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Where Have All the Catholics Gone?

Heaven On My Mind

Susan Claire Potts POSTED: 11/14/11

Where Have All the Nuns Gone? The Catholic Schools?

The Catholic Children? The Catholic Identity?

( In the days before the Changes, nobody used words like liturgy or eucharist or reconciliation. It was Mass and Holy Communion and Confession. Simple, straightforward words. Everyone knew what they meant. We didnít talk about rubrics, and most laypeople didnít know about ambos and aspersoria and thuribles. That was the priestís business. Like a doctor, he had his professional lexicon, and it was really not our concern. We just followed along, confident that we were being led to Heaven.

Thatís what we talked about then, Heaven and Purgatory, and what we had to do to reach the one and shorten the other. We shuddered to think about Hell, and so we didnít talk about it much either. We just set about working out our salvation with fear and trembling, like St. Paul told us to do. All for the love of Jesus, the Glory of God, and the Salvation of souls, we used to say.

But you hardly ever hear about salvation anymore. The subject just doesnít come up. Donít you wonder why? Are Catholics that sure of Heaven, or is something else going on?

I think itís the something else. There is a deep-seated reluctance in them to broach the subject. Something holds them back. Itís not that theyíre silent. Thereís plenty of vapid talk out there. But if you cut through the empty words and look below the surface of the mush that passes for theology, youíll find the obstacle.

Itís a triple-walled mental block.

First, people donít know what Heaven is anymore. Second, they donít know whatís a sin and whatís not. And third, they donít know what to do about that troublesome doctrine, Extra Ecclesia Nulla Salus. These three things make it nearly impossible to talk about salvation.

Consider the first obstacle. Too many years of agnostic priests and professors telling us that we donít really know anything about Heaven has dampened supernatural faith and hope. Nothing seems clear. Questions arenít answered; doubts are not dispelled. Retreats, religious education lectures, and classroom discussions often go something like this:

ďIs Heaven a place?Ē a student asks.

The pedant-in-charge shakes his head, but says nothing. He strokes his chin and lowers his lids, pondering the question. Everyone waits.

ďIt is a state of being,Ē he says at last, carefully, as if he were imparting a deep truth.

The student persists. ďBut what does that mean

ďWeíre not really sure.Ē

The student sighs. He turns his head, looks out the window, and never brings it up again.

Iíve heard this sort of thing too many times. No sooner spoken, but the words evaporate, portentous as thin smoke. Nothing adheres to the mind; nothing cleaves to the soul.

Enough of this nonsense. Of course Heaven is a place, and those in authority should say so, loud and clear. What this supernatural place is like is beyond our imagination, but that doesnít mean itís not real. It is above nature, incorruptible; its substance endures forever.

I mean, come on, if Heaven is not a place, then where is Our Lord? What does He see through His beautiful eyes, and what does He touch with his Wounded Hands? And just where is Our Lady, the Immaculate Conception, she who was assumed body and soul into Heaven?

Theyíre not floating in some ethereal mist. Weíre talking physical presence here. Someday, when we behold our King and Queen reigning gloriously in Heaven, itís real faces weíll see, real voices weíll hear.

The denial of the substantial reality of Heaven shatters one doctrine after another. If Heaven is not a place, what about the Resurrection of the Body? Arenít we supposed to get our bodies back on Judgment Day? Our own blood and bones? Our own fingers and toes? Thatís what the Church teaches. Thatís what we believe. But where would these glorified bodies go?

Ah, so thatís not so certain either, then.

The Incarnation, the Ascension, and the Second Coming are all called into question. We wind up with some sort of esoteric blather about the Next Life. They tell us we have to have faith that life goes on after death, weíre just not sure how. Perhaps itís a spiritual immortality, unencumbered by flesh. Who knows?

The second obstacle to open discussion about salvation is the problem of sin and its consequences. Christ died for our sins. Everybody repeats the formula, but do the words really sink in? Does anyone realize why?

To save us from Hell. Thatís why. Thatís what salvation is. To rescue us from damnation. If weíre not saved, weíre damned. Itís as simple as that.

Iím afraid people donít fear Hell anymore. They reject the whole idea. Itís just too preposterous for the modern mind; the image doesnít hold. Flames and darkness and the stench of sulfurówho believes that?

But Hell exists. It is real. And it is eternal.

Imagine the very worst pain, the worst sorrow, the worst regret youíve ever experienced. Feel again the anguish, the bitterness, the most soul-wrenching loneliness youíve ever felt. Thatís only a glimmer of what Hell is like, and sin consigns one there.

Yet we canít talk about sin. We must not be judgmental. Letís not mention the Commandments. Itís as if sin didnít exist. Youíd think the priests had all become Rogerian psychologists. By practicing unconditional positive regard, negativity dissolves, and a beautiful flower grows from the depths of the perfect human heart, rather like a modern version of Rousseauís Noble Savage. No taint of original sin for them. Itís all good.

And whatís the effect of denying evil? Perdition, thatís what.

Think of all the things people accept now. Things we used to call Mortal Sinsómortal, because they would kill us. The Church used to warn us about them, so we would not be lost, but thereís a lot of silence now.

The biggest one is artificial contraception. Iíll never forget what happened the Sunday after Humanae Vitae was issued. The encyclical was front page news in the local paper. A lengthy article quoted a whole slew of theologians who stated with seeming authority that the teaching was not infallible. People could make up their own minds about it. They were responsible adults.

Curious, I thought, as we went to Mass, expecting to hear true Church teaching. But the priest didnít even mention the encyclical, and not the next week, either, nor the next. Later we learned that even bishops had rejected it, and Rome did nothing. The dissent stood. No one talked about it. Family planning was a private matter, after all. What did celibate priests know about marriage? they asked.

So people did what seemed right in their own eyes. There were no repercussions. In all these years, I have never heard a priest say from the pulpit that a woman canít go to Communion if sheís on the pill, or heard a priest talk about the evil of sterilization, the death blow to the body, the infamous mutilation of the flesh.

They are reluctant to talk about the perversion of homosexuality, even in the face of all the scandals. They donít talk about adultery or fornication or covetousness or theft. Lying? No, not a word.

They rarely speak about the beauty of Heaven, the suffering in Purgatory, or the burning pain of Hell. Imagine that. Nobody mentions that we may not all wind up in the same place. There are no warning signs. I guess thereís nothing to worry about.

Is everyone saved? Is no one lost?

The pedant speaks again:

ďJesus is so merciful,Ē he says with a wave of his hand.  ďHe couldnít bear to send anyone to Hell.Ē

ďBut donít you have to do anything to go to Heaven?Ē an innocent student asks. ďDonít you have to be worthy?Ē

The pedant rolls his eyes.

The boy persists. ďYou have to be baptized, right? You have to be Catholic.Ē

Another student pipes up. ďSince the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ, donít the sacraments change us? Make us fit for Heaven?Ē

The pedant lifts his chin. His gray eyes are distant, as if he sees beyond the room, beholding something no one else can see. He inhales, deeply, through his nose.

ďOne must not be divisive,Ē he says, then expounds at length upon the new understanding, the probability of universal salvation. There is invincible ignorance, after all, and the whole idea of the unconscious Christian. And then there are those near-death experiences that seem to point to a pleasant afterlife for everyone. Thereís no sense talking about it, he concludes.

But I say we must.

Why wonít the Magisterium clear the fog? Why wonít the priests and bishops just say: Outside the Catholic Church there is no salvation. Scared, are they? Afraid to offend the infidels? Or worse, have they lost the Faith?

Regardless of that, the doctrine is true.

Let me tell you what that teaching meant to me a long time ago, when I was just a little girl. It was nothing less than an invitation from Heaven.

I was not born Catholic, although I didnít quite understand that. After all, I knew the Nicene Creed by heart and dutifully recited it at Christ Episcopal Church, proudly proclaiming my belief in the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. I was no Protestant, that was for sure. But it took my fourth grade Catholic friends to set me firmly on the Road to Salvation.

We used to stand in a circle at recess at Southwestern School, hoping the teacher wouldnít notice and make us play kickball or Red Rover or some other boring game. We had important things to discuss. There were five of usóDolores, Mary Kay, Anne, Barbara, and me.

Sometimes it was really cold. The snow banked over our saddle shoes, and we huddled together, pulling our coats close and shivering like crazy. But I hardly noticed. Those girls told me the most astonishing things. Things I had never heard before. Things about the Other World. I could have listened to them forever. They had funny words like Purgatory and Limbo and indulgences. They actually believed in Hell. The devil was real, they said.

My friends knew all sorts of things about Heaven. It was amazing. It was like they shared some secret knowledge. There was no doubt in their minds that Heaven was a place, and they talked about it as if they had been there.  I clamored to know more.

They looked at each other, shook their heads, then looked sadly at me.

ďBut you canít go to Heaven,Ē they said.

ďWhy not?Ē

ďíCause youíre not Catholic.Ē

ďWhat do I have to do to be Catholic?Ē

ďYou have to go to Catechism.Ē

Those words struck my heart like an arrow. Even though I was not able to actually ďgo to CatechismĒ until I was a sophomore in college, I made up my mind right then. I would be Catholic. A real one, not just one saying the Nicene Creed in the whitewashed Episcopal Church, wondering how I could believe in the One Holy Catholic Church and not be in it.

Those nine-year-old girls possessed the Truth, and they didnít hesitate to let me know it. They told me what was necessary for salvation because I was their friend. They didnít dilute the doctrine. I didnít need to know about the exceptions. I just needed to be Catholic.

Please spare me the nuances. They exist, I understand that. There can be people in Heaven that we didnít think would be there. Thatís good. I have no idea how the Lord goes about rescuing people at the last minute who didnít enter the Church during their life. I donít pretend to know how grace burns the unbelief from their minds before their souls depart this world, but I donít have to know those extraordinary things. Thatís Godís business.

All I know is that every human being on this earth needs to be rescued from Hell.  Our Lord died to secure a place for us in Heaven. He founded a Church, the One True Church which is necessary for the salvation of souls.

If thatís not true, then everything weíre doing is a waste of time. Why should we fight so hard? Why should we hold so closely to tradition? Why should we struggle to stand against the flood of immorality and despair that engulfs the world?  What does it matter? Whatís the point? If there is salvation outside the Catholic Church, then we donít have to do anything. Just jump right back in the Sea of Unknowing.

For myself, Iíd rather be like my old friends, those valiant girls who first told me what I had to do to save my soul.

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