At Pope Benedict XVI’s question and answer session with priests from his diocese last Thursday, one cleric told the Pope he was concerned that the catechism of the Italian bishops’ conference never mentions hell or purgatory, and speaks of heaven only once. “With these essential parts of the creed missing,” the priest asked, “doesn’t it seem to you that the redemption of Christ falls apart?”
In reply, the Pope called heaven, hell, and purgatory “fundamental themes that unfortunately appear rarely in our preaching,” journalist and church expert Sandro Magister reports.
Pope Benedict suggested that Catholics had been excessively affected by Marxist objections that Christians concentrated on heaven so much that they overlooked the importance of the world. The neglect of speaking heaven, purgatory, and hell, he thought, was possibly due to a desire to show Christians are concerned about earthly things.
The importance of the afterlife, however, should not be neglected.
“Now, although it is right to demonstrate that Christians work on behalf of the world – and we are all clearly called to work so that this world that may truly be a city for God and of God – we must not forget the other dimension. Without keeping this in mind, we do not work well on behalf of the world,” Pope Benedict said.
The Pope said his recent encyclical Spe Salvi in part aimed at emphasizing the importance of salvation. “When one is not aware of the judgment of God, when one does not recognize the possibility of hell, of the radical and definitive failure of life, then one does not recognize the possibility and necessity for purification.”
He noted that ideologies, such as communism, which prided themselves on worldly action that would correct all injustices, promising “to build the world the way it was supposed to have been,” instead destroyed the world.
Responsibility toward the earth and toward the men living today in fact rested on awareness of God and man’s capacity to sin. “We must speak specifically of sin as the possibility of destroying oneself, and thus also other parts of the earth,” Pope Benedict said.
He said his encyclical tried to demonstrate that “it is precisely the last judgment of God that guarantees justice.” God’s justice is for all, even for the dead, and only the resurrection of the body can create that justice.
Pope Benedict summarized a modern approach to sin that denies its importance. “Today we are used to thinking: What is sin? God is great, he understands us, so sin does not count, in the end God will be good toward all.”
In reply to this way of thinking, he answered: “It's a nice hope. But there is justice, and there is real blame. Those who have destroyed man and the earth cannot sit immediately at the table of God, together with their victims.”
Pope Benedict speculated that the condemned might not be numerous, describing how thoroughly they would have to have destroyed themselves:
“Perhaps there are not so many who have destroyed themselves so completely, who are irreparable forever, who no longer have any element upon which the love of God can rest, who no longer have the slightest capacity to love within themselves. This would be hell.”
Purgatory offers hope to men with a “final willingness” to live according to God, the Pope said. “We need to be prepared, to be purified. This is our hope: even with so much filth in our soul, in the end the Lord gives us the possibility, He washes us finally with his goodness that comes from his cross. He thus makes us capable of living for Him forever.”
The blessed life in heaven, which the Pope called “justice finally realized,” was not a distraction from worldly action, but the measure of its success. “When men live according to these criteria, a little bit of heaven appears in the world.”
The hope of heaven, Pope Benedict said, is the hope of our restoration in Christ.
“This aspect of renewal, of the restoration of our being after so many mistakes, after so many sins, is the great promise, the great gift that the Church offers… Souls that are wounded and sick, as is the experience of all, need not only advice, but also a true renewal, which can come only from the power of God, from the power of crucified Love.”