Monday, June 02, 2008

Preachin' on Hell

This weekend was a period of extreme contrast for me. On Saturday, I was blessed to be able to attend a marriage ceremony done according to the Extraordinary Form at Assumption Grotto in Detroit. It was quite a beautiful Mass. I meant to have lots of pics of it to put up today, but my camera is kind of crummy and all the pictures came out too dark. Fortunately, I am in touch with the professional photographer (who happens to be a Traditional Catholic) who let me know that he would be sending me some of the best pics of the ceremony to put up, so keep an eye out for those in the next few days.

As I attended this service, I recalled how people of my mom and dad's generation used to complain that pre-Vatican II weddings were so long. I heard many horror stories about three and four hour services. I'm not sure what these people sat through in the old days, but this service was just under one hour, but I would not have minded had it gone on longer. The musical selection was beautiful (Bach, Lambilotte), and Jubilate Deo was sung by the choir as the new man and wife processed out of the Church. Looking at just the amount of time everything took, I'd have to say that the taking pictures of the wedding party was much more time consuming and tedious than the actual Mass, as it always is ("okay, great shot; now I just need to get five more!"). Anyhow, I'll have some pics of it up in the next few days.

But, I said it was a weekend of extremes, and so it was, for the following Sunday I ended up having to go to Mass at a parish near my home that I never usually go to. As I walked in and grabbed a program, I saw that it was a LifeTeen Mass, and noticed the "band" tuning their instruments and preparing to start as I sat down. The Mass started with a "greeting" by the priest ("Everybody turn to your neighbor and welcome them") and was full of Protestant rock-music complete with drum-set (all set up in the front by the altar, despite the spacious, empty choir-loft). People wore shorts, sandals, tank-tops; nobody I saw genuflected, or even made prayed along with any of the prayers or sung with the songs. All the altar servers held hands with the priest around the altar at the Our Father, and, what was very strange, was that the collection was done as a procession. Instead of passing a basket, the priest set the basket down at the foot of the altar and had everybody process up and drop their donation. I thought this terriby uncomfortable, for people who did not have any money to give ended up having to process up to the altar and walk by the basket very conspicuously without putting anything in. How embarassing to have to do that in front of the whole parish. As I did not have a tithe (since this was not my parish), I went to the bathroom while it was going on.

Strangely enough, this priest chose this particular Mass to preach on something totally out of keeping with the mood he was creating for the liturgy: the pains of hell. That's right! He went into St. Catherine of Siena's vision of the three pains of hell and preached on it for sometime, before making some clumsy and out of context references to the stupid movie "Bruce Almighty," which he ended up endorsing.

I saw everybody squriming as he preached on the pains and eternality of hell. I am always for priests precahing on hell, but I began to wonder whether or not it was a wise choice in this setting with this group of people, and I will tell you why.

First, I'm going to go out on a limb by guessing that many of the people there are not well catechized. I'm going to assume this by the general lack of reverence for the Mass and the lack of enthusiasm I witnessed (scores of people flooded out right after receiving Communion). Since they are not well catechized, I'm guessing that they have never really talked about the faith too seriously with their children, spouses, etc. because they themselves probably don't know it well.

Now, I saw people shifting around uncomfortably at the mention of hell. I'm going to guess that when these families left the Church, the children, unaccustomed to hearing hell preached on in their modernist, happy-clappy parish, probably raised questions about it with their parents. Since the parents themselves don't know much about it, and since the topic is difficult to understand, and since they had demonstrated so little reverence to the liturgy and the traditions of the faith in general, I'm guessing that they probably told their kids that the priest was wrong, or that there was no hell, or that everybody went to heaven, or say "that's just what the priest believes" or otherwise gave them some ignorant explanation of hell.

I can very easily see that happening. Thus, the whole thing ends with the parents explaining to the kids that what the priest was saying was false or at least doubtful, or even at best, giving a misguided and ignorant explanation of it to their kids. While preaching on the pains and eternality of hell are great things and were often preached on by the saints, how does it effect a congregation who through lack of education and modern cultural conditioning have come to doubt the existence of the very thing the priest is warning them about? Most of the sermons preached by St. Alphonsus and St. John Vianney on hell were preached to people who tookit for granted that hell did exist. I'm not saying that hell ought not to be preached on, but that perhaps it requires a little bit more formation before a congregation can benefit from St. Catherine's three pains of the damned. Any thoughts on this?


Anonymous said...

Most Catholics are not spiritually mature enough to see themselves, someone sitting in a pew on Sunday morning Mass, as actually being in danger of Hell. We're not universalists yet - but I envision our concept of Hell as this: a series of concentric circles, the outer circles being a high probability of Hell (pagans, not the noble kind), some other circles, etc.. and the 3rd inmost circle being Christians, the 2nd inmost circle being Catholics and the smallest circle with the lowest probability of going to Hell, practicing Catholics.

I think that such a sermon, on the pains of Hell, would be perceived as mean-spirited (as in "Oh, how our enemies will suffer!") because of this spiritual immaturity.

A better way to approach this topic would be to start with the sin of presumption (the sin of assuming one is "saved"); then moving to the necessity of believing in Hell based on the Scriptures, the Fathers, the Catechism and the existence of evil and justice; then answering common objections to the doctrine, of which our modern age is rife.

Anonymous said...

Something I ran across tonight...
"The priest reads the prayer offering the unconsecrated bread and wine (offertory) to God for the Mass. He then asks to Lord to please accept (suscipe) our offering despite our unworthiness, for all Christians - living or dead.

Long ago, worshipers would proceed to the altar bringing gifts of food, gold and other property."