Father, are you afraid of hell?
Fr. Jan Kaczkowski
I am afraid: obviously. It is about responsibility for our own freedom. [. . .] God has not given us freedom so that we slash ourselves like a monkey with a razor, but so that we would lift it up. I can imagine that there are situations in which someone or myself have failed to take up this demanding freedom. The catechism of final things for a person (death, Divine judgement, and heaven or hell) sounds menacing and unequivocal. Of course, these days no one discusses them. Especially death. The ‘convenient’ Christian talks only of option A (heaven). The Christian ‘realist’, attached to their own subjectivity, should without dread remember about option B (hell). It would be a violation of human freedom if everyone automatically realized plan A. We stand before a personal God, not some sort of banal tribunal sitting behind a table with scales. I think we will see ourselves in the full truth of our choices. We will see God’s light which will draw us toward each other. The happiness, which we experience will grow exponentially: 2,4,8,16,32,64,128 and up to infinity. We will be constantly amazed with this incredible dynamic. The pursuit in order to reach this state we can call purgatory. Purgatory for me is suffering (ultimately, all mystics talk about the suffering of the souls in purgatory) through longing, the feeling that we still don’t have enough light to unite us to the Person of Light. When after purgatory I reach union and begin to increase exponentially in happiness as described, I will be experiencing eternal salvation. It is not a boring, static place, banally singing “Alleluia” on a fluffy cloud. What most attracts me is its dynamism, and within it the chance of many possible actions, without the restriction of time, matter and space (but maintaining awareness). There will be the feeling that happiness so fills us, that – to use an image – it wants to burst us. But it doesn’t happen, because it grows, grows, grows, and we are all the time amazed at this growth. And in the end the Parousia, final judgement, new heaven and new earth, knowing the full consequences of good and evil, and we receive our divinized bodies. This is a classic lecture in theology. Let’s remember that everything happens in a completely different and timeless dimension. And in “what no eye has seen, what no ear has heard” (1 Cor 2:9). For sure, we will be mega-amazed. It is said, that after a spiritual vision of the beauty of next world, Saint Thomas Aquinas wanted to burn the Summa theologiae and everything he had written, realizing that they were rubbish compared to the reality he had seen. His confreres saved him from this, so that thankfully I can reel off my story in harmony with the teaching of the Church.
Analogically it’s the same with condemnation. We stand in truth before the Light, we can’t lie, only we feel as though our life was a great darkness. The Church never says anyone is condemned. But there is often such a darkness in human decisions, which paralyses. I heard of man, who forced a woman he had as a lover to abort their child, what he did with cruel indifference, she did with the greatest of suffering. He then left his partner, and later in life submitted himself to euthanasia. From these choices, realised in such acts, there hangs a darkness. I do not judge the fate of this person, but I feel an intense compulsion to pray for the possibility of his salvation.
In prayer, I like the expression: “and especially those [souls] in most need of Your mercy”. Maybe God gave him another chance between the injection of the lethal shot and death?
Maybe condemnation depends on seeing how badly we are aligned with God, how extreme is the contrast between our darkness and His light? It is not God who condemns us, but we ourselves who want to escape from the shame before His face, and in effect escape into the abyss of nothingness. Then there unfolds before us an eternity of unending loneliness and suffering.
And again, an exponential increase: suffering, darkness, hatred of one another and God, and above all an acute loneliness. And like that for ever, in eternity. With the difference, that there will never be the consolation, of which we are aware.
Are you not afraid, Father – honestly, openly – that after death it will turn out that “out there” there is nothing?
If it turns out that death is simply game over, I am not at all scared of that. That it’s simply all there is, that we are just the most intelligent form of protein in existence. Such a scenario seems logical to me, but not very probable. And even if it were to be true, it is by no means any argument that we should be villains.
Bishop Gregory Rys emphasised that to proclaim the Gospel, you first need to experience an encounter with God. Do you agree with this, Father?
How else are you to speak of something with conviction? I would not talk about the Eucharist if I had not personally experienced it.
What is experiencing the Eucharist?
I will tell you first of a certain crisis, which I experienced. When I was a catechist in the upper secondary school, each year I organised a pilgrimage to Częstochowa before final exams. However, our route first went through the former concentration camp Auschwitz. To these school leavers I showed what humans are capable of when living without God and without conscience. Earlier I had taught a lesson on the subject of the Holocaust, telling the youth that if anyone messes around in this place I would not be answerable for tearing a strip off them. When the students asked the classic question, where was God in Auschwitz, I answered that there was the commandment “Do no kill”. We were on the road the whole night, and even the biggest ogres behaved in a dignified way. Then Kalwaria Zebrzydowska and the first Mass, Wadowice (such a Catholic pop-culture – museum, cream puffs, “Time flies, eternity awaits”) and Częstochowa.
On the road I switched between coaches and gave conferences on confession. In this crisis year, I felt like a beast. Which means: it seemed to me I was manipulating them. Using their fears and knowledge of their problems, I led the examination of conscience in such a way as to pull the most sensitive strings. Relationships with parents, complexes, drugs, past wrongs, abuse. Today I know that this examination of conscience was really professional and not at all manipulating. I was simply in a crisis year.
We return to Jasna Góra (the monastery of Częstochowa). After an all-night confession, exhausted and sleepy, I celebrated Holy Mass in a side chapel (so that we were comfortable, they were close to the altar so as not to bother anyone else). Then a thought came into my mind, that this was all a wind-up. My conscience gave me no rest. I pulled myself together so as to celebrate Mass reverently. Yet they had no idea that I doubted. I had the feeling that my hypocrisy was seen by everyone. I celebrated more solemnly. When I gave the sermon about His real presence, I felt despicable, having doubts. I remember, as I bowed over the altar, according to the instructions, I lifted my eyes to the crucifix, held up the Host, which by chance as I turned it over, had the sign of a cross that is scored in it to help break it, it formed the letter X. I then had a horrible thought, that X means unknown, and the unknown is emptiness. Horrified I put down the consecrated bread, genuflected and tried to focus even more intently, to slog away through the agonisingly long liturgy. There came the moment to elevate the bread and wine, the Body and Blood (the great doxology, “Through him, and with him, and in him”). And so, I raise it, put it down and nothing! In my interior I feel an overflow of peace and the gentle voice of conscience: “Johnny, what would you like? That I would do some hanky-panky now? Trust, it is I.”
Then I realized that I was still waiting for some emotion. For a shudder down the spine, for a religious impulse. That a ray of light through the stained-glass window would illuminate the Host. Nothing like that happened. But there came an internal calm. This gave me confidence during this crisis. It’s the same way now in this illness. I repeat to myself: “Have confidence”. Only how much. As the next difficult diagnosis comes, it will also be a burden. But I trust, and I want to trust. Do I have another option? Well, I don’t want to waste the time, which God has given me, by plunging into despair.