The Pope Said What Now?

Update: This article is not about the pope’s recent statements in America magazine and commented on in the Huffington Post and New York Times.  It is about something he wrote in an Italian newspaper a few weeks ago.  But don’t worry, I’ll discuss the America magazine article in an upcoming post.

A few days ago, Pope Francis wrote a lengthy article responding to some questions proposed by Eugenio Scalfari, co-founder of the newspaper La Repubblica and an atheist. First of all, I find it amazing that the pope can even find the time to read an editorial in a local newspaper, let alone respond to it. I think it shows just how well Pope Francis understands modern tactics of evangelization. He knows that encyclicals are great for diving deep into questions of the Catholic Faith, but if you really want to connect with people you need to communicate in a more casual way using popular media. He might have done more good and educated more people about the Catholic faith in his letter to Mr. Scalfari than what he would have done in ten encyclicals.

The main purpose of Pope Francis’ letter was to address how the Church views atheists regarding their salvation and entrance into Heaven. The pope wrote:

First of all, you ask if the God of the Christians forgives those who do not believe and do not seek faith. Given that – and this is fundamental – God’s mercy has no limits if he who asks for mercy does so in contrition and with a sincere heart, the issue for those who do not believe in God is in obeying their own conscience. In fact, listening and obeying it, means deciding about what is perceived to be good or to be evil. The goodness or the wickedness of our behavior depends on this decision.

Now the popular media jumped all over this statement essentially declaring the pope said something like “all atheists go to Heaven” or that He reversed some doctrine; neither which is true. This isn’t the first time the media completely misreported the pope’s comments and certainly won’t be the last. The pope did not unveil a new doctrine, but only reiterated what the Church has taught for generations. The fact that this seems new to everyone, including many Catholics, shows just how little we understand about the Catholic faith.

The Church has always taught that there is no way any of us here on Earth know who will go to Heaven and who will end up in Hell. Yes, we have a lot of guidelines, teachings, and commandments passed on from God through the prophets, His son Jesus Christ, and Church tradition. But there is always that unknown factor that the pope mentions — God’s infinite mercy. We just cannot know who God forgives and why.

Remember, the Church teaches that non-Catholics can go to Heaven if they’ve never had an opportunity to know God’s Church but live according to the natural laws of morality. When we think about this scenario, we often think of some isolated tribe out on a tropical island somewhere who have never seen a bible. But what about the person who never went to Mass growing up? What about the person who is surrounded by people who actively hate the Church or just don’t place any value on organized religion? What about the person whose view of the Church comes solely from sources that misreport the Church’s teachings? What about the fallen away Catholic who just went to Sunday Mass out of obligation but never really participated? Aren’t these also people who never really “knew” God’s Church? The Catholic faith has always taught that these people, including atheists, are also able to find mercy and forgiveness just like the stereotypical “isolated native” that has never seen a church or opened a bible.

Whenever I think about our ultimate fate, I’m reminded of the Second Glorious Mystery — Jesus’ Ascension. When I pray and meditate on that rosary mystery, I remember that Jesus took His rightful place in Heaven at the right hand of God and acts as our final judge. We know that our actions, combined with God’s mercy, will decide whether we spend eternity in God’s kingdom or Hell. We should be thankful that God is infinitely merciful and that whether we end up in Heaven isn’t an in/out, true/false, on/off proposition. Because if it were, I dare say that most people would probably fall short of meeting the requirements to enter Heaven. We all have our failings, but it’s God’s mercy, both through the Sacrament of Reconciliation and at our final judgement, that allow us to live for eternity in His kingdom.

But why must we understand and live by the Catholic teachings when the pope said anyone, including atheists, can go to Heaven? Are devout Catholics just suckers wasting their time going to Mass and receiving the sacraments? Far from it. Remember, the pope said that God’s mercy is infinite, but not automatic. Ask yourself, do you want to rely solely on God’s mercy to enter into His kingdom? Or would you like to actually increase your odds, as it were, by following His Word? Let’s put it another way. Suppose there was a way to learn the winning numbers in the lottery ahead of time. But to learn those numbers, you have to put in years of hard work. Would you do it? After all, you could always avoid the work and just leave it up to chance. Maybe you will get lucky and guess the right numbers. The same goes for salvation, but the stakes are much higher since it’s dealing with our eternal souls. Are you going to leave such an important decision solely on God’s mercy or do you want to put forth the effort now to really earn your place in God’s kingdom?

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Rosary Meditation — The Second Glorious Mystery

This rosary meditation focuses on The Second Glorious Mystery — The Ascension. After rising from the dead in the First Glorious Mystery, Jesus physically ascended into Heaven. We profess this every time we recite the Apostle’s Creed — “On the third day He rose again; He ascended into Heaven, He is seated at the right hand of the Father, and He will come again to judge the living and the dead.” We must remember that ultimately we will have to account for our thoughts, words, and actions in front of Jesus who reigns in Heaven. However, the Church gives us tools that allow us to remain close to God and correct our faults before facing our final judgment.

Ascension of Christ
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This rosary meditation focuses on The Second Glorious Mystery — The Ascension.  After rising from the dead in the First Glorious Mystery, Jesus physically ascended into Heaven.  We profess this every time we recite the Apostle’s Creed — “On the third day He rose again;  He ascended into Heaven,  He is seated at the right hand of the Father, and He will come again to judge the living and the dead.”  We must remember that ultimately we will have to account for our thoughts, words, and actions in front of Jesus who reigns in Heaven.  However, the Church gives us tools that allow us to remain close to God and correct our faults before facing our final judgment.

“He will come again to judge the living and the dead.”  Like many people, I find the idea of judgment scary.  The word “judgment” conveys a trial, assessing guilt, and handing out punishment; none of which are very pleasant.  In life, judging has a very negative connotation.  We hear how we shouldn’t be so judgmental.  Even when we are guilty (either legally or morally) many of us try to avoid admitting our faults and accepting the consequences.  Instead we hide, we lie, or play the “blame game.”  Deep down we want to be innocent, sinless, and virtuous but we often miss that mark.  But in professing our inevitable judgment in the Apostle’s Creed we remind ourselves that we need to work at becoming more Christ-like.  Understanding that our actions have consequences motivates us to avoid sin.  And we avoid sin, not just to avoid punishment, but also realizing that sin separates us from Jesus Christ whom we love.

The purpose of knowing of our coming judgment is not to scare or depress us.  In fact, God does not want to punish any of us.  He desires all of us to one day enter into His kingdom.  And He provides tools to help us avoid a harsh judgment.  The most obvious tool He gives us is the Sacrament of Confession.  This is our opportunity to set things straight with the Lord and remain in His grace.  It’s our way of doing small course corrections so that we can remain on the path that ultimately leads us into His kingdom of Heaven.  To put it another way, by routinely confessing our sins we confront our shortcomings while they are still small and manageable.  Without acknowledging our sins those small shortcomings can turn into major problems and separate us from God’s grace not to mention make our lives miserable.

Another tool at our disposal to live in God’s graces is prayer.  When we center our lives around God through prayer, that means we are not centering it around sin.  In other words, earnest prayer can never be sinful so when we live a life of prayer we live without sin (unfortunately, no one has been able to obtain this lofty goal 100% of the time).  The fact that we pray means that we acknowledge that Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father and hears our prayers.  After all, what would be the point of praying if we did not believe that Jesus hears us and guides us?  When we pray we focus, even if only for a short time, on the Lord and ask for His help, thank Him, and listen to how He calls us to live.  In short, we ask for the strength to live for His kingdom and earn our place that He has prepared for us when he ascended into Heaven.

When we meditate on this mystery, may we remember that our ultimate destination is Heaven.  May we show our love for the Lord by not delaying our arrival in Heaven with a detour in Purgatory.  And may we avoid mortal sin and risk loosing His kingdom entirely.  Remembering our final judgment is not a terrible thing.  Like remembering the consequences of breaking civil laws, we must always be mindful of the natural law that God imprints on our hearts and minds.  Doing so will not only have its benefits in the afterlife, but will also manifest itself as an inner happiness in this life.  Let us also remember to pray for those who are far from God’s graces.  Let us pray for those who do not want to confront their eventual judgment but instead choose to hide, lie, and redirect blame.  Because, as the old saying goes, “You can run, but you can’t hide.”

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