When many people think of the saints they narrow their appreciation to those in the canonical listing. The Church herself seems to reinforce this mentality in that public veneration is only approved for those holy men and women vetted by ecclesial authorities as meriting attention. Their lives are scrutinized for the slightest mark or blemish against spiritual perfection, what is termed as “heroic virtue.” They must also affirm the true faith without dissent. Miracles are sought as divine proofs for sanctity. All this is well and good so as to avoid sinful presumption or to incur devotion to one who only feigns holiness and is in the grips of the demonic. Further, the Church teaches that those in purgation are helpless. They need not veneration but intercessory prayer and indulgences as the faithful dead still on their way to heaven.
An unsubstantiated view prevails today that heaven is crowded while hell is underpopulated or vacant. We must be careful in any presumption about the dead. The salvation of the souls in purgatory is assured— they will be counted among the saints in glory. It may be that the bulk of believers will require its purification under the divine fire— a sign of God’s infinite mercy to save those who love him but maybe not as much as they should. There is also the remission of temporal punishment due to sin. The greatest weight of God’s justice targets hell where there is an enmity incompatible with the divine presence and a pervasive apathy toward neighbor.
The Church is very careful to canonize a few saints but there is no parallel listing of the damned. The Church definitively teaches that there is no salvation apart from Christ. He alone is the Way and the Truth and the Life. There is no path or bridge to the heavenly Father except through him. He is the Messiah, the Anointed One or Christ, our Lord and Savior. One of the principal elements of holiness is that the saints reflect Christ and draw others to him. Given our acute understanding of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ, we further believe that the Catholic Church is necessary for salvation. Indeed, the Church is the great sacrament of encounter with the risen Lord. That is the essential impetus for the great commission and our missionary mandate. Good works in themselves cannot save us. We must live out or manifest a saving faith through loving obedience. Those who routinely break the commandments or laws of God with impunity should not expect a place at the heavenly banquet table. Those who lack charity in their hearts should likewise not anticipate membership among the elect since love is the very atmosphere of paradise. God himself is the mystery of Love.
Does this mean that with the possible exception of Eastern Orthodox believers, many Protestants, even fewer Jews and most others are certainly damned? Again, the Church submits to God’s authority on this and would not presume to tell the Almighty whom he can and cannot save. However, if any should find themselves in heaven it will still be due to the redemptive operation of Jesus Christ. We are sinners and no one can merit salvation apart from the Lord. We cannot force God’s hand. We have confidence that God is good, just and merciful. Ultimately, we must leave the matter entirely with him.
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