What is the population of heaven? Of hell?

What is the population of heaven? Here is a more loaded question: what is the population of hell?  In today’s gospel Jesus is asked a similar question: “Lord, will many be saved”? Some of you may have grown up with “fire and brimstone” sermons that emphasized the difficulty of winning a place in heaven.  Such sermons warned strongly about the risk of going to hell and described the situation there so vividly that we would never want to go there.  Today, on the other hand, we seem to hear less about Hell.  The idea seems outdated.  Many Catholics assume that everyone goes automatically to heaven as though all humanity is on some big conveyor belt up to God. Some assume that Hell doesn't exist. Will many be saved? Today’s gospel sheds light on this issue.

First, we need to make one point crystal clear: God wants all people to be saved.  Our heavenly Father created us in order that we could spend eternity with Him in heaven.  This is God’s desire and He has done everything to make it a reality.  When Jesus came to the earth, He died to save every human being.  It is as though each human being has been given a plane ticket.  On this plane ticket, under location it reads: “heaven”.  God wants everyone to be with Him forever in Heaven.

This being said, it is not automatic that everyone will go to heaven.  It is the teaching of the Church, and Jesus Himself, that Hell is real and that some people may go there.  This is a teaching I have found hard to accept. How could a loving God allow people to go to Hell? I once heard an explanation that helped me begin to understand. The teaching that Hell exists and that people can go there follows logically from two fundamental Christian beliefs.  The first is our belief about who God is. We believe that God is all love, goodness and beauty. The second belief is that God has given us our free will. Free will is one of the greatest gifts we have been given because means that we can imitate God: we are able to love. We must have freedom in order to love. But, the fact that we have been given free will means that we have the ability to choose not to be with God. We have the freedom not to use that ticket to heaven we have been given; in essence, we have the freedom to send ourselves to Hell.  People in Hell have separated themselves from God. Since God is love, goodness and beauty, hell is a place where there is no love, goodness or beauty.  In today’s gospel and elsewhere in the scriptures Jesus talks about the possibility of people not going to heaven. Today we hear of people who are cast out of the kingdom of God amidst wailing and gnashing of teeth. Jesus spoke often about Gehenna, a place of burning. Hell was not something the Church invented during the “Dark Ages”; we get the idea from Jesus.  Christ tells that we cannot assume that everyone automatically goes to heaven.

We need to accept God’s offer of salvation. Though we have been given a ticket to heaven, we need to take steps to claim it.  In the gospel Jesus makes it clear that this acceptance of God’s offer of salvation is not a casual thing.  Just saying that we are Catholic is not enough. When I was living in Rome I used to visit an elderly couple. In their house I saw so many pictures saints, including Padre Pio... this is Italy after-all.  I said to them once that they must be fervent Catholics.  They said of course, they were 100% Catholic! Then the old lady would come close to me, point her finger in my face, and say,“listen we are more Catholic than you!”. So I asked what Church they went to.  Their response was `oh, we haven`t been to mass in 20 years`. This way of thinking is not uncommon. In the gospel we find people demanding that the lord open the door to them because they “ate and drank” in his company.  But the lord refused to open the door.  He says he does not recognize them.  Claiming to be a follower of Jesus is not enough to get into heaven.  Accepting God’s offer of salvation is a serious and demanding choice. Jesus calls it the “narrow gate”.  The fact that we follow Jesus must transform our lives.  People should recognize that we are His follower; Jesus should see something of Himself in us. This is the way in which we claim the ticket to heaven we have been given.

In addition to ourselves, we need to encourage others to accept God’s offer of salvation. The Church in fact exists to help as many people as possible reach heaven.  As you know, this is the “Year of Faith”. During this our diocese has been promoting initiatives to evangelize, bringing people to know and follow Jesus and enter the Church.  Specific attention has been paid to “fallen-away Catholics”, which is one of the largest and fastest growing religious groups in the West. For example our Diocese launched the “Catholics Come Home” campaign. You probably saw the commercials on TV. This has born definite fruit. I myself have met people who have come back to the faith after watching the commercials.  This is a great blessing. You’ll remember that we were also encouraged to pray that God show us one or two people close to us - a family member, friend or co-worker - we could encourage to come back to the practice of their faith in a welcoming and non-judgemental way. Imagine the impact if each of us could bring one person back to Church. We still have time to make this a reality. There are many possibilities coming up in the near future that will be opportunities for us to welcome Catholics back home. On the diocesan level you will hear soon about the upcoming men’s conference on October 5 called “Man-alive”. One month later, on November 23, there will be a similar event for women. Why not consider going to one of these events and inviting someone to come with you? Here in our own parish there are many other opportunities to invite people back. You could invite them to join a parish group: RCIA, bible study, soup kitchen, CWL, Knights of Columbus, Legion of Mary – the list is long.  In this way we can encourage others to accept God’s offer of salvation.

So, what is the population of heaven? Of hell?  Will many be saved? The answer in the end depends a lot on us. Certainly we should trust in God’s love and mercy, we should hope and pray that all are saved. This is God’s own desire. On the other hand we should be filled with a sense of urgency to work with God in ensuring that people – starting with ourselves – accept this offer of salvation. During this year of Faith let us do this by taking advantage of the many events in the diocese and our parish by going ourselves and inviting a friend, family member or co-worker along with us. 

Refiner's Fire

When you ask people about Jesus and His message, even those who are not Christians, most people’s view would be something like the following. Jesus was a kind, gentle man who taught a message of universal goodwill and brotherhood. Following His teaching should bring tranquility and peace to your life. This view of Jesus is epitomized by many movies about His life. Jesus is presented with long hair and incredibly gentle. He acts like a hippie who walked the roads of Palestine – wearing sandals of course – some 2000 years ago. Now, there certainly is a lot of truth to this image of Jesus and His message, but it is not the whole picture. In today’s gospel we see another side of Jesus. He is presented as a disruptive and rebellious figure. He tells us that He has not come to bring peace, but division. Jesus explains the affect that His teaching should have on the world: it should be like a fire. As we will see, what Jesus has in mind with this analogy is a far cry from a serene campfire around which we hold hands and sing Kumbaya.

If we are trying to follow Jesus, we should feel a certain amount of division, some burning even, within ourselves. Being a Christian should make us feel uncomfortable at times. This is because the Gospel calls us to change ourselves and change can be painful. Jesus calls us to act in a way that we would sometimes rather not act. When we say yes to Jesus and His way, we can sometimes feel like we are at war within ourselves. For example, if someone says something rude about myself or someone I care about, my first reaction is to seek revenge, to hurt them back. In such a situation choosing to follow Jesus’ example by fighting against this impulse and forgiving the person will not be easy, it may hurt us to do this. Or, for example, we all want to accumulate more and better material goods, whether it be clothes, a car, good food or entertainment. Making the choice not to buy yourself that new outfit, or the best car you can or to see that new movie and rather give some of that money to the needy, is not an easy thing to do. We feel the tension between what we want and what Jesus asks of us. When we chose to follow Jesus we discover that it brings struggle and discord within ourselves.

Being a Christian will also cause a certain amount of division between ourselves and other people.  Following Jesus will often put us at odds with current trends and popular opinion about what it means to live a good life. I experienced this strongly when I graduated from a Catholic High School and went to university. The new friends I was making often had a different world-view and set of values. Tensions could often arise because of our disagreements on different issues, whether it be regarding belief in God, the role of religion in society and a host of moral issues. Following Christ can put as at odds with other people, sometimes those very close to us. Jesus says that His message will bring division even in a family, a son against his father, for example. Perhaps you might argue that it is the normal state of affairs for a daughter-in-law to be at odds with her mother-in-law. You don’t need Jesus to have conflict with your in-laws! Now, I do not think that Jesus wants there to be division within a family. He is trying to highlight the seriousness of His message and that it demands a response, either we are for or against. This, unfortunately, can lead to tensions in a family. We see this in the lives of some saints.  For example, the fathers of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Thomas of Aquinas both put their sons under house arrest when they heard about they plans to follow Jesus. Choosing to follow Jesus with often cause a certain amount of division between ourselves and other people.

The tensions that arise from following Christ, those within ourselves and those with other people, are meant to purify us so that we become more like Jesus.  The fire that Jesus can bring to our lives will hurt at times but will transform us to be better people. Fire has many uses, it can keep us warm or it can heat our food. Fire is also used to purify metals. A woman once went to visit a silversmith to observe him in action. She noticed that in order to purge the silver from all its impurities, the silversmith would heat the silver over a fire in order to burn off all foreign elements. The woman asked the silversmith how he knew when the process of purification was over. The smith responded that he paid close attention to the silver in the fire; he would know that the silver was purified when – and only when - he could see his own reflection in the silver.  Jesus does the same to us. When we make the choice to follow Christ each day it is not easy, it causes tensions both within ourselves and with others. In a way we are held in the fire. These struggles are meant to purify and refine us, to remove all impurities so that more and more we become like Christ. The fire that Jesus brings should transform us so that more and more we reflect Him in our life.

Today’s gospel calls us to examine our understanding of what it means to follow Jesus. What are our expectations in following Christ? Should we expect a life of peace and tranquility? Yes, but not at once and not all the time. We should not let ourselves feel discouraged when we experienced struggles and divisions – both internal and external - because we have chosen to follow Jesus. This is normal. If we never felt a struggle within ourselves or experienced that we are at odds with social trends and opinions then something would be wrong. This should give us hope. Let us change the way that look at struggles and difficulties in our life. We should not see them as times when God has abandoned us or feel that something is wrong. Rather we should recognize them for what they are, necessary moments when Jesus is refining us and removing from us impurities so that we more and more reflect Him in all our words, thoughts and actions.

Why would a loving God not answer prayer?

I heard a story of a ship that was sinking in the middle of a storm. The captain called out to the crew and said, "Does anyone here know how to pray?"  One man stepped forward and said, "Yes sir, I know how to pray." The captain said, "Wonderful, you pray while the rest of us put on life jackets - we're one short." Last Sunday, in the gospel story of Martha and Mary, we were reminded of the importance of regular prayer. I suggested that you take it as a challenge to pray regularly for at least five minutes each day. How did it go? When we start to pray regularly, we usually begin to notice difficulties.  These difficulties are reflected in the joke we heard: 1) we find we don’t really know how to pray and 2) we discover that sometimes our prayers don’t seem to be answered. Jesus addresses these challenges in today’s gospel.

We all struggle with knowing how to pray. Praying is no easy or straight forward task.  Many Catholics do not think that they enjoy a very good prayer life.  They think everyone else has an amazing prayer life and that all everyone else has to do is close their eyes and they are immediately filled with the presence of God. This is nonsense! We all struggle with prayer, myself included. When I pray I seldom experience strong positive emotions. I can easily lose concentration and become distracted. I received a good reality check about the difficulty of prayer when I read an interview with the now deceased Cardinal Hume. Towards the end of his life this devout man was asked about his prayer life.  He responded:
Oh, I just keep plugging away. At its best it’s like being in a dark room with someone you love. You can’t see them, but you know they’re there.
The disciples too must have had challenges praying otherwise we would not find them asking Jesus to teach them how to pray in today’s gospel. That the disciples and great Christians such as Cardinal Hume also struggled with knowing how to pray gives me hope. We all find prayer difficult.

Though prayer can be tough, an intimate, personal relationship with God is not beyond our capabilities. When asked by His disciples “teach us to pray”, Jesus gives them the “Our Father”. This prayer teaches so much about the nature of prayer. According to Christ, prayer is an incredibly intimate and personal thing. We are to call on God as we would our own father, with loving trust that He will provide for all our needs. In the end, prayer is a matter of the heart. We unite our hearts with God. We can do this simply by speaking to God in our hearts during the day, being open and honest about our joys and frustrations. We can also unite our hearts to God silently in a type of loving gaze. There is an interesting anecdote from the life of St. John Vianney. He would often notice a poor old peasant spending hours in prayer before the tabernacle, in front of the Blessed Sacrament. Eventually St. Vianney went and questioned the man about how he prayed, what does he did, what he said.  The man responded: "Nothing. I just look at Him and He looks at me."  Though prayer is challenging, it should foster this kind of intimate, personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Prayer gradually transforms the human heart, to make it more in accord with God’s.  A huge obstacle in prayer can be the sense that God does not answer our prayers.  We can ask for things in prayer and when it does not come to pass we can feel that God is not listening, that our prayer is useless. Even though we may not see any results, prayer always works.  As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “Transformation of the praying heart is the first response to our petition” (CCC §2739). We ask for many things in prayer, but do we even know what is really good for ourselves? If I look back I see that there are some things that I asked God for in prayer that weren’t really what was best for me. I can see now that what actually happened to me at that moment, though not what I wanted, was actually what was best for me.  When we pray God slowly changes our hearts so that we begin to desire what God desires for us. Hence in the Our Father we pray to God, “thy will be done”. There is a story that in a Soviet prison camp there was one prisoner who would get on his knees each day and pray. One day when he is praying with his eyes closed, a fellow prisoner walked by him and said with ridicule, "Prayers won't help you get out of here any faster." Opening his eyes, the praying prisoner answered, "I do not pray to get out of prison but to do the will of God." Prayer changes our heart so that we more and more desire to have God’s will done in our life.       

Because of all the challenges that prayer poses, it is vital that we cultivate the virtue of perseverance in our prayer life.  Today’s Gospel makes several things crystal clear regarding prayer. 1) God is a Father who loves us dearly and will always give us in time what is best for us, and 2) our job is to persevere in prayer, to keep asking God for what we desire, to always knock. We may ask, “why does God not just grant us what we want right away? Why does He wait?” I would like to answer that by taking as an analogy the way a particular species of bamboo grows. When you try to grow this bamboo from a seed, something peculiar happens. For the first year you water and fertilize the seed but little seems to happen, a small shoot only emerges from the soil. When you water and fertilize the seedling for a second year, nothing seems to happen, no growth is visible. The same for the third year, and the fourth year. Then during the fifth year something remarkable happens. When you water and fertilize the plant, it will grow close to 90 feet in just a couple months. What was going on during the first four years? During this time, the bamboo plant was growing a vast root system underground that would ultimately support the towering plant.  When we ask for something in prayer, perhaps we are not yet ready to receive this gift or perhaps God has an even greater gift in mind. Like the plant, we lack the necessary roots. When we pray, it is like watering and fertilizing our soul so that our hearts – our root structure – can grow and become strong enough to receive the great gifts that God wants to give us. In order for our hearts to grow, we need to keep praying, we need to keep knocking. For this reason it is vital that we cultivate the virtue of perseverance in our prayer life.

Recently the world was able to witness an incredible testimony to the importance of prayer and perseverance. As many of you know, this past week Rio Di Janeiro has hosted the World Youth Day. A few nights ago was the prayer vigil, in which over three million young people joined the Holy Father to pray. The youth persevered in prayer late into the night, uniting their will with God. Surely their hearts were changed. It is a great source of inspiration and encouragement for me just to see the incredible images of this event showing the vast multitude of praying youth. Let us follow their example by persevering in prayer in the face of obstacles. Let us remain faithful to praying regularly each day so that God can transform our heart to better reflect the desires of His own.