Yet to some it has seemed that this very loquacious Church is silent about what is most essential: eternal life.
Your Holiness, do heaven, purgatory, and hell still exist? Why do many Churchmen comment interminably upon topical issues, but hardly ever speak to us about eternity, about that ultimate union with God that, as faith teaches, remains man's vocation, man's destiny, and ultimate end?
Please open the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, to chapter 7, which discusses the eschatological character of the pilgrim Church on earth, as well as the union of the earthly Church with the Church in heaven. Your question addresses not the unity of the pilgrim Church and the heavenly Church, but the connection between eschatology and the Church on earth. In this regard, you point out that in pastoral practice this perspective has in some ways been lost, and I must acknowledge that there is some truth to this.
Let's remember that not so long ago, in sermons during retreats or missions, the Last Things-death, judgment, heaven, hell, and purgatory-were always a standard part of the program of meditation and preachers knew how to speak of them in an effective and evocative way. How many people were drawn to conversion and confession by these sermons and reflections on the Last Things!
Furthermore, we have to recognize that this pastoral style was profoundly personal: "Remember that at the end you will present yourself before God with your entire life. Before His judgment seat you will be responsible for all of your actions, you will be judged not only on your actions and on your words but also on your thoughts, even the most secret." It could be said that these sermons, which correspond perfectly to the content of Revelation in the Old and New Testaments, went to the very heart of man's inner world. They stirred his conscience, they threw him to his knees, they led him to the screen of the confessional, they had a profound saving effect all their own.
Man is free and therefore responsible. His is a personal and social responsibility, a responsibility before God, a responsibility which is his greatness. I understand the fears of which you are speaking: you are afraid that the fact that one no longer speaks of these things in evangelization, in catechesis, and in homilies represents a threat to this basic greatness of man. Indeed, we could ask ourselves if the Church would still be able to awaken heroism and produce saints without proclaiming this message. And I am not speaking so much about the "great" saints, who are elevated to the honor of the altars, but of the "everyday" saints, to use the term in the sense it has had from early Christian literature.
Significantly, the Council also reminds us of the universal call to holiness in the Church. This vocation is universal and concerns each of the baptized, every Christian. It is always very personal, connected to work, to one's profession. It is an account rendered of the talents each person has received-whether one has made good or bad use of them. We know that the words the Lord Jesus spoke about the man who had buried the talent were very harsh and threatening (cf. Mt 25:25-30).
It can be said that until recently the Church's catechesis and preaching centered upon an individual eschatology, one, for that matter, which is profoundly rooted in Divine Revelation. The vision proposed by the Council, however, was that of an eschatology of the Church and of the world.
The title of chapter 7 of Lumen Gentium-"The Eschatological Nature of the Pilgrim Church"-which I suggested you reread, clearly reveals this intention. Here is the opening passage: "The Church, to which we are all called in Jesus Christ and in which through God's grace we attain holiness, will reach its fulfillment only in the glory of heaven, when the time comes for the renewal of all things (cf. Acts 3:21), and when the human race together with the entire world, which is intimately connected to man and through him arrives at its destiny, will be perfectly renewed in Christ. . . . And indeed Christ, when He rose up from the earth, drew all to Himself (cf. Jn 12:32); rising from the dead (cf. Rm 6:9) He instilled in the Apostles His animating Spirit, and through the Spirit built His Body which is the Church, the universal sacrament of salvation; seated at the right hand of the Father, He is continually at work in the world guiding men to the Church and through it uniting them more closely with Himself, and nourishing them with His own Body and Blood He gives them a share in His glorious life. Therefore, the promised renewal that we await is already begun in Christ. It is carried forward by the Holy Spirit and through the Spirit it continues in the Church, where the faith teaches us the meaning of our temporal life, while we finish, in the hope of future good, the work given to us in the world by the Father, and thus give fulfillment to our salvation (cf. Phil 2:12). The end of the age has already arrived (cf. 1 Cor 10:11) and the world's renewal is irrevocably set-and in a certain real way it is even anticipated in this world. Already, on earth the Church is adorned with true, even if imperfect, holiness. But until there are new heavens and a new earth, in which justice resides (cf. 2 Pt 3:10-13), the pilgrim Church, with its sacraments and institutions which belong to the present stage of history, carries the mark of this fleeting world, and lives among creation, which still groans and struggles, yearning for the appearance of the children of God (cf. Rm 8:19-22)" (Lumen Gentium 48).
It must be admitted that this eschatological vision was only faintly present in traditional preaching. And yet we are talking about an original, biblical vision. The entire passage I just quoted is actually composed of passages cited from the Gospel, the letters of the Apostles, and the Acts of the Apostles. The eschatological tradition, which centered upon the so-called Last Things, is placed by the Council in this fundamental biblical vision. Eschatology, as I have already mentioned, is profoundly anthropological, but in light of the New Testament, it is above all centered on Christ and the Holy Spirit, and it is also, in a certain sense, cosmic.
We can ask ourselves if man, with his individual life, his responsibility, his destiny, with his personal eschatological future, his heaven or hell or purgatory, does not end up getting lost in this cosmic dimension. Recognizing the good reasons which led you to ask your question, it is necessary to respond honestly by saying yes: To a certain degree man does get lost; so too do preachers, catechists, teachers; and as a result, they no longer have the courage to preach the threat of hell. And perhaps even those who listen to them have stopped being afraid of hell.
In fact, people of our time have become insensitive to the Last Things. On the one hand, secularization and secularism promote this insensitivity and lead to a consumer mentality oriented toward the enjoyment of earthly goods. On the other hand, the "hells on earth" created in this century which is now drawing to a close have also contributed to this insensitivity. After the experience of concentration camps, gulags, bombings, not to mention natural catastrophes, can man possibly expect anything worse from this world, an even greater amount of humiliation and contempt? In a word, hell?
To a certain degree, eschatology has become irrelevant to contemporary man, especially in our civilization. Nonetheless, faith in God, as Supreme Justice, has not become irrelevant to man; the expectation remains that there is Someone who, in the end, will be able to speak the truth about the good and evil which man does, Someone able to reward the good and punish the bad. No one else but He is capable of doing it. People continue to have this awareness, which has survived in spite of the horrors of our century. "And so it is appointed that men die once, and then comes judgment" (cf. Heb 9:27).
This awareness also represents, in a certain sense, a common denominator for all monotheistic religions as well as for others. When the Council speaks of the eschatological character of the pilgrim Church it does so on the basis of this awareness. God, who is the just Judge, the Judge who rewards good and punishes evil, is none other than the God of Abraham, of Isaac, of Moses, and also of Christ, who is His Son. This God is, above all, Love. Not just Mercy, but Love. Not only the Father of the prodigal son, but the Father who "gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life" (cf. Jn 3:16).
This truth which the Gospel teaches about God requires a certain change in focus with regard to eschatology. First of all, eschatology is not what will take place in the future, something happening only after earthly life is finished. Eschatology has already begun with the coming of Christ. The ultimate eschatological event was His redemptive Death and His Resurrection. This is the beginning of "a new heaven and a new earth" (cf. Rev 21:1). For everyone, life beyond death is connected with the affirmation: "I believe in the resurrection of the body," and then: "I believe in the forgiveness of sins and in life everlasting." This is Christocentric eschatology.
In Christ, God revealed to the world that He desires "everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth" (1 Tm 2:4). This phrase from the First Letter to Timothy is of fundamental importance for understanding and preaching the Last Things. If God desires this-if, for this reason, God has given His Son, who in turn is at work in the Church through the Holy Spirit-can man be damned, can he be rejected by God?
The problem of hell has always disturbed great thinkers in the Church, beginning with Origen and continuing in our time with Sergey Bulgakov and Hans Urs von Balthasar. In point of fact, the ancient councils rejected the theory of the "final apocatastasis," according to which the world would be regenerated after destruction, and every creature would be saved; a theory which indirectly abolished hell. But the problem remains. Can God, who has loved man so much, permit the man who rejects Him to be condemned to eternal torment? And yet, the words of Christ are unequivocal. In Matthew's Gospel He speaks clearly of those who will go to eternal punishment (cf. Mt 25:46). Who will these be? The Church has never made any pronouncement in this regard. This is a mystery, truly inscrutable, which embraces the holiness of God and the conscience of man. The silence of the Church is, therefore, the only appropriate position for Christian faith. Even when Jesus says of Judas, the traitor, "It would be better for that man if he had never been born" (Mt 26:24), His words do not allude for certain to eternal damnation.
At the same time, however, there is something in man's moral conscience itself that rebels against any loss of this conviction: Is not God who is Love also ultimate Justice? Can He tolerate these terrible crimes, can they go unpunished? Isn't final punishment in some way necessary in order to reestablish moral equilibrium in the complex history of humanity? Is not hell in a certain sense the ultimate safeguard of man's moral conscience?
The Holy Scriptures include the concept of the purifying fire. The Eastern Church adopted it because it was biblical, while not receiving the Catholic doctrine on purgatory.
Besides the bull of Benedict XII from the fourteenth century, the mystical works of Saint John of the Cross offered me a very strong argument for purgatory. The "living flame of love," of which Saint John speaks, is above all a purifying fire. The mystical nights described by this great Doctor of the Church on the basis of his own experience correspond, in a certain sense, to purgatory. God makes man pass through such an interior purgatory of his sensual and spiritual nature in order to bring him into union with Himself. Here we do not find ourselves before a mere tribunal. We present ourselves before the power of Love itself.
Before all else, it is Love that judges. God, who is Love, judges through love. It is Love that demands purification, before man can be made ready for that union with God which is his ultimate vocation and destiny.
Perhaps this is enough. Many theologians, in the East and the West, including contemporary theologians, have devoted their studies to the Last Things. The Church still has its eschatological awareness. It still leads man to eternal life. If the Church should cease to do so, it would cease being faithful to its vocation, to the New Covenant, which God has made with it in Jesus Christ.