The Reality of Hell and the Fear of God: Banished from a Church Near You

In my article “The Fifty-Year Descent to Footnote 351: Our Progressive Desensitization to the Most Holy Eucharist,” I spoke of how the liturgical reform’s many sudden and drastic changes in ritual and ceremonial have contributed to a continual erosion of belief in the Mass as a true and proper Sacrifice and in the Real Presence of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. In the present article, I wish to look at a closely related topic, namely, how the holy fear of God, which begins in the dreading of His just punishments for sin and matures into love of Him for His own sake and a desire to dwell with Him forever in heaven, has been undermined by the systematic removal of texts from the liturgy concerning the reality of hell and our need for vigilance and self-denial in order to steer clear of it.

There are many articles that show how radically the prayers were altered in the missal of the Novus Ordo, whether to downplay the subordination of earthly to heavenly things (as, for instance, with St. Albert), or to “purge the mythical element” (as with St. Catherine), or to avoid addressing Christ directly as God (as occurred in Advent), or to downplay the kingship of Christ over societies and governments (as with the reinvention of Christ the King). The list goes on and on, as Lauren Pristas, Anthony Cekada, and other authors have shown. Here, my purpose is more modest: I will focus on texts that mention hell, and we will see how they have fared in the time between the 1962 Missale Romanum and its intended replacement of less than a decade later.

The Requiem Mass

The most obvious and eloquent testimony to the Church’s doctrine about the Four Last Things (death, judgment, heaven, and hell, as well as their adjunct, purgatory) is the traditional Requiem Mass, which was prayed in the Latin Rite for so many centuries unchanged and is still used wherever the Latin Mass flourishes. The Requiem Mass organically developed in such a way that there is a balance in its texts between, on the one hand, consolation and confidence in heaven, and, on the other hand, the fear of punishment with prayers for the rescuing of the soul from hell. It is simply catholic in this regard, taking into account the fullness of Gospel teaching about the afterlife. Needless to say, all of these texts must be recited or sung at every Requiem Mass—nothing is “optional,” just as neither are death, judgment, and an eternal destiny of bliss or pain optional.

The Requiem is certainly not lacking in consoling or confident prayers. Look at the Introit, the Epistle (1 Thess 4:13–18), the Gradual (Ps 111:7), the Gospel (John 11:21–27), the Secret, the Communion, and the Postcommunion: all of these ask for a merciful pardon and eternal rest, and express confidence that the soul with faith in Christ “will be in everlasting remembrance” and “not fear the evil hearing” (Gradual). The Tract seems to waver between light and darkness:

Absolve, O Lord, the souls of all the faithful departed from every bond of sin: and by the help of Thy grace, may they be enabled to escape the avenging judgment and enjoy the happiness of light eternal.

The Sequence, the famous “Dies Irae,” gives free rein to terrifying and trembling truths:

The day of wrath, that awful day, shall reduce the world to ashes, as David and the Sibyl prophesied. How great will be the terror, when the Judge shall come to examine all things rigorously! … The written book shall be brought forth, containing all for which the world must be judged. When, therefore, the Judge shall be seated, whatsoever is hidden shall be brought to light, naught shall remain unpunished. What then shall I, unhappy man, allege? Whom shall I invoke as protector, when even the just shall hardly be secure? O King of awful majesty, who of Thy free gift savest them that are to be saved, save me, O fount of mercy! … My prayers are not worthy, but Thou who art good, grant in Thy kindness that I may not burn in the everlasting fire. Give me a place among Thy sheep and separate me from the goats, setting me on Thy right side. When the reprobate, covered with confusion, shall have been sentenced to the cruel flames, call me with the blessed.

The Offertory continues in a similar vein:

O Lord Jesus Christ, King of glory, deliver the souls of all the faithful departed from the pains of hell and the bottomless pit. Deliver them from the jaws of the lion, that hell not swallow them up, that they be not plunged into darkness. But let the holy standard-bearer Michael lead them into that holy light, R. which once Thou didst promise to Abraham and to his seed. V. Lord, we offer unto Thee sacrifices of praise and prayers; accept them on behalf of those whom we remember this day: Lord, make them pass from death to life, R. which Thou once promised to Abraham and to his seed.[1]

Perhaps most telling of all is the Collect appointed for the day of death or burial:

O God, whose property is ever to have mercy and to spare, we humbly entreat Thee on behalf of thy servant N., whom Thou hast bidden this day to pass out of this world, that Thou wouldst not deliver him into the hands of the enemy, nor forget him forever, but command that he be taken up by Thy holy angels and borne to the fatherland of paradise; that as he put his hope and faith in Thee, he will not suffer the pains of hell, but may possess everlasting joys.

These are strong prayers that deal unabashedly with the gaping jaws of hell and the possibility that we may be consumed by them for unrepented sins. The gates of hell will not prevail against the Church; but they may very well prevail against you or me.

Such a liturgy presents the whole of the Catholic Faith. Once again: lex orandi, lex credendi. We believe as we pray. And what we do not pray, we will sooner or later cease to believe—it will be replaced by ersatz doctrine of dubious pedigree.

The Witness of the Lex Orandi

A wholesome recognition of eternal consequences may be seen in any number of places in the traditional Roman missal. Here is the Collect for the feast of St. Nicholas on December 6:

O God, who didst adorn the blessed Bishop Nicholas with countless miracles: grant, we beseech Thee, that by his merits and prayers we may be delivered from the flames of hell.

(In the Novus Ordo, this has been tamed into: “We humbly implore your mercy, Lord: protect us in all dangers through the prayers of the Bishop Saint Nicholas, that the way of salvation may lie open before us.”)

The Friday of Passion Week includes this galvanizing Collect:

Mercifully pour forth, we beseech Thee, O Lord, Thy grace into our hearts: that we who restrain ourselves from sin by voluntary chastisement may rather suffer for a time than be condemned to eternal punishment.

The Collect for the Mass of Maundy Thursday speaks with clarity about the fate of Judas:

O God, from whom Judas received the punishment of his guilt, and the thief the reward of his confession: grant unto us the full fruit of Thy clemency; that even as in His Passion our Lord Jesus Christ gave to each retribution according to his merits, so having cleared away our former guilt, he may bestow on us the grace of His resurrection.

The Second Sunday after Easter prays in its Collect:

O God, who, by the humility of Thy Son, hast lifted up a fallen world, grant unending joy to Thy faithful; that those whom Thou hast snatched from the perils of endless death, Thou mayest cause to enjoy neverending delights.

The Third Sunday after Pentecost offers one of those magnificent Collects that says so much in so few words, and can be prayed with fervor by anyone who has the slightest self-knowledge:

O God, the protector of all that trust in Thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy, multiply Thy mercies upon us: that having Thee for our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not those which are eternal.

Of course, the only Eucharistic Prayer ever used in the usus antiquior is the 6th-century Roman Canon, which forthrightly implores the Divine Majesty:

We beseech Thee, O Lord, to be appeased and accept this oblation of our service, as also of Thy whole family, and to dispose our days in Thy peace, snatch us from eternal damnation, and count us in the flock of Thine elect.

In addition, one could cite pertinent verses from the Sequences Stabat Mater and Lauda Sion, which, while still given as options in the Novus Ordo, are generally skipped over, due to length; they are, as usual, required in the old Latin Mass on certain days of the year.

Gentle reader, would you believe me if I said that none of the foregoing liturgical texts have survived the liturgical reform? But it is true. In some cases, the texts were removed altogether and can be found nowhere in the new books. In other cases, certain texts (such as the Offertory of the Requiem) can be found in a recondite and rarely-used book like the Graduale Romanum, or tucked away as a fourteenth option somewhere, but in practice they have disappeared from the life of the Church. The only place they thrive is where they are front and center as a required part of her public worship, namely, in communities that avail themselves of the traditional liturgy.

“The Word of God is Not Chained” (2 Tim 2:9) 

Beyond such prayers, hell is mentioned many times each year in the Gospel readings of the traditional Latin Mass, which, thankfully, retains the ancient one-year cycle of readings, rather than the gargantuan off-rhythm two- and three-year cycles of the Novus Ordo. In the usus antiquior, the solemn pronouncement of Our Lord in chapter 12 of the Gospel of St. Luke—“I say to you, my friends: Be not afraid of them who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will shew you whom you shall fear: fear ye him, who after he hath killed, hath power to cast into hell. Yea, I say to you, fear him”—is read at least four times in the year, namely, for the feast of St. Justin Martyr (April 14), SS. John and Paul (June 26), the Holy Maccabees (August 1), and SS. Tiburtius and Susanna (August 11), as well as any other time the common of several martyrs might be used. In comparison, this passage is read once every other year in the Novus Ordo. The parallel passage in chapter 10 of the Gospel of St. Matthew—“And fear ye not them that kill the body, and are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him that can destroy both soul and body in hell”—is read for four feasts, those of St. Polycarp (January 26), St. Cyril of Jerusalem (March 18), St. Athanasius (May 2), and St. Irenaeus (July 3). In the Novus Ordo, it is read on one Saturday each year, and one Sunday every third year.

Matthew 5:22, “Whosoever shall say, Thou Fool, shall be in danger of hell fire,” is part of the Gospel on the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost. In the Novus Ordo, this fortunately appears two weekdays per year, and one Sunday every third year. The pericope of Matthew 18:1–10, which includes these haunting words—

Woe to the world because of scandals. For it must needs be that scandals come: but nevertheless woe to that man by whom the scandal cometh. And if thy hand, or thy foot scandalize thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee. It is better for thee to go into life maimed or lame, than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into everlasting fire. And if thy eye scandalize thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee. It is better for thee having one eye to enter into life, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire.

—is read at least twice each year in the usus antiquior, namely, for the Dedication of St. Michael Archangel (September 29) and the Holy Guardian Angels (October 2). In the Novus Ordo, astonishingly, these verses are never read at all: the “friendly” verses 1–5, 10, and 12–14 are read a number of times, but the above-cited verses about hell-fire are excised. Too scary, I guess.

If I have done the math correctly, over a three-year period, one who attends the traditional Latin Mass daily will hear these particular hell-mentioning Gospels 33 times, while one who attends the Novus Ordo will hear them 13 times.[2] Obviously, there are a lot of other factors one would need to take into account for a full comparison of the presentation of the four last things in both forms of the Roman Rite, a project that exceeds the purpose of this article. Nevertheless, the comparison just given already exposes the kind of deep differences in lex orandi that I am claiming are relevant for understanding the confusion of our times in doctrine (lex credendi) and morals (lex vivendi).[3]

Spiritual Consequences for the Faithful

We have seen that the traditional liturgy prays for the living and the dead in a realistic manner and instructs us accordingly, emphasizing the mercy of God and the attainability of eternal life but not neglecting the Lord’s “avenging judgment” and the real possibility of damnation. The liturgy inculcates in us a lively awareness of our weakness and dependency on grace, the gravity of sin, the need for penance and asceticism, and the fundamental role that fear of the Lord must play in our interior life. The basic attitude of the worshiper is the one praised by the Psalmist: “Serve ye the Lord in fear, and rejoice before Him with trembling” (Ps 2:11).[4]

Instructed by the Mass of the Ages and other liturgical texts,[5] we believe that (a) not everyone automatically goes to heaven, (b) there is an almighty, all-knowing, all-just Judge who will scrutinize our works and give us what we ourselves have sought in our choices—whether glory or shame, beatitude or damnation; (c) the departed soul desperately needs our prayers because we wish them to be released from the agonies of purgatory, and one of the ways that happens is when members of the Church Militant offer prayers and penances for the dead.

Our actions in this life have eternal consequences, for good or for ill. One of those actions we must discern is whether we are living right now in accordance with the commandments of God, especially the Ten Commandments. This is not an optional examination of conscience for the extra-pious but a required examination for every human being who has reached the use of reason. In other words, no one may excuse himself before the Judge by saying: “I didn’t know I was supposed to examine my conscience on whether or not I was adhering to the Ten Commandments.” There are some things no one can be blamed for not knowing if they were never told, but there are other things—the natural moral law, in particular—that we are obliged to know and are capable of knowing. Moreover, the Catholic, having examined his conscience in this manner, must make a discernment about whether he is in a state of sanctifying grace, that he may approach the heavenly Banquet to receive the wounded and glorified Flesh of the Savior. This, after all, is the teaching of no less an authority that the Apostle St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:27–29:

Whosoever shall eat this bread, or drink of the chalice of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the Body and of the Blood of the Lord. But let a man prove himself; and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of the chalice. For he that eatheth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh judgment to himself, not discerning the Body of the Lord.

But these verses, too, have been entirely omitted from the Novus Ordo. One begins to detect a pattern in all of this. The frightening fact, ladies and gentlemen, is that the Novus Ordo systematically downplays the reality of hell.[6]

The virtual disappearance of certain liturgical prayers and readings, and the significant reduction of others, is surely part of the reason, arguably the principal reason, that today’s Catholics are inclined to hold both universal salvation AND an “everyone is welcome” attitude about who may receive Holy Communion. The one view fits the other hand-in-glove.

The Amoris Laetitia debacle can be solved only when there is a broad return to traditional (i.e., Catholic) teaching on all of these subjects. The restoration of this teaching depends for its penetration, efficacy, and longevity on zealous adherence to traditional liturgies (Eastern and Western) where they already flourish, and their complete restoration wherever they do not. As far away as this goal seems, we must never tire of pursuing it, for the bond that unites the lex orandi, the lex credendi, and the lex vivendi is intrinsic, indissoluble, and inevitable.



[1] Incidentally, the great antiquity of this Offertory is evident in a number of features. First, it preserves the form of a responsory, which was the original form of all the offertory antiphons. As time went on, the other offertory chants were shortened, but this one always remained in full. (The original verses for other Offertory chants are available in the Offertoriale published by Solesmes.) Second, its Old Testament resonances are characteristic of the classic prayer of the Roman Church, in particular the mention of the promise to Abraham and to his seed (i.e., Christ, as St. Paul teaches in Galatians), and the use of the phrase “sacrifice of praise,” which is how the 6th-century Roman Canon describes the Eucharistic oblation. We are peering here into the very heart of the Roman Catholic liturgy.

[2] The numbers I am adding together are (4+4+4)+(4+4+4)+(1+1+1)+(2+2+2) for the usus antiquior Gospels, and (1+0+1)+(1+1+2)+(2+2+3)+(0+0+0) for the Novus Ordo.

[3] The ideal study aid for this question is Matthew P. Hazell’s Index Lectionum: A Comparative Table of Readings for the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms of the Roman Rite (n.p.: Lectionary Study Press, 2016). My Foreword to this volume goes into a number of other disturbing aspects of the revised lectionary. Recently I wrote about the significance of the fact that the Gospel of the wedding feast at Cana is read every year in the traditional Mass (Second Sunday after Epiphany) but only once every three years in the Novus Ordo (Second Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C).

[4] St. Augustine comments on this verse: “Serve the Lord with fear, lest what is said, You kings and judges of the earth, turn into pride: And rejoice with trembling. Very excellently is rejoice added, lest serve the Lord with fear should seem to tend to misery. But again, lest this same rejoicing should run on to unrestrained inconsiderateness, there is added with trembling, that it might avail for a warning, and for the careful guarding of holiness.”

[5] Such as the Athanasian Creed Quicumque vult, whose opening words are like a throwing-down of the gauntlet to indifferentism and universalism: “Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith. Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled; without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.”

[6] We often see the same thing in the dumbed-down versions of traditional prayers that are used in many catechism classes today. I came across an Act of Contrition in a CCD classroom that read more or less as follows: “My Lord, I am sorry for my sins. Help me to live like Jesus and to love everyone I meet. Amen.” A prayer of this sort does not adequately express either perfect or imperfect contrition. Contrast it with one of the traditional versions of the Act of Contrition: “O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all of my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell, but most of all because these sins have offended Thee, my God, who art all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to do penance, to sin no more, and to avoid whatever leads me to sin. Amen.”

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