Each weekday, you'll find a new question and answer. Check back for the new question and scroll down to see previous day's entries! Let us know what you think - - or question! -- by emailing us at email@example.com.
Is God Absent From Hell?
Q. I'm having trouble understanding hell. Hell is the absence of God, yet according to St. Thomas Aquinas, God is everywhere. My question is this: Can you explain how God can be everywhere at all times, yet at the same time not be in hell? This appears to be a contradiction.
Damion John Leafey, Huntingdon, Pa.
A. Here’s a reply from TCA columnist Father Ray Ryland, Ph.D., J.D:
To believe that hell is the absence of God and simultaneously to believe that God is everywhere is indeed a contradiction. The problem arises from the fact that one of these beliefs is in error.
Hell is not the absence of God; hell is the rejection of God. Indeed, if God were not present in hell, hell would not exist. Yet we know by revelation that hell certainly does exist.
In this life there are only two ultimate choices: self or God. At the moment of death, the choice we have made becomes our eternal destiny. It seems to me that God's being in hell must be the cause of the deepest suffering of the damned. Forever they are confronted by the living, loving God whom they rejected in this life.
Salvation Outside the Church?
Q. I have heard it said or read that the only path to salvation is through the Catholic Church. Is this true? If so, how may the many good Christians in other faiths obtain salvation?
— Robert Flint
A. Here’s a reply from Father Reginald Martin:
The question of salvation outside the Catholic Church concerns not only non-Catholic Christians, but non-Christians as well. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is clear on this matter: “The Lord himself affirms that Baptism is necessary for salvation.… The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude” (No. 1257). This reflects Jesus’ words to Nicodemus: “No one can enter the kingdom of God witout being born of water and Spirit” (Jn 3:5).
However, the Second Vatican Council’s Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World) teaches, “Since Christ died for all…we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partakers, in a way known to God, of the Paschal mystery” (No. 22; see also Catechism, No. 1260).
Our faith believes lex orandi, lex credendi: the Church prays as it believes (see Catechism, No. 1124). Thus, on Good Friday, we pray for those who believe neither in God nor Christ “as they walk … in sincerity of heart.” God’s mercy is unbounded, and although baptism in the Church is the “ordinary” means of salvation, the Catechism reminds us, “Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel … but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved” (No. 1260).
The Words We Pray
Q. How important is it when reading a prayer that we understand all of its meaning?
Hugh Sweeney, by e-mail
A. Here’s a reply from OSV columnist Msgr. M. Francis Mannion:
On the one hand, it is very important that we understand the prayers we say, whether read or repeated from memory.
Prayers are not magical formulas that have power in themselves. Their power comes from God and from our cooperation with him.
The power of prayer comes from the degree to which we put our hearts and souls into what we say when we address God and in the extent that we take seriously whatever God does in response to our prayers. We must keep in mind here that God's response to our prayers will not always be what we expect and often may not be easily discernible.
On the other hand, there is a sense that we never fully understand the prayers we say. Consider the Our Father -- not a human invention, but something given us by Christ himself.
Numerous commentaries have been written on the Our Father over the centuries, and no commentary ever fully exhausts its meaning.
Many of the most popular prayers we are familiar with were taught to us in childhood. We learned to say them even before we fully understood them. The lack of full understanding does not make the prayers of children less true. Over the years, children "grow" into the prayers they have been taught.
This truth underscores the importance of introducing children to the prayers of the liturgy and of Catholic devotion. These are also the prayers that stay with people as their mental faculties fade and prayer becomes more difficult.
The prayer of an elderly person who struggles to grasp what he or she is saying is surely acceptable in God's sight.
General or Specific Confession?
Q. What is a good confession? I grew up thinking that one had to be very specific about telling sins.
My friend says that is not true anymore. She insists that we should just say, "I committed adultery," or "I fornicated," or "I stole." What is the truth? Be specific or general?
K. Fleming, via e-mail
A. Here’s a reply from TCA columnist Father Francis Hoffman, J.C.D.:
A good confession is an integral confession accompanied by genuine sorrow for one's sins and a firm resolution to improve and avoid future occasions of sin. A confession is integral if the penitent mentions the number and kind of all mortal sins of which he or she is aware and which have not been previously confessed.
When confessing mortal sins, it is enough to mention the number of times, the nature of the sin and any aggravating circumstances. An aggravating circumstance would be any situation that made the sin more serious.
For sins against the Sixth Commandment it is enough to mention, for instance: I committed adultery on two occasions with two different persons; I committed fornication three times. An aggravating circumstance might be the age of the person or relationship of that person to you. Another aggravating circumstance might be intoxication. If you stole something, you should also mention the value of the item and how you plan to make restitution.
Normally, an experienced confessor might ask some questions to help you be complete and sincere while at the same time avoiding useless questions. For the confessor to give you sound advice, he needs to know the complete picture of your situation, so try to be very sincere. If you are telling too much detail, or useless information, the confessor will politely cut you off and redirect the conversation.
The Congregation’s Posture during the Lord’s Prayer
Q. During the Our Father, can parishioners raise their hands as the priest does?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church offers inspiring reflections on gesture in our liturgical life (see Nos. 1146-1152). These are, necessarily, general observations, and do not consider specific postures, such as the orans — that is, “praying” — gesture, by which the congregation imitates the celebrant’s raising his hands during the Lord’s Prayer.
This posture has caused some debate during the last 15 years. Proponents say the gesture was common among early Christians; opponents argue it is appropriate only for the celebrant at Mass.
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) prescribes no gesture (for the congregation) during the Lord’s Prayer, although it states, “the faithful should follow the directions which the deacon, lay minister or priest gives according to whatever is indicated in the Missal” (No. 43).
In 1995, the U.S. bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy (BCL) determined the orans posture “a permissible option.” Interestingly, this decision appears to be based on bishops deciding the congregation’s raising hands is preferable to their holding hands during the Lord’s Prayer.
Thus the gesture is permitted, but not mandated. Whether it is even encouraged remains to be determined. Those wishing to explore the issue more fully will find an interesting presentation at the online website of the Adoremus Bulletin.
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