.
Service of others
Of course, the Pope has also said that an atheist might get to Heaven quicker than a Christian. What he meant by this is that some atheists lead better lives than some Christians and to this extent are (paradoxically) more Christian and more faithful than Christians can be at times.
But the atheist who leads a good life, that is to say, a life driven by the service of others, is not leading a truly ‘godless’ life. Some atheists don’t believe in God for sincere reasons because, for example, they cannot see how a good God would allow such suffering as exists in the world. This is very different from a wilful rejection of God and all he represents.
If there is free will, then we must have the ability to accept God or to reject him. The person who says they believe in God but “profanes God in his creatures” does not really believe in God. They only say they do and might have convinced themselves that they do when in fact the God they believe in is really an extension of themselves, and might even be used as an instrument to bully people, which has often happened in the history of the Christian community (the Church).
If you reject God the logical consequence of this is separation from God after death. As C.S. Lewis once said, God does not condemn you to Hell, you condemn yourself to Hell by your own actions or your own choices. You do this by making yourself God and by refusing to recognise that everyone around you is made in the image and likeness of God.
There is almost no preaching about Hell these days. This is in reaction to an overemphasis on fire and damnation preaching in the past. But if Hell is a reality, that is, if rejecting God is a possibility, and it has to be given free will, then it is extremely remiss of clergy to so deemphasise it because of previously overemphasising it.
It should, therefore be re-included in the occasional homily and priests need only quote Pope Francis himself and take advantage of his popularity to preach an unpopular but true doctrine.