Pope Francis, in a recent interview, said that “I like to think hell is empty; I hope it is.” There will no doubt be a lot of discussion about this, but I would like to add my viewpoint on the matter because it is a viewpoint that I have never seen mentioned in any discussion of the subject of hell, and yet it is an extremely serious matter for me because it calls my whole vocation into question.
I am a cloistered religious, a Discalced Carmelite nun, a member of a community totally dedicated to contemplation. We have no outside apostolate. Our apostolate is prayer for the Church and for the world. People recognize the value of our life, and they send us letters and emails, they leave us voicemails and they come to the monastery to talk with one of the nuns, all this to ask our prayers. Our willingness to pray for people is all we have to give them. We don’t teach, we don’t nurse, we don’t run a retreat center. Our life is centered on prayer, liturgical prayer, and personal prayer. We are here to let God turn our every thought and action into prayer until, with His grace, we may be so united with Him that we will whatever He wills.
One thing that we know that God wills is that “all human beings be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4). Is that something that we, as contemplative nuns, should pray for? Certainly, if we will what God wills, then we should definitely pray for what He wills.
Is what He wills possible? Is it possible that all human beings be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth? The answer to that is another question: can God want the impossible? Can God will what cannot possibly be done? If God wills something, then it is accomplished. “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it”(Is 55:10-11).
There is a very interesting event described in the Gospel of Mark. When Jesus “returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven’”(Mk 2:1-5).
I want to draw your attention to that last sentence: “When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’” In every other encounter with people whom Jesus healed, he told the person, “Your faith has made you well.” Your faith has made you well. Each person is saved by their faith. That is the general rule, but it doesn’t apply here. This situation was totally different. The paralytic was not saved by his own faith. He probably did believe that Jesus could heal him, and he subsequently was healed, but not because of his faith. His physical healing was in response to the doubting of the scribes, not because of his own faith. The greater healing, the healing of his sins, was in response to the faith of those who brought him to Jesus. That is a gift that he received because of the faith of others.
Can my prayers and the prayers of contemplatives and believers around the world cause all sins to be forgiven? Every sin that has been, will be or is being committed was lavishly paid for on Calvary 2,000 years ago. Countless times throughout the day, Catholics recite the Our Father. That prayer includes the words, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” There is enough grace through Christ’s sacrifice to save every human being ever created. Prayer gathers up that grace and presents it to God so that, seeing our faith, He may say to each person, “Your sins are forgiven.”
I entitled this article “Can Prayer Empty Hell?” I do not know the answer to that question. Anyone who doubts the possibility that prayer can indeed accomplish what God wills, calls into question the very value of prayer, and therefore the value of the wholly contemplative life and the place of contemplatives in the Church.
All I can say is that, whatever criticism I may receive for my viewpoint, it will not deter me in the least from praying that God’s will be done and that every human being will be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.
Image: Adobe Stock. By Geerte.
Sr. Gabriela of the Incarnation, O.C.D. (Sr. Gabriela Hicks) was born in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in the Gold Rush country of California, which she remembers as heaven on earth for a child! She lived a number of years in Europe, and then entered the Discalced Carmelite Monastery in Flemington, New Jersey, where she has been a member for forty years. www.flemingtoncarmel.org.