The Society’s annual retreat was held at the Home of Compassion, Island Bay, Wellington, from Friday, 4 September to Sunday, 6 September, 2015.
Bishop Basil Meeking, Emeritus Bishop of Christchurch, led this year’s retreat and gave four excellent talks on “The Four Last Things: Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell”
DEATH – opportunity or loss?
JUDGEMENT – will God be hard on me?
HEAVEN – is it a done deal?
HELL – would God be so unkind?
We set out an excerpt of Bishop Meeking’s talk on Hell:
“Mary Mother of the Church, pray for us
The final talk is on Hell and how to avoid it. Not far from where I live in Christchurch in the suburb of Sydenham is an unusual looking restaurant which is painted black and the name of it is “Hell”. During the day there is a notice outside on the street “Hell, we are open”. When I go by I am tempted to go in and thank them for doing our advertising for us. Of all Christian teachings Hell is certainly the least popular. Non-Christians ignore it. We Christians play it down, anti-Christians play it down, often making it the subject of scurrilous jokes. Hell is part of the teaching of the Gospels and of the Catholic Church. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “We cannot be united with God, which is heaven, unless we freely choose to love Him. We cannot love God if we sin gravely against Him or against our neighbour or against ourselves”, and it goes on, “To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love leads to remaining separated from Him forever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God is called hell”.
The existence of Hell is used by some as an argument that God is cruel for letting people go there. That is not true. Hell is the consequence of our human freedom, that distinctive part of our humanity, that almost frightening responsibility which leaves us free in our daily acts to choose good or to choose evil. Just as heaven is God Himself, one forever, so hell is God Himself lost eternally. The essence of hell is final exclusion from communion with God because of one’s own fault. Because God alone is the fulfilment of our meaning, the loss of God in Hell brings the experience and the pain of ultimate meaninglessness and despair.
Catholic doctrine takes its stand on solid ground when it defines the existence of Hell and the eternity of its punishments. In his own person, Jesus who in His human nature personifies the mercy of God, the climax of His earthly life was when He gave Himself up to death on the cross to save us from sin and its consequences. God’s love and mercy couldn’t do anymore than that – nothing greater – and He did it for us. Christ gave Himself freely to the cross to win pardon for our sins, and also to win for us that share in God’s life that is sanctifying grace and with it the other marvellous gifs which we must freely accept and live by. But this freely given friendship with God implies a contrary possibility of rejection by us. What is freely accepted can also be freely rejected. The eternal damnation of Hell has its origin in the free rejection, first by some of the angels and then by some of us human creatures, rejection of the very gifts of God’s love and mercy. The problem for us human creatures is that with the Freedom of will which defines us as human we’re able to reject God. We’re able to reject God’s friendship, we’re able to commit mortal sin and able to refuse to repent of it. God forgives all who before death do repent. There is Hell because there are some who do not repent. The catechism says clearly that mortal sin is a grave violation of God’s law. It destroys the divine life of grace in the soul of the sinner who turns away from God and refuses His love.
There is a real distinction between venial sin, which affects our friendship with God but does not destroy it, and mortal sin when the sinner sets his will on something that contradicts the love of God or love of the neighbour. The Church teaches that for a sin to be mortal there must be together three conditions. First, there must be grave matter. Some offences against God are sins but not serious, for instance, perhaps failure in our daily prayer, gossip, laziness. Other sins can be mortal. For instance, St Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians in the sixth chapter lists fornication, idolatry, theft, drunkenness, greed, adultery. Those who commit these sins, says Paul, will not inherit the Kingdom of God. In fact, however, some of those things can admit of lighter culpability, such as theft of something of little value, partial drunkenness perhaps. There is no such thing as a small murder or a little bit of adultery. Elsewhere Paul lists other things, including as mortal sins, slave trade, perjury, whatever is contrary to the teaching of the gospel he says. Secondly, a sinner must have full knowledge of the evil of his act. Certain things, such as murder, we know are serious. We know that from the law of nature which is planted in our hearts and to which our conscience alerts us. If a person thinks something is or may be grave matter and still chooses to do it, that is likely a mortal sin since sin is in the intention of our will. And thirdly, there has to be full consent of the will. It could be that a person acts under pressure from manipulation of another person or while in the grip of some psychological disorder and that could diminish his responsibility. Intense feelings and passion can also diminish culpability. A sin is quite certainly mortal if a person acts through malice or deliberately chooses evil. God forgives all who repent of mortal sin. There is a hell because there are some who freely choose not to repent. The catechism says mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom as is love itself. It results in the loss of the virtue of charity and it deprives the sinner of sanctifying grace which is necessary for the life of heaven.
And the catechism goes on if it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, this means an integral confession in the Sacrament of Penance, it causes exclusion from God’s Kingdom and the eternal loss of heaven. This is, says the catechism, because our freedom gives us the possibility of making choices that have an eternal consequence with no turning back. It should be noted, too, that sins of omission – failing to do something we should do – can also be mortal sins. Jesus said, “I was hungry and you gave Me no food”. The mystery of human iniquity is that we can become blind to evil with our eyes open. We are never simply the victims of sin. God always gives to us sinners sufficient actual grace, those passing helps that enable us to avoid sin or to repent of it. It is the loss of God because of mortal sin which is the source of Hell. Hell is the state in which a soul consciously and deliberately moves away from God persisting in a wrongful attachment to created persons or things and never having recourse to the Sacrament of Penance.”
A set of disks covering the four talks is available at a modest cost from the John Paul II Centre For Life, Christchurch:
The Traditional Latin Mass was offered each day of the retreat, together with confession, Holy Hour and benediction and the rosary. Retreatants also had time for personal prayer, reading and meditation.
The Home of Compassion was an excellent venue and retreatants were able to visit Mother Mary Joseph Aubert’s grave in the grounds and see the Suzanne Aubert Visitor Centre which was especially opened to us by the sisters. This exhibition is dedicated to telling the story of Mother Mary Joseph Aubert and the Sisters of Compassion. The exhibition sets out her life chronologically from her early years in France and details the charitable work and order of the Sisters of Compassion that she set up in Wellington and beyond, the development of the order with new foundations in New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific Islands, the establishment of a hospital, nursery and childcare facilities in Island Bay and the Sisters’ current activities. We were able to see the original habit, sewing equipment and goffering irons used to create the distinctive headdress worn by the Sisters until the 1960s. The co-ordinated object and audiovisual displays enhanced the whole experience and a graphic display gave information on the ‘Making of a Saint’ and featured a graphic timeline of the Canonisation of Suzanne Aubert and progress to date.
We are now all very much looking forward to next year’s retreat.