I am far from being an uncritical enthusiast for all the specific liturgical changes introduced after Vatican II, but one definite improvement is the greater variety of Scripture readings now proclaimed at Mass. Among some of our brethren, however, the new lectionary has been given a pretty chilly reception. Recently I read a critique claiming that the new lectionary excludes many of the stern biblical readings about God’s wrath, the Last Judgment, and hell—or at least that it relegates such readings to weekday Masses so that at least 90 percent of practicing Catholics—the once-a-week Mass attendees—never hear these readings proclaimed in church.
It is a serious allegation and therefore worthy of investigation. Because Gospel readings are the most liturgically prominent texts and most frequently preached on at Mass, I will focus here on the readings from Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
Separating the Sheep and the Goats
If we focus on the Gospels’ most extensive and explicit warnings about hell, the most important passage is the parable of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25:31–46. It has inspired some of Christendom’s most towering poetic, artistic, and musical achievements, including Michelangelo’s great fresco adorning the Sistine Chapel, Dante’s Inferno, the chant Dies Irae, and other masterpieces. Nothing in the Gospels surpasses this supremely dramatic and apocalyptic depiction of doomsday:
When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. . . . Then he will say to those at his left hand, "Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me." Then they also will answer, "Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?" Then he will answer them, "Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me." And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. (Matt. 25:31–33, 41–46)
In the Novus Ordo Mass, this reading is fittingly prescribed for one of the major Sundays of the year: the Solemnity of Christ the King, in Year A. It is also read every year on the first Tuesday of Lent and is given as an option in the Common of Holy Men and Women and in Masses for the Dead. But this great parable of the general judgment at the end of history never appears in the celebration of the Tridentine Mass—never on a Sunday or on any other day.
Our Lord’s most detailed and harrowing warning about the particular judgment each of us will face immediately after death is found in the parable of Dives and Lazarus:
The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried; and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus in his bosom. And he called out, "Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame." But Abraham said, "Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us." And he said, "Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment." But Abraham said, "They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them." And he said, "No, father Abraham; but if some one goes to them from the dead, they will repent." He said to him, "If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead." (Luke 16:22–31)
In the new lectionary, this parable is the Gospel reading for the twenty-sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time, in Year C, and is also read annually on the Thursday of the second week in Lent. It, too, never appears in the celebration of the Tridentine Mass, on Sunday or on a weekday.
One of the most extensive and graphic warnings of hell is found in Mark’s Gospel. It combines parallel passages in Matthew (5:29–30 and 18:6–9) but adds to them:
"Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea. And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched. (Mark 9:42–48)
We find this passage in the new lectionary for the twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, as part of a longer passage (Mark 9:38–43; 45; 47–48) that begins with Jesus’ openness toward independent disciples who were not among the chosen Twelve. Verses 40–49 occur every year on Thursday of the seventh week in Ordinary Time.
Once again, this reading never occurs in the annual Sunday readings in the Tridentine Mass. Matthew’s parallel passage does occur once every seven years, when the Feast of St. Michael the Archangel falls on a Sunday. The complete passage for September 29 in the old rite (repeated on the Feast of the Guardian Angels on October 2) is Matthew 18:1–10. These verses appear to have been chosen especially with children’s angelic protectors in mind, because they begin with our Lord’s praise of the simplicity of these “little ones” and end with his revelation that “in heaven their angels always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven”:
Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the man by whom the temptation comes! And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire. (Matt. 18:6–9)
This is the only major Gospel warning on judgment and damnation to appear in the readings for the Tridentine rite—and on the days it appears, preachers at Mass are more likely to emphasize the Church’s doctrine on the holy angels.
Did We Not Do Mighty Deeds in Your Name?
The new lectionary in fact presents one of our Lord’s “big guns” on everlasting hellfire at a Sunday Mass in each year of the three-year cycle, when Matthew, Mark, and Luke are used for the Gospel readings in Ordinary Time. But two passages stand out from the others by reason of their length and explicit severity. One is Matthew 7:21–27, about the destruction of the house built on sand—the perdition of those who hear Jesus’ words but ignore them. These verses are preceded by others that explicitly refute the fashionable sophism that while hell no doubt exists, we hope nobody actually goes there. The Lord not only asserts that “many” will be excluded from the kingdom of heaven, but he also issues the chilling admonition that among those “many” will be presumptuous souls who considered themselves good Christians and were fully expecting eternal glory:
Not every one who says to me, "Lord, Lord," shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, "Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?" And then will I declare to them, "I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers." . . . And every one who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell; and great was the fall of it. (Matt. 7:21–23, 26–27)
This is the Gospel for the ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, of Year A, and also occurs each year on Thursday of the twelfth week. In the old Missal, the Gospel for the seventh Sunday after Pentecost includes only the first verse cited above. It comes as the last verse in the prescribed passage, Matthew 7:15–21 (this precise passage does not occur in the new lectionary, but verses 15–20 are prescribed for Wednesday of the twelfth week in Ordinary Time), which is about knowing trees by their fruits but also includes a brief and symbolic allusion to the fire of hell:
Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits. Not every one who says to me, "Lord, Lord," shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. (Matt. 7:19–21)
The last major Gospel passage warning of judgment and eternal exclusion from the kingdom contains Jesus’ explicit warning that “many” will be unable to enter the “narrow gate” that admits the righteous to eternal life:
Some one said to him, "Lord, will those who are saved be few?" And he said to them, "Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the householder has risen up and shut the door, you will begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us.’ He will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from; depart from me, all you workers of iniquity!’ There you will weep and gnash your teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God and you yourselves thrust out. And men will come from east and west, and from north and south, and sit at table in the kingdom of God. And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last." (Luke 13:22–30)
The new lectionary highlights this passage of Matthew by prescribing it for a Sunday Mass, the twenty-first in Ordinary Time, of Year C. It is also designated every year for Wednesday of the thirtieth week. But this passage is completely absent from the old Missal.
Proclaimed in Prime Time
Far from omitting or soft-pedaling the hard sayings of our Lord about the Last Things, the new lectionary schedules all the major Gospel texts on judgment and damnation for “prime time”: two Sundays in Year A, one in Year B, and two in Year C. All five also occur annually in weekday Masses so that daily Mass attendees will hear severe apocalyptic warnings proclaimed on no fewer than twenty days over the course of three years. The contrast with the Gospel passages chosen for the old Roman rite could hardly be starker. With the exception of Matthew 18:6–9, not one of these key passages appears anywhere in the pre-conciliar Missal/lectionary, and that exception occurs at Sunday Mass only once in every seven years.
Perhaps Catholics attending the old rite heard—and still hear—a lot more about sin, judgment, wrath, and hell because many priests avoid those topics and choose instead bland and politically correct homilies, whatever the reading of the day. The new breed of younger priests ordained in the last two pontificates are generally much more orthodox than their aging ‘60s and ‘70s predecessors, and consequently this tendency is gradually changing. But any homiletic bias in the new Mass is the fault of the “new” priests and seminary programs, not Paul VI’s new rite of Mass. It is actually the traditional Mass, not the Novus Ordo, that turns out to be soft on hell.
Fr. Brian Harrison O.S.