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Bishop's Homily for the Twenty-Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time

September 17, 2023

[St. Rita Church, Nanakuli (with installation of pastor)]

I would like to tell you about the time I went to hell!

I was making a Thirty-Day Retreat according to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.  In those exercises, St. Ignatius is concerned that from the beginning a person be well disposed and as open as possible to receive the graces that the Lord wants to pour out.  Therefore, as in the Mass, the Exercises begin with an awareness of one’s sinfulness and a desire to be forgiven, so that the channels of grace can flow more freely.  One of the ways St. Ignatius prescribes to get in touch with one’s sinfulness is to imagine yourself in hell, paying an eternal price for the serious sins you have committed against the Lord.

My initial prayer for this exercise was to imagine hell in its traditional terms:  fire, brimstone, the devils as ugly red creatures with horns and pointed tails.  As I reported my prayer experience to my spiritual director the next day, I told her that the experience did not really move me one way or the other.  She said, “When you pray in this way, you have to use your imagination.  God can speak to you powerfully when you let your imagination go.”  So she sent me back to hell to go through the exercise again.

This is what I imagined hell to be:  It was a small booth in which I could only stand for all eternity.  I could not sit down or lie down.  It was lonely, hot and muggy, and filled with mosquitos.  But by far the worst thing about it was that there was a little window in the booth, and through the window I could see heaven.  And there, in the arms of God, I saw the two people I despised the most!  I reflected further on this, because, though I am sorry to admit that I have hurt many people in my life, I can honestly say that I did nothing to hurt these two people.  I was truly innocent, and they were the ones who offended me.  So I said to the Lord, “Lord, you know very well that I did nothing to offend these people and that they were the ones who seriously offended me.  So why are they in heaven, while I am in hell?”  And the Lord immediately answered me, “Because you have not forgiven them!”

Ah!  There was my hidden sin that the Lord revealed to me during that exercise.  He knew that unless I stopped holding tight to wrath and anger, I would never be free enough to experience the fulness of God’s merciful grace.  And so, I began to work on forgiving them, and that is what allowed me to get out of hell!

There are so many people who have sinned against us:  a parent who neglected us in a time of need; a gossipy neighbor who ruined our reputation; someone who sexually or physically abused us; a relative who deprived us of our legitimate inheritance; a spouse who cheated on us; a friend who betrayed us.  There is no doubt that any of these situations could make us angry, because anger is a natural – and even healthy – reaction to injustice.  But do we hold on to that anger, even nurturing it, holding tight to it; or do we feel it, then let it go, forgiving the person who offended us.  Perhaps we even feel justified in holding onto such anger, because, after all, we were right, and they were wrong.  But in the end, who is ultimately hurt when we hold on to these grudges?  Ultimately ourselves!  We are the ones who create a personal hell for ourselves.

We see Peter thinking he was generous in his thoughts, suggesting that we must forgive those who offended us seven times – which is a lot of times.  But Jesus steps in and says, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”  And then he tells the parable of the unjust steward who himself was forgiven but who refused to forgive another who owed him a much smaller debt.  And who lost the most in the end?  The one who refused to forgive as he himself had been forgiven.

We must remember that forgiving another person does not mean that the person was not in the wrong.  No, it means that we refuse to lock ourselves away in a hell of our own making.  It means that we refuse to let someone else’s real sin keep us from keeping the channels of God’s merciful grace flowing into our own hearts.  It means that we become more and more like the God who is love, who, as we well know, has always been so merciful to us in forgiving our sins.