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Do Not Get Lost in Gehenna

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Homily for the 12 Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A)

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My dear friends, in this Sunday’s Gospel passage we hear these words from Jesus: “And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.” (Matthew 10: 28)

What is Gehenna?  The word Gehenna is the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew ge-hinnom, meaning “Valley of Hinnom.” This valley, south of Jerusalem was where some of the ancient Israelites sacrificed their children to the Canaanite false god Molech.  In later years, Gehenna continued to be an unclean place used for burning trash from the city of Jerusalem.

The Gehenna Valley was thus a place of burning sewage, burning flesh, and garbage.  Maggots and worms crept through the garbage and sewage.  The smell from the smoke was strong and nauseating.   It was a place that was utterly filthy, disgusting and repulsive to the senses. 

Gehenna presented such a vivid image, that Jesus used it as a depiction of hell: a place of eternal torment where the fires never ended and the worms never stopped crawling.[i] 

“And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.”

Who are the people that are not afraid to die so that they do not lose their soul in hell for all eternity?

These are the martyrs.  There are millions of them throughout the history of Catholicism. 

Some are very young and some are older. 

They all died under cruel and terrifying circumstances. 

Here is the story of a young girl, a child, who preferred to die rather than to commit a mortal sin. 

She was only eleven years old. 

Maria Goretti (October 16, 1890 – July 6, 1902) is an Italian virgin-martyr. and she is one of the youngest canonized saints.

She was born on the eastern side of Italy to a farming family, but increased poverty forced the family to move to the western side of the country when she was only six.

Her father died from malaria when she was nine, and they had to share a house with another family, the Serenellis, in order to survive. 

The Serenelli family was what we would call today a very dysfunctional family. Alessandro Serenelli, the young man who attacked Maria was part of a terrible mess. 

Giovanni, his father, was an alcoholic and his mother died in a psychiatric hospital when he was only a few months old, apparently after trying to drown Alessandro when he was a newborn. Alessandro’s brother was interned in a psychiatric hospital where he died.

On July 5, 1902, eleven-year-old Maria was sitting on the outside steps of her home, sewing one of Alessandro’s shirts and watching Teresa, her baby sister, while Alessandro was threshing beans in the barnyard. Knowing she would be alone, he returned to the house and threatened her with a knife if she did not do what he said; he was intending to rape her.

She would not submit, however, protesting that what he wanted to do was a mortal sin and warning him that he would go to hell.  She desperately fought to stop him. She kept screaming, “No! It is a sin! God does not want it!” He first choked her, but when she insisted she would rather die than submit to him, he stabbed her eleven times.  She tried to reach the door, but he stopped her by stabbing her three more times before running away.

Teresa, the little baby, awoke with the noise and started crying, and when her mother and Alessandro’s father came to check on her, they found Maria on the floor bleeding and took her to the nearest hospital.

She underwent surgery, but her injuries were beyond anything that the doctors could do.

Halfway through the surgery, she woke up. She insisted that it stay that way. The pharmacist said to her, “Maria, think of me in Paradise.” She looked at him and said, “Well, who knows, which of us is going to be there first?” “You, Maria,” he replied. “Then I will gladly think of you,” she said. She also expressed concern for her mother’s welfare. 

The following day, 24 hours after the attack, having expressed forgiveness for Alessandro and stating that she wanted to have him in Heaven with her, she died of her injuries, while looking at a picture of the Virgin Mary and clutching a cross to her chest.

The wounds penetrated the throat, with lesions of the pericardium, the heart, the lungs and the diaphragm. Surgeons were surprised that the girl was still alive.

In a dying deposition, in the presence of the Chief of Police, Maria told her mother of Serenelli’s sexual harassment, and of two previous attempts made to rape her. She was afraid to reveal this earlier since she was threatened with death.

Alessandro was promptly arrested, convicted, and jailed. After three years he repented, and when eventually released from prison, he visited her mother begging forgiveness, which she readily granted. He later became a lay brother in a monastery, eventually dying peacefully in 1970. Maria Goretti was beatified by Pope Pius XII in 1947, and canonized in 1950 by the same Pope.  Maria’s mother and Alessandro were present at both ceremonies.[ii]

My dear friends, we live in a culture where we have lost the sense of sin.  We have lost the horror of sin.  This is true because we have lost the sense of who God is. 

These tragic loses has caused many Catholics to neglect or even forget about the importance of the Sacrament of Confession. 

Let us, once again, remember some basic teachings of our Catholic Faith. 

What is sin?  The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives us a concise definition. “Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. It has been defined as an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law” (CCC #1849).

Scripture tells us that actual sin is divided into two classifications: mortal sin and venial sin. “There is a sin that leads to death…” (1 John 5:16).  “Every kind of wickedness is sin, but not all sin leads to death” (1John 5:17).

Mortal sin is forgiven through the Sacrament of Confession. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “Confession to a priest is an essential part of the sacrament of Penance. All mortal sins of which penitents after a diligent self-examination are conscious must be recounted by them in confession…” (CCC #1456).

Just like all the other sacraments of the Church, Jesus instituted the Sacrament of Confession.  The Church has always understood the Scriptural reference for the Sacrament of Confession to be John 20: 22-23: “Receive the Holy Spirit.  For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; for those whose sins you retain, they are retained.”

What an immense gift we have been given!  The Sacrament of Confession is an enormous source of interior peace.  The priest raises his hand, and then with a blessing pronounces those amazing words: I absolve you from your sins.  At that moment, we know that God has heard our cry for forgiveness, and we have been pardoned of our sins.  “God, who is rich in mercy…” (Ephesians 2: 4).

There is a direct relationship between the Sacrament of the Eucharist and the Sacrament of Confession. 

Saint Paul speaks to us about this essential relationship in his First Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 11, verses 23-32.  Let us consider the entire text.

“For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.

Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are ill and infirm, and a considerable number are dying. If we discerned ourselves, we would not be under judgment; but since we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.”

The Sacrament of the Eucharist is one of the sacraments of the living.  We need to be free from mortal sin before we receive Holy Communion.  If we receive the Eucharist while we are in the state of mortal sin, we are committing a sacrilege.  “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself.”

That act of receiving the Eucharist with a bad conscience has a direct influence on our physical health.  “That is why many among you are ill and infirm, and a considerable number are dying.” 

Sexual sin is not the only sin, but like for the Corinthians of old, it is certainly the battle of our times. 

Adultery, fornication, masturbation, addiction to pornography, contraception, sterilization and abortion are real life struggles for many Catholics. 

Relativism has convinced a lot of Catholics that there is no longer any need to go to confession for these sins before they receive the Eucharist. 

It is possible to live the virtue of chastity in an unchaste world.  We have to make a decision to change and to live the Gospel with greater authenticity. 

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3: 16-17).

We experience God’s mercy through the Sacrament of Confession.  It is there that we acknowledge who we are: limited, weak and sinful creatures in need of redemption.  It is there that God forgives us of any and all of our sins. 

Everyone is welcome to the Catholic Church, but let Jesus liberate you from sin.  No one who has ever met Jesus has remained the same. 

And now let us pray:

Oh Saint Maria Goretti who, strengthened by God’s grace, did not hesitate even at the age of eleven to shed your blood and sacrifice your life to defend your virginal purity, look graciously on the unhappy human race which has strayed far from the path of eternal salvation. Teach us all, and especially all young people, with what courage and promptitude we should flee for the love of Jesus anything that could offend Him or stain our souls with sin. Obtain for us from our Lord victory in temptation, comfort in the sorrows of life, and the grace which we earnestly beg of you , and may we one day enjoy with you the imperishable glory of Heaven. Amen.

 

[i] https://www.gotquestions.org/Gehenna.html

[ii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maria_Goretti