Question: Why is it that we do not hear sermons anymore on sin, damnation and hellfire? We heard lots of them in the good old days before the Second Vatican Council.
— Bill Bandle, Manchester, Mo.
Answer: While the style of preaching on sin, damnation and hellfire has certainly changed “since the good old days,” the themes are as relevant as ever. They appear generally in preaching today as the flip side of sermons on grace, salvation and heaven.
Sin is never properly — or usefully — preached about in abstraction. The starting point for treating this topic is the challenge of the Gospel to live virtuously, morally and justly in the model of Christ. Not a Sunday goes by that there isn’t something in the Scripture readings that challenges us and causes us to examine our consciences.
The Scriptures do not simply comfort us and affirm us in our present stances and attitudes; they always ask for something more, and we always leave the liturgy with some lesson that calls for more radical conversion to the Christian way of life. Telling people they are sinners is not compelling in itself. Sin is introduced in homilies as failure, falling short of the mark, injuring our better selves — our Christ-selves.
In the same way, damnation is not a topic one can dwell on without reference to the gift of salvation Christ has wrought for the whole world — and the necessity of our making it our own by sincere conversion of life. Good preaching on the topic of damnation is the kind of preaching that makes people realize that it is possible by sheer spiritual inertia to fail to become the human being that God wishes one to be; that we can come to the end of our lives with little to show in those areas that really matter.
Hell needs to be approached in the same sort of way. Painting pictures of purple devils with red-hot pitchforks poking screaming souls may frighten the dickens out of people, but it is not very compelling in the long run. Strong sermons on the reality of heaven, using all the poetic imagery of the Scriptures and Christian tradition, motivate people more adequately to reach for the kingdom of God and to orient their souls already to the glory of heaven.
Certainly, hell needs to be mentioned in sermons, but it is best seen as loss of heaven — ultimate loss of relationship to God, others and self. Hell is a freezing of the soul (to invoke Dante); an ultimate positioning of self in darkness, despair and loneliness. Does anyone ever go that far? I hope not. But is it a possibility? Christ says so.
America Needs Fátima
Question: I have heard of an organization called America Needs Fátima that promotes devotion to Our Lady of Fátima. A fellow parishioner told me that the Church does not approve of it. Is this true?
— Eugene F. Meier, Decorah, Iowa
Answer: There is plenty of strange thinking and activism regarding Fátima, and one is wise to be cautious. I had not heard of the organization you mention, but my Internet search turned up nothing that seemed problematic. In its official website, the organization addresses the question: “Does the Catholic Church support America Needs Fátima?” by saying, “Over the years, America Needs Fátima has received hundreds of letters from bishops and priests praising the apostolate or specific efforts we have undertaken.”
Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.