To the Families of Fallen Away Catholics
David G. Bonagura, Jr.
The depressing abstract statistic that 75 percent of Catholics do not attend Mass on Sundays takes on flesh when we consider an easily overlooked reality: these wayward souls are the siblings, parents, spouses, children, relatives of you and me – and we all probably have at least one in our families. We feel in our guts the precarious predicament of these loved ones because we fear their eternal fates if they do not return to the faith.
The Second Vatican Council issued a harrowing admonition to Catholics who squander the gift of faith they were given at baptism: “If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged.” (Lumen Gentium 14)
Knowing this, believers sense a persistent tension, be it unspoken or hotly debated, between themselves and their fallen away relatives that hangs like a rain cloud over conversations, holidays, and family gatherings. Yes, we pray for our lapsed relatives’ conversions daily. Yes, we attempt, when the time is right, to convince them to return. Yes, we do our best to love them even though their current path makes expressing that love more difficult.
But what we can do is limited. This troubling fact, though, can bolster our own faith because it forces us to surrender our anxieties to God, whose justice and mercy mysteriously envelop both our expectations and our wayward relatives’ defiance.
Our view of divine justice and divine mercy can be muddled by the regular intra-ecclesial squabbles that pit us against one another, but we find the two harmonized in our Lord’s revelations to the Polish nun St. Faustina Kowalska (1905-1938). Through her, our Lord revealed the unspeakable power of His mercy, which He wanted to be painted in the now-famous image of Jesus standing with red and blue rays pouring from His heart. All that history led to the establishment of a feast for the Divine Mercy on the Sunday after Easter, and the Divine Mercy Chaplet.
St. Faustina recorded our Lord’s revelations to her in a diary that makes for soul-stirring reading. His message of mercy is unambiguous: “My heart overflows with great mercy for souls, and especially for poor sinners.” (Diary, 367) “The greater the sinner the greater the right he has to my mercy.” (723)
Our fallen away relatives are these sinners. Lest we worry that, in justice, they receive in eternity what they chose on earth – life without God and His Church – our Lord proposed a different type of justice, one that hinges not on our works, but His action, namely, His sorrowful passion.
“At the last hour, a soul has nothing to defend itself except My mercy.” (1075) “I cannot punish even the greatest sinner if he makes an appeal to My compassion, but on the contrary, I justify him in My unfathomable and inscrutable mercy.” (1146)
In His infinite generosity and desire that “all men. . .be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4), our Lord allows us to invoke His mercy on behalf of our wayward relatives: “Write that when [distressed souls] say this [Divine Mercy] chaplet in the presence of the dying, I will stand between My Father and the dying person, not as the just judge but as the merciful Savior.”
Just when we thought our prayers for our fallen away brethren, after years and years of their stubborn resistance, were for naught, Jesus reminds us through St. Faustina of two critical points.
First, prayer really does work miracles, but on God’s time and in His way rather than ours. “My daughter, if you knew what great merit and reward is earned by one act of pure love for Me, you would die of joy.” (576) “The prayer most pleasing to Me is prayer for the conversion of sinners. Know, my daughter, that this prayer is always heard and answered.” (1397)
Second, it is not you or me, but God Himself who brings about conversion. “Know that of yourself you can do nothing.” (639)
For sure, the ghastly specter of eternity in Hell still looms large. St. Faustina recounts her terrifying vision of it (741), and our Lord warns her that “[s]ouls perish in spite of My bitter passion. . . .If they will not adore My mercy, they will perish for all eternity.” (965) It’s possible for our beloved relatives, as it is for any of us, to maintain a hard heart and resist the salvation freely offered in Christ.
Yet through the revelations to St. Faustina we have more hope than ever before that somehow, someway, the mercy that our fallen away relatives refused to embrace for themselves can be attributed to them through our prayers, and especially through our recitation of the Divine Mercy Chaplet.
Through His passion, Jesus Christ is both perfect justice and perfect mercy. If, when considering the final judgment, we concern ourselves with details of justice that exceed our knowledge and capabilities, we will fall into despair. But if we let go of our concerns and allow them to be absorbed into God’s mercy, then “the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 4:7)
Renewed by hope in Christ, let us take up the command our Lord gave to St. Faustina as we redouble our efforts in prayer for the fallen away: “Dispense my mercy.” (975)
Wanted: A Divine Justice Sunday
Deacon James H. Toner
In the profane world, this is the moment of unlimited tolerance. This is the time of unqualified acceptance of almost any belief or behavior, of hyper non-judgmentalism, of triumphant relativism. This is the day of antinomianism run amok. This is the time of . . .“whatever.”
In the sacred world, this is the time, we are often told, to know that our loving God understands, forgives, and forgets. Ours is a very broad-minded God, and we, who – allegedly – use to be narrow-minded, have finally begun to understand that spiritual progress means an end to worries about the “fires of Hell,” alarmism about sin and divine retribution, and about eternal punishment.
Ours is a God, we now think, who permits us to do our “thing” our way. We should be kind to others and to animals, of course, but such kindness means not preaching that His way must be our way. We are now spiritually mature enough (again, allegedly) to know that God’s love is permissive, open-minded, and approving of any and every expression of “love.”
There’s no need for all that organ music anymore; we’re all Sinatra now:
For what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself then he has naught
To say the things he truly feels
And not the words of one who kneels
The record shows I took the blows and did it my way.
So much for kneeling before the Lord, our Maker (Psalm 95:6), or at the name of Jesus. (Phil 2:10)
Imagine this – Catholic kids once actually learned what the Baltimore Catechism taught: “Those are punished in hell who die in mortal sin; they are deprived of the vision of God and suffer dreadful torments, especially that of fire, for all eternity.” We can’t have that anymore, can we? Hell? Sin? Torment? Fire? Forever?
Yes, we can, and we must. “Original sin,” as Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) once put it, “is the only thing about man which makes him capable of conceiving of his own perfection and incapable of achieving it.” Once we think of ourselves as gods, we can no longer think of ourselves as God’s. And there pride lurks – the beginning of all sin.
This is not at all a cri de coeur against Divine Mercy Sunday, which we will celebrate tomorrow. In the Traditional Latin Mass, this is known as “Low Sunday,” coming as it does immediately after the great Easter solemnity. It is also known as Quasimodo Sunday, from its Introit: We are (and should be) very much like (Lat. Quasimodo) newborn babes who desire pure, spiritual milk (based on 1 Peter 2:2). This is preserved in the Novus Ordo Entrance Antiphon for Divine Mercy Sunday.
Pure spiritual milk, indeed. Without it, our souls shrivel, and we become religiously dehydrated and die. That “spiritual milk” may be understood to be our longing for the kingdom of God – and His way, not “my way.” Our Lord was clear: “I assure you that whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.” (Mark 10:15)
Such humility, such meekness, or yearning (cf. Psalm 63) is utterly at odds with the rampant egotism of the day; it is wholly contrary to contemporary hedonism and nihilism; it is unalterably opposed to the celebration of the debauched physical urges and appetites against which St. Paul ardently preached:
There are many whose lives make them enemies of Christ’s death on the cross. They are going to wind up in hell because their god is their own bodily desires. They are proud of what they should be ashamed of, and they think only of things that belong to this world. (Phil 3:18; cf. Rev 21:8, 22:15)
We are, after all, called to do God’s will, not to indulge ourselves in our sybaritic and disordered desires.
Seven times in the New Testament we read about the “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” and fear of the Lord is repeatedly proclaimed as the beginning of wisdom in Old Testament scripture (Proverbs, Psalms, Job, Ecclesiastes, Sirach). Consequently, attrition – the spirit of sorrow for our “sins, offenses, and negligences” based upon fear (rather than, but as a beginning to, filial fear) – is good, if imperfect, contrition.
“Today,” wrote Cardinal Avery Dulles (here), “a kind of thoughtless optimism is. . .[a] prevalent error. Quite apart from what theologians teach, popular piety has become saccharine. Unable to grasp the rationale for eternal punishment, many Christians take it almost for granted that everyone, or practically everyone, must be saved. The Mass for the Dead has turned into a Mass of the Resurrection, which sometimes seems to celebrate not so much the resurrection of the Lord as the salvation of the deceased, without any reference to sin and punishment. More education is needed to convince people that they ought to fear God who, as Jesus taught, can punish soul and body together in hell.” (cf. Matthew 10:28)
We therefore also need a Divine Justice Sunday to remind us that “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” to whom vengeance properly, and surely, belongs (Hebrews 10:30-31), and whose perfect justice, as we learn to develop genuine wisdom, we ought to fear.
A Divine Justice Sunday would remind us that God is Mercy and Justice, and that God alone can perfectly blend these attributes. We fear the Justice because of our sins, which we correctly hate; we yearn for the mercy because we are the children of God (John 1:12, Romans 8:14), whom we know is love and in whose presence we yearn to be. Forever.
*Image: The original Divine Mercy painting by Eugeniusz Kazimirowski, 1934 [Shrine of Divine Mercy (Church of the Holy Trinity) Vilnius, Lithuania]. The painting was lovingly restored in 2003.