Third Sunday After Epiphany
– The Destiny of the Human Race
By Right Rev. John S. Vaughan, D.D.
Dearly beloved Brethren: We learn from the inspired pages of Holy Scripture, that God, in the beginning, exercised His omnipotence by creating those exquisitely beautiful and gifted Spirits, whom we call Angels. These highly endowed intelligences formed an immense host, that no man can number, and were divided into nine gigantic Choirs, forming three celestial hierarchies. The first hierarchy is composed of the Seraphim, the Cherubim, and the Thrones; the second is made up of the Dominations, the Virtues, and the Powers; and the third of the Principalities, the Archangels, and the simple Angels, as saints and theologians teach us.
The inspired writer further informs us that God put these celestial beings on their trial, and that no less than a third part of their number proved unfaithful, fell miserably into sin, and were, in consequence, cast out of heaven, and condemned to eternal punishment in hell. St. John speaks of this appalling rebellion and its consequences in his Apocalypse, when he writes: “A sign appeared in heaven; and behold, a great red dragon, having seven heads, and ten horns; and on his heads, seven diadems; and his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and cast them to the earth” (Apoc. xi, 3,4).
The dragon, or the serpent, or Satan, is no other than the devil, who, though once one of the fairest and brightest of the heavenly host, has now become the leader and chief of the demons. By the “star of heaven,” St. John means the Angels, who were seduced by his evil influence and example, and who now constitute the devils in hell. It is generally hold that considerable numbers fell from each of the nine Choirs, and that the aggregate reaches a multitude too vast to reckon or to imagine.
Though destined by God’s great mercy to occupy the thrones of eternal glory in heaven, they proved themselves all unworthy of so stupendous a privilege, and were foolish enough to forfeit their magnificent positions by their pride and disobedience.
Hence, the question arises: Who then will now fill these vacant places? Who, if we may so express ourselves, will occupy their empty thrones? Theologians tell us that Almighty God resolved to create man, in order that he and his prolific race might enter into the places abandoned by and forfeited by the angelic rebels.
How long, then, will the human race endure? How long will sons and daughters continue to be born, and to fill the earth from sea to sea? The answer must be: until every vacancy in heaven is filled up. That is to say, until the number of human beings who are saved and sanctified equals the number of the fallen angels.
God alone knows how many that may be, and God alone knows what proportion of the human family will ultimately be saved, so that no one can say how much longer the Earth may continue to be the habitation of men. All we know with absolute certainty is that the Earth, which had a beginning, will also have an end, but that the end will not be, until God’s designs have been entirely accomplished.
Of one thing we are sure, a time will come, when the very last of all our race will die, and pass away, and when the full number of human beings, as ordained and determined by God, will have run their course. Let us, in imagination, consider that moment to have already arrived. Man, let us suppose, is no more to be found upon earth. The immense human family is complete. The entire race has been through its trail, and the good and the loyal are, now and forever, separated from the bad and the disloyal; the sheep are divided by an impassible barrier from the goats.
The countless millions who once lived and toiled, and bought and sold, on earth have entered into eternity. The busy, noisy, active crowds that filled our towns and cities, that spread themselves over every country and Kingdom and occupied even vast continents, and made of this earth a place of pleasure and amusement or of hard labor and work, have all disappeared, and their place here is known no more. They are now fixed irrecoverably in eternity. They are in heaven or in hell. Their brief life is over. Their task is done. They have had their chance, and have made either a good or a bad use of it. They have chosen their own path, and must now abide by their choice. The books are closed; the accounts are made up: the keys of heaven and of hell are cast into the abyss.
It is quite certain, that all men, without one solitary exception, have been created by the goodness of God to be eternally happy. It is certain that God sincerely wished all to be saved, and to enjoy a life of endless joy and happiness with Him. Nay more, it is absolutely certain that God actually gave to one and all sufficient grace to conquer temptation and to attain to everlasting life, and that no single man, woman or child will be lost, except through his own personal fault.
Yes; all this is taught us, by an infallible Church. Yet, there is no doubt but that, in spite of this, many will be lost. Many will have proved unfaithful, and have fallen into mortal sin, and have died without repenting, and, in that case, we may truly say that they have already signed and sealed their own doom. “Many are called, but few are chosen.” “Wide is the gate and broad the path, that leads to damnation, and many are they that go in thereat.” “Strive to enter by the narrow gate, for many shall seek to enter, and shall not be able.”
These, and many other texts, clearly indicate that Heaven is not destined to hold the entire race of man, but that many will fall short of that glorious goal.
Indeed, it is commonly said, that when we reach heaven (Supposing we are fortunate enough to get there), startling surprises await us. We shall probably see among the Saints of God many who we never dreamed of meeting there, and, on the other hand, we shall miss many of those, of whose Salvation we felt absolutely sure. This is more or less clearly indicated in the words of our Divine Master just read to you. And it will be well for us to ponder over them, as they contain a timely admonition and a solemn warning. The words I refer to are as follows: “Many shall come from the east and the west, and shall sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, in the Kingdom of Heaven; but the children of the kingdom shall be cast into the exterior darkness; where there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
These words mean that many members of the human race, who have not had the chances and the splendid opportunities that Catholics have, will nevertheless save their souls, whereas, many Catholics who have had such exceptional graces and such abundant means of Salvation, will, in spite of them, be lost for all eternity. Which proves that a man who is really faithful and loyal to the light he has, even though it may be but slight and dim, may succeed far better than another, who basks in the full blaze of the noonday sun, if he be careless and indifferent and take little or no interest in following the narrow path which alone leads to eternal beatitude.
“Many shall come from the east and the west.” Undoubtedly: for even outside the visible fold of the Church are to be found good and faithful men, who are groping in the darkness of heresy, yet earnestly making use of such poor light as they have to accomplish God’s will. They may be mistaken, and badly informed in spiritual matters, and full of unconscious prejudices, but they act up to their convictions, and are really striving to please and satisfy God, in their own way, and God, Who reads the heart and Who alone knows the secret intentions and motives, will give them full credit, and will save them, by His “uncovenanted mercies,” on account of their invincible ignorance. They will come, “from the east and the west,” that is to say, from sects and denominations, which differ from the true Catholic church, as east differs from west. They will be found, not only among those who are friendly and on good terms with the immaculate Spouse of Christ, but also among those who are her sworn enemies. Yea, among those who persecute and ill-treat her, and who think they are doing an honor to God, by putting her prophets and faithful followers to death. Some (perhaps we may say many) of those are carried away by a mistaken zeal, like Saul of Tarsus, who, before his conversion, “breathed out threats and slaughter against the disciples of the Lorde” (Acts ix, 1), but who afterwards became their chief champion and defender, so soon as he had learned the truth. These, whether they be many or few, will be judged according to the motives that swayed and influenced them, and not by their actual performances. And, if they have acted honestly and without any sinful purpose, they will receive a merciful sentence from the hand of the supreme Judge, and be accorded a place among the faithful children of God. Or, to express the same thought, in the language of Our Lord, “They will sit down with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, in the Kingdom of Heaven.”
This thought should have two important effects upon us Catholics. In the first place, it should make us very slow to judge our non-Catholic neighbors. They are, of course, hopelessly wrong. The Sect or Denomination is absolutely false, and teaches doctrines contrary to God’s revealed truth. Yet, they may be where they are through no fault of their own. Heresy may have been their daily food, it may have been drawn in, unconsciously, and as it were, with their mother’s milk. They may have always breathed the atmosphere of Protestantism, and have grown up with the idea of their own self-sufficiency and of the inalienable right of every man to the full exercise of his private judgment. In a word, there may be conditions, so numerous, so varied, so unaccountable in their force, so strange in their influence, and so far-reaching in their effects, that it becomes impossible for any living soul to determine how far a non-Catholic is responsible, or whether he be responsible at all, for not accepting the Revealed truth in all its integrity and submitting to the Church. In such matters, we have no right whatever to pass judgment. We possess neither the authority nor the power to determine the mental condition of anyone. Nor can we tell whether the motives which are strong enough for us, have ever been so much as proposed to him, or if proposed, ever adequately grasped, or seriously considered. There are probably thousands upon thousands, who actually belong to the soul of the Church, while not forming a part of her body. Thousands, who are not only in good faith, but who are serving God better than many so-called Catholics, and who will “sit down with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” while many nominal Catholics, who are the true “children of the kingdom, will be cast out into the exterior darkness,” among the wicked and the reprobate.
It is a magnificent privilege to be a Catholic. The true faith is one of the grandest, greatest and most sublime gifts of God to man. It is a gift we can never be sufficiently grateful for, and which we can never value too highly, or, indeed, half highly enough. But, like every gift, it carries great obligations. It makes those who possess it doubly responsible. They have to watch over this inestimable treasure, to cultivate it, to make I bear fruit, to “trade with it,” as the Scripture says, not to “bury it in a napkin.” We have no warrant to treat it as if it were a charm or a talisman, that will work its marvelous effects of itself and independently of our own efforts and cooperation. No, our responsibilities increase and grow in intensity, with every additional grace and favor we receive. “To whom much has been given, much shall be required.”
And this brings us to the second consideration, to which we have referred. And that is the uncertainty of our own Salvation. If, indeed, we are in any danger of taking undue complacency in our position, as Catholics; if we are ever in danger of presuming on our merits and good works; or of flattering ourselves that e are secure, just because we possess the full truth, or excuse we have the Sacraments to help us, and the Holy Sacrifice to be a propitiation for us, and the infallible authority of the Church to guide us, then these Divine Words of our Incarnate God ought to teach us modesty and diffidence and convince us that, in spite of all our advantages and all our wholly exceptional opportunities, we are nevertheless poor weak mortals, easily overcome and easily led astray.
The expression employed by Jesus Christ is strikingly clear, and can be mistaken by no one. “The children of the Kingdom of Heaven,” that is to say, those who belong by legitimate profession and formal incorporation to the kingdom of Christ here below, which is the Church, shall be cast out, while the stranger and the alien, who have had no share (at all events, no recognized and external share) in that kingdom will enjoy the privileges of true children, and be received into everlasting Tabernacles. Thus, it is clearly laid down, by the very highest authority, that although there is but one only true and infallible Church, yet many outside her visible fold will be saved, whereas, many living within her fold will be lost.
The deplorable fact means not that there is or can be anything lacking or deficient in the glorious Church which Christ has funded, but simply that man has free will, and strong passions, and subtle enemies, and that he can resist even the strongest graces, and neglect those most powerful aids to goodness and virtue. Faith does not dispense us from all care and solicitude. Though it provides us with most abundant means, it does not force us to avail ourselves of them. It places arms in our hands; it does not compel us to use the. It promises us certain victory over all our enemies, but only on certain conditions. It supplies innumerable motives, and motives of the most cogent and powerful character, but it does not oblige us to ponder over them, and to appreciate their weight and irresistible force.
Look around on the world of to-day. Consider how some Catholics live. Study their habits, their mode of life, their worldliness, their indifference and carelessness in spiritual matters. How many there are who give themselves up to a career of pleasure, dissipation, and amusement. How many act and talk as though life were one long holiday, without duties, or obligations, or responsibilities. How many spend the all too precious moments in fluttering, like butterflies, from one earthly dissipation to another; intent merely on the tings of time. They discuss the last scandal; the most recent fashions; the passing events of the day; and the ever-varying fortunes of social or political parties. They may go to Mass, at least on Sundays, but they have no realization of the stupendous importance of the awful sacrifice that they are assisting at, and remain cold and unaffected. They may mutter a prayer occasionally, but they pray without heart, and without any strong desire to be heard. In short, they are Catholics in name; they maintain a certain outward conformity to the faith, and are to be seen at church, at stated intervals, but that is all.
Religion is but a cloak that lies very lightly upon them, and scarcely touches their innermost soul. It is not “the one thing necessary,” it does not take hold of and retain possession of the very marrow and essence of their being. It does not come down upon them like a Pentecostal fire and consume them with a holy zeal for God and divine things. The fact is, they are ever striving after that most impossible of all attempts, viz, to serve, at one and the same time, God and mammon. They may be willing enough to enjoy the delights of the next world, but, whatever happens, they have made up their minds that they are going to enjoy the delights of this. The result is that, little by little, the visible world gains a closer and closer hold upon them; it engages all their attention; it occupies their heart and affections; and the spiritual world fades away, and gradually loses whatever little influence it once possessed. They neglect the Sacrament; they become blind to the gravity and heinousness of sin; they take no real trouble to avoid temptations; they fall again and again into grievous sin, and at last God, in punishment, allows them to die in their sins. Thus, while the stranger and the alien is received into God’s heavenly Home, the “children of His Kingdom,” that is to say, those who have lived and spent their days in the bosom of the Church, are “cast out into the exterior darkness, where there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
What an appalling fate! What a terrible end to careless life! What anguish and remorse will then seize upon the poor outcast soul, when it at last realizes the fruits of its inattention and culpable lassitude. It might so easily have been saved. It had such powerful, such abundant, such easy means at its disposal, if only it had deemed it worth while to make use of them; but they were all neglected. It had no time for such things, it was wholly absorbed by the trivialities and the vanities of the passing moment. Others, with only a hundredth part of its opportunities, succeeded in saving their souls. Others, without the special graces and blessings, and spiritual favors that God had rained with such abundance upon that soul, have nevertheless made such a good use of the few graces given them, that the have entered into eternal Glory, while it is left to bemoan and curse its folly for all eternity.
My brethren, let us arouse ourselves to a sense of our true position. We may, indeed, be Catholics, but at of itself is no security. The question is, are we downright practical Catholics? Are we living up to the high standard set by the Church? “Noblesse oblige.” If we are the true Children of Christ, then let us act as such. If we claim Him as our Father, then let us think of Him, obey Him, and treat Him with the respect, and the affection and the love of sons.
It is a grand thing to be a Catholic, true. But it were better far to be a savage or a poor ignorant heathen, than a Catholic who turns his back upon his Lord and Master, and who loses his own soul. If one is resolved to go to hell, it were less disastrous to go there as an unbeliever and an infidel, than as a responsible child of the Church. By comparison with him, the heathen is almost blameless. He knows nothing of the authority of the Church. He has never so much as heard of the seven Sacraments; nor has he ever assisted at the adorable sacrifice of the altar, or once received the Sacred Body and Blood of the Son of God. The many exhortations and moving discourses, the warnings and admonitions and the repeated calls to a better life, that Catholics receive, have been denied to him. The example of the saints, the courage of the martyrs, and the holy lives of so many fellow Christians are stimulants to piety and sanctification which are known to us who are of the household of the faith, but wholly unknown to outsiders.
For these and for many others reasons, which there is no time to specify, God will deal much more mercifully with a pagan, who has rebelled against Him, that with a Catholic, who He has loaded with His gifts, and surrounded with His graces, but who, nevertheless, has broken His commands, and has died unrepentant and unabsolved. The baseness and ingratitude of the one bears no sort of proportion that of the other, so that, if the first is to be beaten with “whips,” the second will be scourged with “scorpions” (III. Kings xii, II). There are “many mansions” in hell, as there are in heaven; but the lowest of these will be reserved for a bad, disobedient, ungrateful and faithless members of the Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.
Let us then beware, and if we are growing careless, let us tremble lest we, like so many others, should, perchance, end miserably, and incur God’s just but awful anger. For, the Apostolic assures us, that: “It is an awful thing (above all, for a bad Catholic) to fall into the hands of the living God.” May Gd in His mercy guard us from so appalling a fate. Amen.