Father Kevin on The Narrow Door, with thanks to Morecombe & Wise!

I really got a lot out of the Scripture this Sunday. It was one of those weeks were all the readings worked together to improve my understanding of an issue. The issue was salvation, which has been one of those things that has caused me lots of questions over the years.

When I was a boy, holidaying in Cornwall, we went to Mass one Sunday and the Priest told this joke, which has never left me:
A man arrived at the gates of Heaven.
St. Peter asked, “Religion?”
The man said, “Methodist.”
St. Peter looked down his list and said,” Go to Room 24, but be very quiet as you pass Room 8.”
Another man arrived at the gates of Heaven.
“Go to Room 18, but be very quiet as you pass Room 8.”
A third man arrived at the gates.
“Go to Room 11 but be very quiet as you pass Room 8.”
The man said, “I can understand there being different rooms for different religions, but why must I be quiet when I pass Room 8?”
St. Peter told him, “Well, the Catholics are in Room 8, and they think they’re the only ones here."
Since then, I have heard this, or versions of it, with different religions inserted for Catholic. The point is the same; don't be so arrogant as to assume that wearing a particular badge means you are going to get into heaven.

Studying religion, I started to wonder whether it could be true that only Catholics can be saved. I met lots of good people who were not Catholic. Some people have been hurt by the people in the church and wounded, they turn their hatred on the bride of Christ. Their experience of the Church is a negative one. Would God be cross with them, or those that gave them this impression?

The holiness of the Church consists not in her members holiness or sinlessness, for the Church is a Church of sinners like me. The holiness of the Church in fact consists of the power of sanctification which God exerts in her in spite of human sinfulness. This is, in fact, the very mark of the New Covenant in which God has bound Himself to men. The Covenant no longer exists based on the reciprocal keeping of the agreement; it is granted by God as grace that abides even in the face of man's faithlessness. Thus it is an expression of God's love which will not let itself be defeated by man's incapacity but always remains well disposed toward him, welcomes him again and again precisely because he is sinful, turns to him, sanctifies him, and loves him.

Lumen Gentium, the divine constitution on the Church, promulgated by the Second Vatican Council, was badly misinterpreted by many to be changing the Church's teaching on salvation by the Church. In n. 8, it asserts that elements of truth and sanctification are undoubtedly discernible outside the Catholic Church and “are forces impelling toward catholic unity.” (LG 8). In other words, when elements of the truth of our existence are found outside the Church, they serve to guide people to the fullness of truth; Jesus Christ, which resides within the Catholic Church. The full paragraph reads like this:
This is the one Church of Christ which in the Creed is professed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic, (12*) which our Saviour, after His Resurrection, commissioned Peter to shepherd, (74) and him and the other apostles to extend and direct with authority, (75) which He erected for all ages as "the pillar and mainstay of the truth". (76) This Church constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him, (13*) although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure. These elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity.
Many thought this marked a change in ecclesiology that acknowledged that although the Church of Christ is the Roman Catholic Church, the Kingdom of God is wider than just this. 

In fact, what LG is teaching is that the Church is not conceived of and established by men, but created by the Holy Spirit and brought forth through the reality of Pentecost. This Church is manifest in the profession of faith, the sacraments and apostolic succession, thus the council intended not to introduce a form of ecclesiological relativism, but to acknowledge what a living miracle is the Church, spread across the four corners of the earth and present throughout history, always fragile (As Ratzinger puts it: “the Holy Spirit has continuously created her since Pentecost, in spite of being faced with every human failing, and sustains her in her essential identity.”). 

Extraordinarily, the Council held the idea of the unicity of the Roman Catholic Church in tension with the Universality of the Christian message by teaching that bodies not in juridical communion with the Petrine See reflect the life and worship of the Church in varying degrees. This has repercussions for Roman Catholics as well as non Catholics, because full, external and visible communion needs to be complemented by an interior disposition; an interior communion in the life of Grace. A Catholic who is not in a state of grace is not therefore, fully incorporated into the Church.

There is a much more thorough (and theological) treatment of ecumenism here if you would like to know more, with extensive links to the relevant Church documents. I found this study very rewarding and fascinating. It answered my questions about ecumenism and whether we are all simply climbing up the same mountain, not matter what religion or denomination we are, or whether, actually it matters whether you are Catholic or not. My conclusion is that yes, it definitely matters, but not being Catholic does not necessarily exclude you from Heaven.

I found that all these ideas came to the fore of my thinking when considering this Sunday's Scripture readings. It seemed to me to be one of those tough Gospels we struggle to understand from a modern perspective, where we know that belonging to a certain religion can be a matter of heritage as much as intellectual discernment. This Gospel is then explained and contextualised by the other Scripture readings.

I found that Father Kevin Hale, my Parish Priest, then brought all of these ideas together and presented them in a wonderfully understandable way in his homily, which he has agreed to allow me to share with you here:

Fr. Kevin at the Mount of Olives in Israel
My first holiday abroad, without my parents, was when I was sixteen. I went to northern Italy and stayed with a family (teaching them English); we travelled to Rome and I saw the Pope for the fist time. It was a wonderfully eye-opening experience and fuelled the appetite I had for travel from a young age. Even since those days of the seventies, travel has become much easier and we can travel from one part of the world to another and rather take-it-for-granted. Just as we can take modern means of transport for granted, so too there is a danger that we take our passage through this life to eternal life as a journey we don’t give much thought to.

Someone asks Jesus the thorny and sensitive question: How many will be saved? It was very upfront, because he is asking about eternal life: how many will get to Heaven?! But Jesus doesn’t give him numbers or a percentage or even answer him directly; instead, he turns the question back on the man: Try your best to enter by the narrow door, because I tell you, many will try to enter and will not succeed.

If you talk to older generations of Catholics, you will probably find that there was a great emphasis in their formation about the details of eternal life; how to avoid sin, how to get to heaven; and this often resulted in a fear of God, sometimes to a paranoid degree. To be fair, many of our greatest theologians - St Augustine and St Thomas come to mind - were people who believed that the number of those who would be saved will be very small. My generation received a very different formation. We were assured over and over again that God IS love; that He is not obsessed with our petty failings. I think a lot of my generation would just think everyone is going to get to Heaven; I bet they wouldn’t even think about that question of Lord, how many will be saved. They would assume everyone gets saved, if God is love?

Now this is the truth: both those perspective of the older generation and my own generation are bad. But I can’t help think that the formation my generation received was lacking. Why? Because it has tended to make people utterly indifferent to spiritual things. It has paved the way for the secularism we can see all around us today; the religious indifferentism and relativism that wants to hold that what you believe is as good as what I believe; that one religion is as good as another. It’s the violation of religious truth.

Now we can’t just blame the Church, or the Second Vatican Council for this way of seeing salvation. On the contrary, the Church has been and remains clear about this. Listen to what the Second Vatican Council teaches: 
the Church...is necessary for salvation. Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved. (LG 14)
Surely in an age of religious tolerance and equality, doesn’t this sound like the Church is engaging in some kind of elitist sectarianism, or even provoking incitement to religious hatred? Does this mean that all others are lost? What about the non-Catholic members of my family? The Catechism of the Catholic Church, quoting Vatican II, gives us the answer: 

Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ, or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do His will as they know it through the dictates of their consciences – these too may achieve eternal salvation. (CCC 847)
Jesus never says to his questioners "it doesn’t matter what you think or do." He turns his attention to the questioner and tells him to strive to enter by the narrow door. This is the answer you’d expect from any master that is trying to get us to accomplish something great or difficult. If you were learning to play golf, or to play an instrument, you wouldn’t expect the teacher to say just swing the club as many times as you can and eventually you’ll get perfect at it. Or just play the keys in any fashion until a tune comes out (like that famous Morecombe and Wise sketch… I am playing the right notes but just not in the right order!)

The path to being good at these things is narrow indeed because it involves lots of effort. If you asked a good fitness instruct: How many will get fit? I think he would say don’t worry about it, just you get to work. In the Christian life this means living God’s life; to be in His embrace, to will our holiness and our salvation by the effort and practise we put in to it every moment of every day. We don’t get into Heaven by default but by conformity to Jesus’ way of being. 

Though many people today are ignorant of the things of God, this kind of invincible ignorance doesn’t excuse me from the constant duty of helping others come to a knowledge of the Truth. It is, to quote the Catechism again: our obligation and sacred right, to evangelise all men.

Many are called, few are chosen. The road may be steep, and the gate narrow, but on the journey towards eternal life, God has given us his Church. The signposts along the way are clear for those who wish to observe them; they are also trustworthy signs because the light up the road and facilitate our human freedom, enabling us to journey home lead by the light of Truth.

In this pilgrimage home, God has given us His very Mother as our guiding star, the light that guides us through the narrow door, home to the Father’s house.


Popular posts from this blog

Pope Francis: Dismantling Marriage

Establishing a New Object of Worship

Cardinal Nichol’s Checklist for Priestly Formation