ASK FATHER: Hope for heaven for non-Catholic relatives


From a reader…


When I converted at Easter 2001 from an Baptist background it seemed that the Catechism of the Catholic Church implied that there was hope for Protestant salvation. Now that I have been drawn to the Traditional Latin Mass it seems that older documents did not teach that.
Obviously I am concerned for my family, but also explaining a funeral for a family friend to my daughter. It is sure to be an upbeat affair that brushes off that she was a non-practicing Baptist, divorced from a non-practicing Catholic and remarried within a week of her death from breast cancer. I guess I am wondering if Catholic teaching provides any hope to this situation.

We live in a time where the reality of hell is often either ignored or flatly denied. Our society – and our pulpits (both Catholic and Protestant) have become places where Universalism (the teaching that everyone goes to heaven) reigns. It is seen as “pastoral” to comfort the grieving by telling them that their deceased loved one is in paradise, and only a cruel or heartless preacher would dare to remind people that the dead need our prayers.  And God forbid that you might raise the specter of Hell as a possible outcome of a life lived in defiance of God’s commandments.

Hell, friends, is real.  It is possible to wind up there.

Church teaching has not changed. The Church still teaches, and has consistently taught, that the sure path to salvation is found in the Church that Christ Himself founded.  One stays on that path by being humbly obedient to the authority of that same Church.

Those who place themselves outside of the authority of the Church do not have that surety of being on the right path.

Want to avoid Hell?  Stick close to the Catholic Church, frequent the sacraments, believe her teachings, practice works of mercy, and reform your life.

I’m just trying to do my job here, people: Keep has many people out of Hell as possible.

The Church also teaches that God is both just and merciful. God has revealed this about Himself. If God were simply just, then all talk of heaven would be futile because not a single one of us deserves heaven. Nothing we can do can earn ourselves a place in heaven. No matter how good we are, or how many good works we do, or how well-intentioned we are, we can’t get to heaven on our own.

But God is not only just. He is also merciful. In His mercy, He sent His Son to die for us and through His death and resurrection, to open to us the pathway to heaven.
His Son has done this through the Church He established.

Men have, unfortunately, clouded that clear and straightforward message and have made it seem as though the path that Jesus Christ Himself laid down is some sort of option.

God’s mercy is unfathomable. We cannot impose our human limits on His mercy. We can only repeat what He revealed and do our best to cleave as tightly as possible to the path He laid out.

Remember: God’s justice we are going to get whether we want it or not.  His mercy we have to ask for.  And … He will give it, lavishly.

Is it possible for God to save those who live and die outside of what we see as the Catholic Church? Of course it is possible.  God is not limited by our expectations and understanding.

When we see so many of our friends and family living and dying outside of the embrace of the Church, and even see loved ones within the Church living contrary to the demands of the Gospel, we are faced with two temptations.

One temptation is simply to close our eyes and hope for the best.

The other temptation is to despair.

Both these are temptations and should be avoided.

Betwixt these two temptations, we see a course of action. We do everything we can to encourage our loved ones to follow Christ, sometimes by our words, sometimes by our actions, always with our prayers. Those prayers help us to avoid the temptation to despair.

Perhaps this is why at this point in history the Church has placed before us a devotion to the Divine Mercy in addition to our other many good devotions. We can place our loved one’s in the hands of the Merciful Savior. We can beg and plead that, even though we do not see how it can be accomplished, those dear souls may somehow be welcomed into the heavenly homeland that He has prepared.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Bruce says:

    Excellent explanation Father!

    The following is a similar explanation of Theology by C.S Lewis.

    “In a way I quite understand why some people are put off by Theology. I remember once when I had been giving a talk to the RA.F., an old, hard-bitten officer got up and said, “I’ve no use for all that stuff. But, mind you, I’m a religious man too. I know there’s a God. I’ve felt Him: out alone in the desert at night: the tremendous mystery. And that’s just why I don’t believe all your neat little dogmas and formulas about Him. To anyone who’s met the real thing they all seem so petty and pedantic and unreal!”Now in a sense I quite agreed with that man. I think he had probably had a real experience of God in the desert. And when he turned from that experience to the Christian creeds, I think he really was turning from something real to something less real.In the same way, if a man has once looked at the Atlantic from the beach, and then goes and looks at a map of the Atlantic, he also will be turning from something real to something less real: turning from real waves to a bit of coloured paper. But here comes the point. The map is admittedly only coloured paper, but there are two things you have to remember about it. In the first place, it is based on what hundreds and thousands of people have found out by sailing the real Atlantic. In that way it has behind it masses of experience just as real as the one you could have from the beach; only, while yours would be a single isolated glimpse, the map fits all those different experiences together. In the second place, if you want to go anywhere, the map is absolutely necessary. As long as you are content with walks on the beach, your own glimpses are far more fun than looking at a map. But the map is going to be more use than walks on the beach if you want to get to America.
    Now, Theology is like the map. Merely learning and thinking about the Christian doctrines, if you stop there, is less real and less exciting than the sort of thing my friend got in the desert. Doctrines are not God: they are only a kind of map. But that map is based on the experience of hundreds of people who really were in touch with God—experiences compared with which any thrills or pious feelings you and I are likely to get on our own are very elementary and very confused. And secondly, if you want to get any further, you must use the map. You see, what happened to that man in the desert may have been real, and was certainly exciting, but nothing comes of it. It leads nowhere. There is nothing to do about it In fact, that is just why a vague religion—all about feeling God in nature, and so on—is so attractive. It is all thrills and no work; like watching the waves from the beach. But you will not get to Newfoundland by studying the Atlantic that way, and you will not get eternal life by simply feeling the presence of God in flowers or music. Neither will you get anywhere by looking at maps without going to sea. Nor will you be very safe if you go to sea without a map.”

  2. NBW says:

    My In-laws have both passed on; one was a baptized Catholic but turned agnostic, the other a not so devout Protestant. Can I say Masses for them or pray a rosary? What would be the best thing to do?

  3. MrsMacD says:

    But Father but father, can’t we hope in God’s justice as much as His mercy? St. Thérèse said she did. After all, all that blood poured out for me, it’s not fair if it goes to waste! Certainly I can hope in that! Can’t I?

    And Father isn’t it merciful of God to put souls who hate Him as far away from Him as possible? Isn’t that what hell is? Being put as far away from God and anything that reminds us of Him as possible? So, isn’t Hell a symptom of God’s mercy towards the unrepentant Lucifer and all who follow him?

  4. Mike says:

    In a way, these automatic-canonizations are a result of one of the reigning heresies of our time–naturalism. One hour reading St. Thomas’ Summa would clear it up for many: Our end exceeds our natural capacities. Full stop.

    The vision of God as he is in eternity is beyond even the angelic beings’ nature. It is pure gift.

    That being said, the way to accept the gift is, as Fr. Z said, to live in the truth as revealed by God and his Church.

  5. Great article, Father. I always try to steer my way between the Scylla of Universalism and those theologies related to it (cough… Von cough… Balth… cough… asar) and the Charybdis of despair for my departed relative who died outside visible communion for the Church by “daring to have hope” that any particular deceased person might be saved while assuming any currently living person might very well be damned. Thus, I can be both hopeful and still evangelize. God bless, Father.

  6. J Kusske says:

    To me, the continual prayer for mercy of the Eastern rites seems the true application of the kind of thing Cardinal Kasper is invoking, not the watering-down of doctrine he has in mind. The Divine Mercy seems to be the kind of fruitful cross-pollination between traditions in the Church we should be striving to foment, and God willing we can gain from the better parts each side has to offer. Eleison imas, and may we work to bring as many souls as we can to embrace His law so they can receive it (ourselves too…)

  7. Gerard Plourde says:

    It is true that Church teaching regarding salvation for those not officially affiliated with her has not changed. It must be emphasized that the most authoritative source for this and all of the teachings of the Church is the Catechism of the Catholic Church promulgated by St. John Paul. Older documents must be read recognizing that they are products of their time and often provide responses conditioned by the circumstances then existing.

  8. Paulo says:

    The devotion to the Divine Mercy was a great source of hope for me when my father, who was Catholic but did not practice, passed away. Because he was in ICU, the visiting hours were very strict, and we could not stay by his side. I received, at home, the phone call from the hospital shortly after I had spent nearly one hour praying the chaplet of Divine Mercy. As father says, I placed my father in the hands of the Merciful Saviour, and I can only hope that the manner in which these events unfolded is a sign pointing to his salvation. I continue to work on this, praying daily for his soul, in particular during the holy sacrifice of the Mass.

  9. Geoffrey says:

    Excellent post, Father. Thank you!

  10. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Jerome’s Letter 107, to Laeta, St. Paula’s daughter-in-law. Her father was the pagan priest Albinus.

    “….Who could have believed that to the heathen pontiff Albinus should be born— in answer to a mother’s vows— a Christian granddaughter; that a delighted grandfather should hear from the little one’s faltering lips Christ’s Alleluia, and that in his old age he should nurse in his bosom one of God’s own virgins? … The one unbeliever is sanctified by his holy and believing family. For, when a man is surrounded by a believing crowd of children and grandchildren, he is as good as a candidate for the faith.

    “I for my part think that, had he possessed so many Christian kinsfolk when he was a young man, he might then have been brought to believe in Christ. For though he may spit upon my letter and laugh at it, and though he may call me a fool or a madman, his son-in-law did the same before he came to believe. Christians are not born but made.

    “… I speak thus to you, Laeta my most devout daughter in Christ, to teach you not to despair of your father’s salvation. My hope is that the same faith which has gained you your daughter may win your father too, and that so you may be able to rejoice over blessings bestowed upon your entire family. You know the Lord’s promise: “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.” (Luke 18:27)”

    Now, granted, this was talking about a pagan, and it was talking about hope for conversion while he was still alive. But someone who is baptized, or who is any kind of Christian, is at least partly in unity with the Church.

    So even though it’s not nearly as good as being in the Church fully, and even though, on the other hand, Catholics are perfectly capable of going to Hell despite Jesus’ abundant graces given to them, it is still not nearly a case of knowing for sure that somebody is beyond hope. There is plenty of hope for anyone, that God’s mercy and love will step in; and certainly there is hope for our separated brothers and sisters.

    So basically, we can try hard to convince the living, we can pray for both the living and the dead, and we can trust God, Who is the ultimate in trustworthy. The Father knows best. :)

  11. Supertradmum says:

    I, when I can, have Masses said for the living to be converted. Why not?

    The best prayer is the Holy Mass.

  12. Mojoron says:

    I was having a discussion with a First Southern Baptist, singer, piano player, when he asked me why I went to confession, we were speaking during Lent, and I told him that I had sinned and needed to be forgiven. I asked him do YOU ask for forgiveness and he said, “Never!” I asked him why does he think that he doesn’t need to ask for forgiveness, he said, “Christ died for my sins!” I asked, “What if you killed someone in anger right before you died?” He said, “Jesus would say, ‘Now Earl, why did you do that?'” I couldn’t counter that one at all.

  13. SanSan says:

    Ah yes, the Divine Mercy of our Lord…….I’m still so confused about all of this. Many I know feel that every soul will have 3 chances to accept the Lord at their death, thus avoiding hell. It just doesn’t make sense, why do we follow the Commandments, receive the Sacraments and avoid the near occasion of sin if we can just wait until death and receive His Divine Mercy? From what I understand Jesus’ Mercy comes when we repent and make reparation…….a good confession and Act of Contrition before death…..but if you die suddenly?–will it be Justice or Mercy?

  14. jameeka says:


  15. Imrahil says:

    One hour reading St. Thomas’ Summa would clear it up for many: Our end exceeds our natural capacities.

    That is, of course, clear. However, in the world we know God actually created, it’s the actual fact that God in His infinite liberality grants, to everyone* who does not end up in Hell for all eternity, Heaven (after some time generally, we guess). [Possibly with the exception of unbaptized infants, about whom nothing is known for certain. But, once you are either baptized or reach the use of reason, it is either Heaven or Hell.]

    He wouldn’t have needed to; he could have instituted a limbo, a natural paradise, for reasonably good men reserving Heaven to some superperformers (as in the Mormons’ fable, and as we teach unbaptized infants have if they are not in Heaven, which we don’t know). But, in His infinite magnanimity, He did not.

  16. Imrahil says:

    Good points (at all).

    Dear NBW, unless you are a priest, you cannot say Masses for them.

    Can you have Masses said for them, or pray the rosary? Sure!

    Note, by the way, that one classical interpretation of the Requiem Offertory is that it is asking God, who is above Time, to grant grace retrospectively for the moment of death.

    I. e., excepting the particularly harrowing theoretical case in which we would know by certain revelation someone to be in Hell (and leaving aside whether, after the death of the last Apostle, any private revelation can be so certain at all),

    we can pray now for someone already long dead that he may get to Heaven.

  17. Mpatrick says:

    As the catechism explains, those who have come to know the Catholic church to be the true church but then walk away, their salvation is in question. Those who never knew this truth are judged as not being culpable but must live the commandments to the best of their ability.
    A true zeal for souls is the order of the age in which we live! One idea I have used has actually worked more than once: Ask your “fallen away” (who is near death) to be received into the church as an act of “insurance”. Read to them the passages of sacramental theology such as James 5 which describes the anointing of the sick. After all, he probably bought insurance during his time on Earth to stay out of the poor house why not “buy it” to stay out of hell. After all, what if what you and others have been living and teaching is true! And by the way, ITS FREE! (unfortunately, very important for many).
    I know. this is an imperfect (fear) act of contrition but since the Church has the authority to say what is loose/bound in Heaven/Earth the person will (write it in Bronze) be saved from damnation.
    Remember Jesus said to many in the Gospels “your faith has save him”. What a comfort.

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