Sermon for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost – October 9, 2011 by Fr. Sretenovic
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Today we have a common theme. This is the Sunday when it is the easiest to talk about the teaching of the Church extra ecclesiam nulla salus, outside of the church, no salvation. That is because in the epistle today we read there is one Lord, one faith and one baptism, and in the gospel, love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, whole soul, whole strength, whole mind and thy neighbor as thyself. We know our neighbor is not just Catholic friends and family, but those who are not. St. Paul says to love all, to serve all, especially those of the household of the faith.
Originally what I had planned today was getting into a lot of doctrinal issues on this point of extra ecclesiam nulla salus, but what I have found in my studies is that there is a lot more than I thought there was in this issue. For the longest time I have been of the opinion — there are three different opinions on this in the Church. One is really the hard line that says that unless you receive the sacrament of baptism in this life, you are not going to heaven, period. There is no exception. There are those who believe that. And they use Florence and other teachings of the Church, extraordinary pronouncements of the Church for this. There are those, and I would up to this point fall more in this category, of those who would say that it is possible we do have what the Church has said, baptism of blood and desire. I know Monsignor Perez has spoken about this many times. But the way I have interpreted it is about as strict as you can. I’ve said, Okay, it happens, but how many catechumens do you know really who have died before being baptized. It probably doesn’t happen all that often. Or many of the martyrs, most of the martyrs were already baptized. So there are really very few examples that we have, that we know of at least, of those who we could say, Yeah, they were not baptized but there is a good chance they went to heaven. So I fall more in that camp.
But I have read a bit recently that even though the teaching of implicit desire for salvation, in other words, the one who doesn’t formally believe in this life, that there is hope for salvation, that we know there is basically a teaching of the Church that seems to be very much against this, recently, within the last 500 years or so there has been a door open to that, where you have those like Pius IX who you could debate back and forth on what he said concerning — I think it was quam singulari, I believe it was, the allocution, and there are other teachings, like Pius XII in response to the St. Benedict’s Center which does seem to open the door very much for those who are invincibly ignorant of salvation, of Christ. And it at least brings up to the hypothetical. How much it actually applies we do not really know. But what I have seen is that there is some basis for hope — and I don’t want to go too far with this because really I have never really believed or taught this before, but that there would be some hope for those that through no fault of their own, even though ignorance is not a means to salvation, that God would not hold them accountable for the ignorance.
Now, you can go back and forth on this. I don’t really want to get too much into this, because you can bring up a whole slew of quotes back and forth on it. You know, there are those who could say, Well, if one is ignorant of salvation, even if they be invincibly ignorant, God did not give them the grace. God, for whatever reason, even though they wouldn’t accept or what have you, and say, Well, divine providence is such that God will give everybody a chance to believe explicitly in salvation. And that was always the teachings of the Church through the first fifteen centuries. St. Thomas Aquinas says that, that one must have an explicit faith at very least in order to be saved. But in the last few centuries it seems that there has been you could say a more liberal trend, but a trend that itself has not been condemned by the Church. So, it is possible in any of the opinions, as long as one was holding it as an opinion, not as an absolute end all and be all that you could be within the Church and have actually different opinions about who actually gets in and does not get in.
But the point is this. The one thing definitely we know is that our attitude towards those who are outside the Church must be unless they get in they are not getting in. Unless we get them in, they are not getting in. So, our approach to people who are outside the Church should not be, Well, they seem to be generally good, seem to be of good will, therefore, there is a good chance for them to get to heaven. Because, as St. Pius IX, who was often quoted in favor of implicit desire for salvation being okay for salvation, is the one who said, We cannot entertain good hope for those who are outside of the Church to be saved. It was in his syllabus of errors. And the same Pius IX who said that ignorance is not a means to salvation. So, it is very easy to take Popes and different theologians out of context, too, so we have to be careful.
But our point here is that for the sake of salvation, our attitude must be that of confirmed Catholics. Our attitude must be that everywhere we go, to every one whom we meet is someone to whom we’ve been sent. Now, granted we don’t have a formal commission, like the Pope is not sending us like he sends the Jesuits, for instance, in Church history. It is not the same as the missionary work whereby there are those who are actually sent on mission in order to convert the nations. But there is a general sense in which each of us in our daily lives, there are people we encounter, and many of them are not Catholic. Or if they are Catholic, they are not really Catholic. So our attitude must be one where we are actively seeking an opportunity to bring them the gospel. It doesn’t mean we are saying, Oh, when can I preach to this person, when can I start saying, Are you saved? or anything like that When can we just be like street preachers. That’s not the right spirit. The spirit is that in order to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, in order to love God above all, as confirmed Catholics we know that we are ready to die for the faith at any moment. But how often it is in practice where we find ourselves with different people and we are tongue tied. We don’t know how to approach them. Or we don’t have the will to do so. And we may have an opportunity and it passes us by because we have not recognized the moment of visitation. We just want to get along. We want to be nice and as long as we don’t sin in their presence, as long as we don’t do anything scandalous, we feel like we’ve done okay.
But the active disposition must be like Christ on the cross who said, “I thirst”. So, each of us must thirst for the salvation of our own souls because again, the command says, Love your neighbor as you love yourself. So we have to love ourselves as well. If any of these three are missing , the love of God, love of self and the love of neighbor, if any of those three are missing, all three are missing. So we have to have a firm conviction.
Love is not a feeling. It is a firm purpose, not just of amendment from sin but a firm act of the will to be growing onto salvation. And we do that — again, it could be even the cashier. Granted, that chances are we are not going to have the opportunity to preach to them, and if we did it wouldn’t do any good. However, it could be so much as one look, one gesture that helps them. Maybe they are dealing with something and I’ve seen this even with myself, that when I pray for this gift ahead of time, where just being with somebody it’s like something is a little bit different. They see something. And I don’t want to over read into anything, but I just have the sense that the times that I have specifically gone somewhere saying, Okay, I want to have some effect on each and every one that I meet, everyone I come across, I just have the sense afterwards that that is exactly what has happened. It could be just an opportunity all of a sudden to speak with them briefly and obviously wearing the cassock is a big help for that. All of you do not have a cassock, so they won’t know what religion you are. They pretty much know what I am, although sometimes with the cassock they think I’m orthodox. Or, if I wear my zuchetto they think I am Jewish even though I am wearing the cassock, so what do you do. (Father laughing) A lot of confusion nowadays.
But if our wills are set in the good of souls, if we truly care — like St. Catherine of Sienna wanting to cover the pit of hell so that no one would go there. And how many did she meet? She probably spent a lot of her time in prayer. And she may not have met as many people as we do. But her will and all of her prayers were geared, all of her rosaries. This is the month of the rosary. There is so much we can always do for the salvation of souls whether we know them or not. And we can get a good gauge of where our soul is depending upon how we are with others. If we are not actively engaging in this practice, in this exercise, we get lukewarm, we become very cold. And then extra ecclesiam nulla salus simply becomes a meaningless formula. And it’s not.
In heaven, God willing, if we get there, we will know just how strict or not strict the interpretation was meant to be in Church teaching. In the meantime, what we can know is that at judgment everybody is either going to heaven or hell. And there may be already for examination of conscience a number of souls that we could have helped to save in some way but have not because we have not known the moment of our visitation because we have been lukewarm. This is what we need to change. We need to recognize that by our confirmation we are called to be missionaries, at least in spirit even if we are not formally commissioned. We need to recognize by our confirmation that we are given a great gift, we are given the Holy Ghost, we are given all the grace that we need to make many apostles for Christ. Those of you who have families, your children, you are called to bring them up in the faith and the practice of the faith in self-denial, in growing in strength and virtue so that wherever they go they bring that with them. And then when they leave home they have a foundation. So, whatever vocation we have, we have all our opportunities. But so often we are looking for the big things when it is the little ones upon which we will be judged. It is the little choices we make every day in this regard that is paving the way either for heaven or for hell.
You see a big edifice. A big edifice is made of little bricks. It’s not the foundation under it which is very big, but we tend in the spiritual life to be waiting for the big storms, the big temptations or the big opportunities to do good. When, in fact, we need to love and to cherish the little nuggets that we are given every day literally in every circumstance. Dom Chautard in “The Soul of the Apostolate” says this. He says, “The way that we come to know, to love and to serve Christ above all and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves is specifically in recognizing that divine providence is always, not just in certain circumstances”. Every single opportunity, every single occasion Christ Himself is presenting Himself to us. In particular today we focus on how this relates to those who are in the world whom we meet at work, the stores, people at the gas station, or wherever it is. We must see Christ in them. And this is a part of our prayer. This is a part of us coming to recognize in the dignity that God has given to us by our baptism and confirmation, and what He wants, actively wills to give to those who are outside. Granted, most of the people we meet we don’t know if they are outside or not. But at the same time we can have an effect very much, even though it seems so small. We don’t realize just how much in being open God will make use of us as He wills, being open and made use of in every circumstance, in overcoming ourselves and not just loving our friends, but also especially being patient with those we meet who are very difficult. That’s when we know that we are acquiring the spirit of martyrdom. And that’s when we can begin to hope that if ever we are called to be martyrs we will, in fact, succeed. But until then, how many times we see that we fall away, how many times we are given the opportunity and we have to examine our conscience and say, Well, another opportunity missed. So, let us make that resolution today not to miss any more opportunities. While circumstances may and do vary, at very least our aim must be to help the blind to see. It is up to God how he wants to make use of us in this regard, but are we ready to be used at His disposal. May our prayer today be for exactly that.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.