I just finished reading Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s recent column, “Christ and His Church are all about Salvation.” At the synod in Rome, we talked a great deal about the “good news” of eternal salvation, a topic that is timely any time but that emerges in a special way as we celebrate All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days in November.
I celebrated an All Saints’ Day Mass at St. Patrick Church in which the school family presented the diverse litany of saints in vivid fashion — a procession that included martyrs, contemplatives, missionaries and teachers. All these saints, however, had one thing in common: eternal life with God our Father.
Then, on Friday, November 2, I joined the faithful at Calvary Cemetery for an All Souls’ Mass held in the midst of monuments to mark the graves of loved ones. (I said a special, private prayer at the grave of Archbishop Kelly.)
The theme of my homily on both occasions was not simply that we remember the lives of those who went before us, but that we pray in gratitude for those who are saved and in heaven, intercede for those in purgatory, and ask God’s mercy for those of us on the way.
We don’t hear much about salvation and eternal life these days. Is it that we are prey to the ancient, “do-it-yourself” heresy of earning our salvation? (This Pelagian heresy of the fourth century promoted the attitude that we can attain salvation ourselves by reaching God on our merits without relying on salvation through Christ and his Church.) Or is it that we think only about this world?
The traditional sins were the two extremes of presumption and despair. Despair is the attitude of giving up because we believe we are so bad, not a common attitude these days. Presumption, however, may be the sin of this age. It assumes that God will welcome us into heaven because we are so good.
The problem — and this is crucial to the new evangelization — is that neither of these extremes reflects the “good news of Jesus Christ.” The good news is a world of mercy, and mercy can find a home only in those whose hearts acknowledge the need for it. We all know people who never admit their fault and so never prepare their hearts to receive mercy.
The new evangelization begins with a look into our own hearts. We confront our frailty and imperfection. We are not quite as good as others think and not as bad as we consider ourselves at times. We are in need of salvation.
Cardinal Dolan calls to mind three passages in which we come to know the mind of Jesus. When asked if only a few would be saved, Jesus spoke of the narrow door: “Try your hardest to enter by the narrow door, because, I tell you, many will try to enter and will not succeed.” (Lk. 13:23-24) On another occasion he made it clear: “Enter by the narrow gate, since the road that leads to destruction is wide and spacious, and many take it; but it is a narrow gate and a hard road that leads to life and only a few find it.” (Mt. 7:13-14) We know Jesus wasn’t happy about this situation and that he wept when he considered the destiny of those who persisted on the wide road. (Lk. 19:41)
These quotes are, of course, the necessary prelude to understanding the precious gift of mercy and salvation. God’s mercy can’t penetrate the heart that feels no need.
This week in Baltimore, the Bishops of the United States will review a message on forgiveness and the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. This past March, I witnessed a Men’s Conference in which virtually all 400-plus participants made a good confession and received God’s mercy in and through the Church. Later, some privately shared that it had been a long time since they had been to confession. The joy of receiving God’s mercy was written all over their faces.
The new evangelization is about salvation in the Church, and inner conversion of heart and sacramental forgiveness are essential steps in this journey. At a recent Priests’ Council meeting, it was confirmed that in preparation for Advent, the Passionist Fathers will host a lunch for priests followed by a Holy Hour during which the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation would be available. This is precisely the recipe for the new evangelization. We begin with inner conversion, reject both presumption and despair, and seek salvation in Christ through the Church.
By the way, if you want to read more about the Synod, there is a wonderful, 15-page “Message to the People of God” (www.news.va/en/news/synod-message-to-the-people-of-god). It speaks of a “serene certainty” and a “serene courage” as the core of the new evangelization. It is a message that continues the theme of this column, and I recommend it for your study and reflection.