We welcome our 103 Freshmen students to our College, and all our returning students. More than perhaps any other institution of higher learning in this country, Thomas Aquinas is a true Col-ledge, all of us in a common life of study, work, and prayer. “College” means to lodging with, with one another and with God, our only Master. Let us hope we are willing and ready learners. Tomorrow Bishop Kevin Vann of Orange County and our College President, Dr. McLean, will con-voke, that is, call us together, to begin our academic year. May God send his Holy Spirit to inspire and direct us over these next nine months.
Hell exists and we must not go there
Does hell exist, and if so, how many will go there? This is my “leading question” from the Scripture texts this Sunday. (Here at the Thomas Aquinas you must be ready for the “leading question” that begins every class.) Someone asked Jesus: “will only a few be saved?” Some religions declare that only 144,000 will be saved (an interpretation of Revelation 7). Jesus does not give a number or a percentage, but he does say that the gate is narrow. “Many, I tell you, will try to enter and not be strong enough.” We must take seriously these sobering words of the Son of God. Yes, there is a hell, an abyss into which drop—in eternal wails of despair—those who are not “strong enough.” What will you do, Jesus asks, when you see so many others in the Kingdom and “you yourselves cast out”? I can remember getting back from work one night when I was 21 years old only to find that all of my friends had gone to dinner without me. A dreadful darkness overcame me that I can still taste 30 years later. The most dreadful pain is abandonment, because we are essentially relational, with no identity apart from our relationships with others. The absolute abandonment of hell is a real possibility for everyone in this room, and we must not end up there.
Heaven exists and we must get there
How many will end up in hell? In the weak and watery Christianity of our time, very few think that a loving God would send anyone to hell. Everyone goes to heaven, right? Wrong. Jesus says, repeatedly, that the road to hell is broad and easy, and that many go that way. Our Lord doesn’t say how many will be saved or damned; he says only that we must “strive” for heaven. Because if hell exists, heaven exists too, and we must get there. Everything in this life must be focused on attaining heaven; every activity of the Church—all the time, money, and energy the Catholic Church as spent over 2000 years—is all for saving souls. Jesus urges us to “strive” to enter the narrow gate. No one in this chapel is “strong enough” to attain heaven without God’s grace, but he does not hand paradise to us on a silver platter. He wants us to strive, to work for it.
“Whom he loves God disciplines”
Like a good father, God helps us in our striving. He gives us faith and hope and love, “infused” virtues, the exercise of which push us inch by inch toward heaven. But God’s graces are not always pleasant. We also need strong medicine to overcome our damnable frailty caused by original sin. “My son,” God says in the second reading, “do not disdain my disciplines.” He sends us suffering and pain to strengthen us for the life’s contests. The US Marines put it like this: “pain is weakness leaving the body.”
It is true that suffering breaks some people. They allow life’s tragedies to crush them: I have seen many lose their faith, and their joy, over the death of a son, or a divorce, or a bout with cancer. But others grow even stronger, more beautiful and more virtuous, when they undergo adversity. “Strengthen your weak knees” the Bible tells us. “Steady your drooping hands.” When someone or something knocks you down, get up, or crawl if you must, to the chapel. Cast yourself not on the mercy of this world, but throw yourself into the arms of God’s mercy. You will survive the blow, and grow stronger for it. Yes, strong enough, when your time comes, to enter the narrow gate, and to recline at table with God and his friends. We have a seat in that glorious communion of saints, but only we can decide to accept it or not.
That Col-lege of saints in heaven is why we come to this College on earth. Every bit of work or study or prayer we do at Thomas Aquinas should benefit our soul and the souls of others. Let’s work, let’s strive this year, under the special inspiration of Our Lady, to draw that much closer to God and his kingdom.