Three weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit the city of Krakow for World Youth Day. Christ telling us today to “strive to enter through the narrow gate” reminds me of two very different gates that I recently walked through – both in Poland and both within about 24 hours of each other. The last full day there we made a visit to Auschwitz, the infamous concentration camp where some 1.1 million people were systematically killed. We walked through the gateway to the original camp, over which the Nazis hung what has become an infamous sign still there today. It reads, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” which translates: “Work will set you free.”
Each morning when they went out to labor with their gaunt bodies and each evening when they would come back into the camp, the prisoners (mostly Jews, but also gypsies, and Catholic priests and religious) would read these words knowing that they would only find they were free when they had been worked to death or executed. Auschwitz has appropriately been understood as Hell on earth. The gate itself seems to be a clever spin on Dante’s, “Inferno.” In Dante’s vision of Hell, there is a gate to enter with its own message, and while it is less of a taunt it essentially led its inhabitants to the same conclusion. It said, “Abandon all hope, you who enter here.”
Christ took up a human body for the purpose for going through Hell on earth and freeing condemned humanity. He always thinks of us and tells us what us what we need to hear. The man in today’s Gospel asks him, “will few be saved?” – perhaps he was going through his own Hell on earth. Jesus knows that to follow Him to heaven will require hope – lots of hope – and striving in hope. So notice, Christ does not directly answer this man at all. He says that many will try to enter and not be able, but Christ does not say whether or not many others will be saved – or if only a few enter the Kingdom. St. Cyril asks, “What advantage would it have been to His hearers to know whether there should be many or few who would be saved. But it was more necessary to know the way by which man may come to salvation.” I think Christ chooses His answers today in the way He does to inspire us with hope – for hope is the way. If He were to say, “Many will be saved” we would be greatly tempted to laxity – to presuming that we will be one of these many who are saved without having to cooperate very much.
On the other hand, if He says it will be only a few – we would all of us be tempted to throw up our hands in despair. Oh, I won’t make it – I might as well enjoy myself as much as I can right now.
Looking at our country, a lot of us are living without much hope. You can tell we are an unhappy people by how many distractions we seek. If our life was full of hope and joy we wouldn’t need to distract ourselves from it. But, we want to be busy, so we can avoid thinking about our own emptiness – so we can avoid thinking of how much we need God.
Hell is real. Christ refers to it as the “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Mt 25:41).” God is love and has made us to love. However, to be able to receive God’s love as fully as possible and to love in return, God has given us freedom. You can’t love if you aren’t free. Yet, in our freedom, we can choose not to love at all, or we can choose to give our love only to ourselves. Jesus refers to the people from the East and the West, the North and the South coming into the Kingdom of God. Those who do not find the way are referred to as evildoers. In other words they did not take the path to Him, but took a path leading away, the path of evil – choosing to gratify themselves, rather than to do good and to serve God and neighbor. What should hit us is their response: “We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.” The Church fathers see this as a reference to Mass. They ate and drank in the feast of Our Lord and He taught them. Yes, but they did evil anyway. They did not live His Word to them. They were so busy with themselves that they didn’t allow Him to know them through prayer.
We’ve all done evil. The key to living again with Christ is to learn to hope in Him, rather than to presume that we’re okay on our own. He came to save the sick, and it is those who acknowledge they are sinners, who acknowledge that they are spiritually sick. It is they who can acknowledge Christ as their spiritual physician and call out. Poland was given another gate in the twentieth century – a gate thankfully for the whole world. It was represented at the WYD Papal Mass as a thirty foot tall structure that I walked beneath with blue and red streamers fixed to the ground and leading up to an arch that read in several languages, “Jesus, I trust in You.” Poland was given the famous image of the Divine Mercy of Jesus and the Divine Mercy chaplet which is taking over the world.
The path away from Jesus is to do evil and turn inwards towards the self. The path to Him is not simply to do good. He says, “I am the Way.” Doing good is itself to be with Jesus – to touch Him. And Jesus, is not only the Life that we seek, but He Himself is the Truth. The truth is what sets us free. The truth that we are not alone and that we do not need to be afraid. Jesus actually says, “I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved.”
St. John Eudes wrote, “Finally, you are one with Jesus as the body is one with the head. You must, then, have one breath with him, one soul, one life, one will, one mind, one heart. And he must be your breath, heart, love, life, your all.” And once we enter into the truth of Christ’s love for us and live in the hope that we are sinners desired by God we can assist so many others. We can be point people to the Gate of Mercy that is Jesus and even be that gate when Christ works through us.
If we pray and become a soul for God to inhabit, if we become His host – He will give us souls to lead to Him. We don’t even need to pray, “Jesus, give me souls, but Jesus, thank you for the souls you give me for I know that you give them to me.” He has told us that if we believe we have already received the things for which we pray, they shall come to us.
Here are words of great hope from two more saints: St. Therese of Liseaux knew she was small, but she wrote, “Jesus could have saved men without us. He did not will to do it that way. The Creator of the Universe, listens to the prayer of a very little soul to save others who are ransomed, as she is, by the price of all His Blood.” And St. Margaret Mary Alacoque said, “A soul which loves can obtain pardon for a thousand criminals.” Let us admit our need for Jesus, receive Him in hope, and draw others in through prayer and the gate that is Christ.