The Horrors of Hell, the Greatness of God

by Fr. Dan Cambra, MIC

It's winter in New England. As I sit here writing this month's newsletter, I can see snowflakes out the window falling upon our fields at the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy.

Maybe I have a one-track mind, but as the spiritual director of the Holy Souls Sodality, whenever I see snowflakes, I cannot help but turn my thoughts to souls in need and to a favorite saint of mine.

I first learned about St. Benedict Joseph Labre (1748-1783), a French mendicant, many winters ago when I was a seminarian. You know who told me about him? Another "Benedict Joseph": Fr. Benedict Joseph Groeschel, CFR, the famous author, speaker, and television personality, who was also my spiritual director for a year. He would often tell me stories about this saint whose name he had taken as his own.

One of the stories he told was of a mystical experience St. Benedict Joseph Labre reported having when he was in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. He was apparently given a vision of eternity — and the vision turned grim. Afterwards, St. Benedict Joseph said, "I was watching souls going down into the abyss as thick and fast as snowflakes falling in the winter mist."

Incidentally, St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) was said to have been granted a similar vision in which she saw souls falling into hell "like snowflakes."

For lack of a better word, these images of snowflakes, souls, and hell are rather chilling. What they emphasize is that we cannot presume our loved ones are saved and have gone to Heaven after they die. We members of the Holy Souls Sodality must, therefore, be deeply committed to praying not only for the souls of the dead, but of the living as well — particularly that they come to know and love God and follow His Commandments.

Remember Our Lady of Fatima's warning to the three shepherd children on Aug. 19, 1917. She said, "Pray, pray a great deal, and make sacrifices for sinners, for many souls go to hell because they have no one to sacrifice and pray for them."

So let us pray, pray a great deal, and make sacrifices for sinners, and we can do so following the example St. Benedict Joseph Labre. Let me tell you a little bit about this man who urged the living to meditate upon the horrors of hell and the greatness of God.

Early in his life, he was greatly influenced by his uncle, a priest, who inspired him to seek a life of prayer and solitude. Rejected by every religious order he sought to join, St. Benedict Joseph eventually felt inspired by God to become a wandering soul. For years, he made pilgrimages to major shrines in Europe before settling in Rome. He became a lay Franciscan. His charity toward fellow street people became renowned.

Though he had few material means, he considered himself one of the most fortunate of all people because he had God in his life. He is quoted as saying, "We offend God because we do not know His greatness." And also: "God afflicts us because He loves us; and it is very pleasing to Him when in our afflictions He sees us abandon ourselves to His paternal care."

Among his few possessions were a Rosary, a crucifix, and a Breviary that his uncle had given him. The story goes that his uncle had taught him how to read the Liturgy of the Hours — referred to as the Breviary — the official set of prayers that priests and religious offer every day on behalf of the whole Church.

By means of daily prayer, St. Benedict Joseph was overcome by a deep and profound love for God. In turn, St. Benedict Joseph, patron saint of the homeless, would make sure that those around him who couldn't fend for themselves were fed. And he gave them the greatest privilege of all — spiritual nourishment. He would teach them prayers and hymns. He encouraged them to join him in devotion to Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. Many were filled with the same abiding love that Benedict Joseph himself had for Christ in the Eucharist.

When, finally, St. Benedict Joseph died, his funeral was held at Santa Maria dei Monti in Rome, near the Colosseum. It is said that hundreds of bishops and priests attended. Soon after his death, many miracles were attributed to his intercession. Many who reported miracles said they had offered their prayers for intercession before the Blessed Sacrament, following St. Benedict Joseph's example.

Saint Benedict Joseph seemed to live by the Gospel message found in Luke 12:48: "Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more."

He knew he was entrusted with "much" — namely, with the knowledge of God's love for us and the abundant graces available through the Blessed Sacrament. We, too — you and I — have been equally entrusted with "much." As such, we must take up the task to pray for the living — to pray them into Heaven.

As C.S. Lewis wrote in The Weight of Glory, "The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor's glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken."

To that end, I have a suggestion. With St. Benedict Joseph Labre in mind, how about committing to a daily holy hour in which you pray for the souls of the living? If you don't have access to a church or a Eucharistic Adoration chapel, make a holy hour from your home. You can follow the example of another saint, St. Pascal Baylon (1540-1592), a simple shepherd who would turn in the direction of the local Catholic church while tending sheep. He would kneel and pray his Rosary, picturing himself praying before the tabernacle.

Whatever works for you. Pray, pray a great deal, and make sacrifices for sinners, knowing, as St. Benedict Joseph Labre surely knew, that none of our prayers go unheard by our Lord who loves us.