Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Heaven and Hell, Angels and Demons, Sanctifying Grace and the Eucharist: Conference Topics Aim at Catechizing for Conversion

Giving a presentation on death, judgment, heaven and hell, the keynote speaker at this year’s Diocesan Catechetical Conference on Nov. 13 told attendees we should “live our lives with the end in mind.”

Scott Sollom, associate professor of Theology and Catechetics at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio, led a lineup of eight presentations at the conference, themed “Catechizing for Conversion.” Speakers, in their workshops, presented practical tips, anecdotes and Church teaching valuable for catechists in educating on topics such as the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, sanctifying grace, apologetics and the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

In his keynote address on death, judgment, heaven and hell, Sollom noted that they’re often referred to as “the four last things,” but said the nickname falls short.

“The last things are not meant to come last at all. Instead, the reality of our own impending death and judgment should inform this present moment,” he remarked. “We want our lives to become molded by the sure knowledge of our meeting with Christ, face to face…. The last things should come first.”

The most important thing to know in eschatology – the theology on death, judgment, heaven and hell – is that Jesus wins. “We have Jesus, who has ‘gone here and done that,’” said Sollom, who went on to examine each of the “four last things.”

Death is the separation of body and soul. The body dies, but the soul, instilled by God, continues. Death, Sollom said, is a time of choosing whether you will be for or against God.

Our judgment, he continued, is connected to our faith in Jesus. Borrowing an explanation from renowned philosophy professor Peter Kreeft, Sollom asked conference attendees to consider what evidence they would give to be allowed to enter heaven if they died today.

“There is only one answer: Jesus. There is nothing of our own accord that makes us worthy. He is the very cause of our sanctification,” Sollom said.

Hell is the continued rejection of Christ, said Sollom, who pointed to St. Catherine of Siena’s vision of the four pains of hell: deprivation of seeing God, agonizing over what has been lost, seeing the Devil as he really is, and customized suffering.

“Hell is real. To believe that no one goes to hell is incorrect,” Sollom emphasized.

He also spoke on purgatory, a place of purification after death and before entering heaven. “It’s not a second chance or an opportunity to take a mulligan,” he said. “It’s a practical matter: The Lord is perfect, so how can I be in perfect communion with Him if I’m not purified?”

Heaven, then, is the fulfillment of everything we desire, and everything we should strive for.

“In heaven, we remain ourselves…. We are there together, the real ‘us,’” Sollom said.

“We are fulfilled. No more mourning, no weeping, no crying, no pain, no death, no remnants from sin. All the peace and love that God intended for us at Creation is now restored for eternity,” he said.

Sollom said eschatology can be summed up in this way: “Death is a participation in the death of the Lord. Jesus is the final judge. Heaven is a perfect life with Jesus and the Father and the Holy Spirit, and hell is the definitive exclusion from the life that Christ has offered.”

“A second summary is a repeat: it’s worth it,” he concluded.

Witnesses to Truth

The annual Catechetical Conference, sponsored by the Diocesan Office for Evangelization and Catechesis, is geared toward directors and coordinators of religious education, catechists, youth ministers and RCIA instructors. This year’s event was offered virtually and in-person at the Diocesan Center in Harrisburg on Nov. 13, with a record number of 390 registrants combined. Livestreaming was provided through the efforts of the Diocesan Office of Communications.

The day-long conference began with the celebration of Mass by Bishop Ronald Gainer and included eight presentations, the opportunity to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation, lunch, vendors and Evening Prayer.

In a second presentation, “The Ecclesial Method,” Scott Sollom offered a walk-through of concrete ways catechists can teach the faith to people of all ages. The five steps for effective catechesis are found in a catechist’s preparation, proclamation, explanation, application and celebration, he said.

Sollom encouraged catechists to rely on the Catechism as a means of linking everything to Christ when they teach.

“The Catholic faith is not a random assortment of stuff. If people don’t see it as a whole, they won’t get the full picture, the full beauty,” he concluded.

Continuing with the day’s theme, “Catechizing for Conversion,” Bishop Ronald Gainer offered a presentation on “The Holy Eucharist and Conversion.”

“We are a Eucharistic Church. If it’s true that the Church draws her life from the Eucharist – and it is – then when faith in Christ’s Real Presence among us wanes, the Church itself declines. When Eucharistic practice diminishes, the Church suffers because we draw our life from the Mystery of the Eucharist,” the bishop remarked.

“We have a problem of a catechetical disaster, you might say. We’re all in that battle, and I thank you for your engagement to teach correctly and to awaken in those you are catechizing a love for our Eucharistic Lord,” he told the catechists.

“The Eucharist is the Most Blessed Sacrament, the sacrament par excellence,” Bishop Gainer said. “In the other sacraments, we are united to Christ by a participation in His grace. But in the Eucharist, since Christ exists substantially – Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity – we receive the very substance of Christ Himself.”

“Those things being true, there should be a conversion, a change in us who receive the sacred Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist,” he said.

“How can we approach this sacrament not in a state of awe, but in a state of absolute wonder and amazement?” the bishop proposed. “There is a sense that it has been lost, and so part of our role as catechists is to be witnesses to the truth of the Eucharist and to help those who want to serve somehow arrive at this amazement…. We ourselves must be awed; we must be astonished.”

On Grace, Angels, Demons and Apologetics

Afternoon workshop sessions continued with the theme of catechizing to bring people into intimacy with Christ, and featured presentations by Kristine Hammar, Bob and Noelle Cybulski, Father Paul Clark, Father Edward Connolly and Father William Weary.

Hammar, chair of the Religion Department at Delone Catholic High School in McSherrystown, spoke about catechizing on sanctifying grace versus mortal sin, a topic that is “in so many ways the missing link for many Catholics.”

She centered her presentation on the parable of the Ten Virgins, five of whom have enough oil for their lamps and five of whom do not. The parable teaches us to be prepared for the second coming.

“How do we be sure we’re ready? The oil is the gift of sanctifying grace,” Hammar said.

Students don’t hear the term ‘sanctifying grace’ enough, so I speak of it often,” she said. “We need to be attuned to the ways God has provided to us through the sacraments, to enter into the life of grace and to live where God has called us to live, to grow in the life of grace.”

Father-and-daughter duo Bob and Noelle Cybulski, youth minister at Assumption BVM Parish in Lancaster and associate director of campus ministry at Lancaster Catholic High School, respectively, led a crowd-participation workshop on how to get young people excited about the faith. The Cybulskis called upon in-person participants to join several recreations of activities they present at youth group sessions to make the faith understandable, relatable and fun – including a faith-based scavenger hunt, a re-enactment of the parable of the Good Samaritan and a prayer circle.

Pointing to recent studies showing that 63% of youth leave the Church between the ages of 10 and 17, and that 85% of young adults stop practicing the faith in college, Bob Cybulski remarked that “The reason kids are leaving the Church is, we don’t have time for them and sometimes they think we don’t care for them…. We have to look at how we feed them.”

In a presentation on the Sacrament of Conversion, Father Paul Clark offered a look at Church teaching and Canons on the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and things catechists can do to alleviate penitents’ fears or misunderstandings about Confession.

“There is a horizontal dimension to sin, and a vertical one. We sin against God and all of heaven, but we also sin against each other. Sin affects all of us,” said Father Clark, the Diocesan Judicial Vicar and the pastor of St. Matthew Parish in Dauphin.

“People ask, ‘Why do I have to go to the Church to confess? Why can’t I just go to God?’ Well, you can go directly to God, but you also have to say sorry to the Church for your sins…. In the sacrament, the priest represents the Church,” he said.

“It is a sacrament instituted by Christ, and it is a healing sacrament,” Father Clark said. “Christ comes to us and heals our soul that we wounded by sinning.”

In his presentation on angels and demons, Father Edward Connolly, pastor emeritus of St. Joseph and St. Vincent de Paul parishes in the Diocese of Allentown, cleared up misconceptions about angels and demons.

“Angels are holy ones, and they are also watchers. They watch us, and they watch the face of God,” he said.

“Angels are from themselves and of themselves. An angel has a self-reflexive intellect and free will, as you and I. But they don’t have any matter about them. They are pure spirits, having no physical form.”

Where angels love order, demons love the opposite: chaos. Demons are former angels who were cast out of the Divine Presence for disobedience to God, Father Connolly explained. He also addressed the misconceptions that those who have died can become angels, and that demons are not real.

“Demons do exist,” he said. “But why would they be after us? Revenge. They resent God, and because they can’t get after Him, they attack those who are vulnerable whom He loves, to undo the work of salvation.”

Addressing the arguments that Catholics are confronted with about Church teaching on such areas as Confession, the Real Presence and the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman, for example, is necessary for defending the faith, said Father William Weary, in his presentation on apologetics.

We are in a pandemic physically and biologically, but also a pandemic of error in our society and in our culture. We have to inoculate our students against this virus of heresy and apostasy. Apologetics is the defense of the faith, and it’s so important for us to do in our curriculum and in teaching. Apologetics can be a type of spiritual vaccine against those errors,” said Father Weary, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Lewistown and St. Jude Parish in Mifflintown.

There are some Catholics who don’t believe in Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, or who go against the Church’s pro-life teachings, and catechists are charged with proclaiming the truth with charity, said Father Weary.

“We do not want to be defined as what we are against; we want to be defined by what we are for. That’s one of the criticisms of apologetics, that it’s too negative,” Father Weary said. “But not to do it at all is a disservice to our students. We want to be able to arm and equip them to defend the faith.”

(Photos by Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness.)

By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness

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