St Francis de Sales
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Joseph's Church, Ponchatula
Jesus preaches the Gospel: “Repent, the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For Catholics living in the American South, Jesus' urgent call for repentance might sound a little too Protestant, a little too evangelical. We've all seen the cartoon with the disreputable prophet on the street with a sign that reads, “REPENT!” Or, we've heard the TV preacher screaming about repentance and the fires of hell that await those of us who refuse to turn away from sin. We Catholics—no more or less than anyone else—are called to turn our hearts and minds away from disobedience and toward the obedience of the Cross—a life lived in sacrificial love and service to others all for Christ's sake. Perhaps the difference between Catholics and the TV preachers is one of style rather than substance. If the flavor of repentance is distasteful to you, maybe it's just the spice used rather than the meat of the dish that turns your tongue. Let's hope and pray that this is the case b/c refusing to repent of one's sins constitutes blasphemy against the Holy Spirit and such a refusal will not be forgiven. In fact, refusing to repent cannot be forgiven. God will not save us against our will. He will love us right into hell.
This sounds harsh, I know. But this a truth of the Catholic faith that cannot be spiced up or sugar-coated or hidden away. The Catechism is starkly clear on the issue: “There are no limits to the mercy of God, but anyone who deliberately refuses to accept his mercy by repenting, rejects the forgiveness of his sins and the salvation offered by the Holy Spirit. Such hardness of heart can lead to final impenitence and eternal loss” (n. 1864). Theologically, this makes perfect sense. We have two truths in balance here. First, God wills that all His people return to Him through Christ. Second, He wills that we do so freely. So that all may return to Him through Christ, the invitation to salvation is made unconditionally, without limits, to everyone. The effect of Christ's sacrifice is not limited to one tribe or people or region of the world. To demonstrate His love for us and to see us come to Him without coercion, God has willed that we must accept His invitation to salvation. If we accept, we are saved in love. If we refuse, God respects our decision to live eternally outside His love. The Church defines Hell as “state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God. . .” (n. 1033). In other words, we send ourselves to hell by stubbornly refusing to repent. Our final refusal, our last rejection of God's invitation to join Him in love is called “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.”
Fortunately, the Letter to the Hebrews lays out for us how our salvation is accomplished: “. . .once for all [Christ] has appeared at the end of the ages to take away sin by his sacrifice. Just as it is appointed that human beings die once. . .so also Christ, offered once to take away the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to take away sin but to bring salvation to those who eagerly await him.” Christ came to us first to take away our sins. He will come again to bring salvation for those who wait in his love. Whether you wait in love or not is a free choice. If you will wait, then follow Christ, live and die as he lived and died—a life and death of sacrificial love and service, a life of obedience and humility. Know that you are not alone. The whole body of Christ serves along side you. We are a single body on pilgrimage from here to the kingdom to come.
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