It was the first quarter of major seminary at Our Lady of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary. I had just graduated from college seminary, many of my classmates had finished pre-theology and still others were starting their first year of seminary experience.
Father Hennessey taught one of the first classes. He is a giant of a man – easily passing six feet of happy priesthood, chuckling as he teaches, gently drawing out students while bringing home the lesson of the day. A former member of a religious community (Augustinian, I think) now serving the archdiocese of Chicago, his gentle manner belied his size and every class he teaches is one that seminarians love.
So it comes to pass that we have our first class with him. Remember that this is one of our first classes altogether at seminary too. Father Hennessey gets in front of the class, greets us and then goes on to quote Saint John Chrysostom: “The road to hell is paved with the skulls of erring priests, with bishops as their signposts.”
The road to hell is paved with the skulls of erring priests, with bishops as their signposts.
Not a catchphrase on any vocation poster I’d seen then or since!
He went on to explain why he shared this with us. He wanted us to be aware from the beginning the seriousness of what we were undertaking. People will never look at a man the same once he becomes a seminarian, well before he is even ordained! They will look to you for faith, wisdom and counsel. As a priest, you will be the first resource of the Catholic faith. Woe to those who take it lightly. The road to hell is paved with the skulls of erring priests, with bishops as their signposts.
At this point, I imagine you dear reader are sitting at your computer thinking “well, I’m especially glad not to be a priest!”.
Not so fast.
Might I remind you of another quote, from Jesus himself? “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”
It seems that the entire priesthood – both ministerial and of the baptized (that’s you!) – is held up against great expectations.
It would be a good thing for us to reflect a little on hell. Imagine for a moment that, God forbid!, you wake up tomorrow not in the heavenly kingdom but the fires of Hell. Think of the first moments in Hell: the horror of where you are, the sound of those suffering eternal damnation whose choir you now join, the pain not only of this torment but the suffocating separation of you & God and the unwavering reality that your every sin has justly earned you this punishment. Imagine the realization that these are first few seconds of the rest of eternity.
How well we might do to briefly reflect on Hell regularly, building our commitment not to suffer this terrible few moments – to speak nothing of an eternity.
If the road to hell is paved with the skulls of erring priest, what of the roads of Heaven? Scripture itself speaks of streets of gold throughout the new Jerusalem, where the Lamb of God is all in all.
Imagine, God willing!, your entrance into heaven – waking up perhaps even tomorrow into your eternal reward. Imagine the joy of seeing the face of blessed Saint Peter welcoming you into the city of God, the delight of meeting your guardian angel – and the introduction to all the angels (!), the awe of standing among and being counted with the saints, the wonder of being re-united with all those who have gone before. And as you stand before God, the realization that despite your great unworthiness, every one of your sins has been wiped away by the loving mercy He so freely gives so that you will enjoy not just this moment, but an eternity of moments of joy with Him in Heaven.
If we do well reflecting briefly on Hell regularly, how much better to reflect daily on Heaven!
What a gift that our Heavenly Father sends us His Son as the Good Shepherd – and what an example we must live up to in order to be worthy shepherds ourselves. May we take seriously the responsibilities that our priesthood – baptismal and ministerial – entail, that we may imitate Christ faithfully, that others might come to know Him through us and that we might follow Him to the promised pastures of Heaven!