Archive for the ‘Christ’ Category

Secretary of Justice and Peace Council Comments on Benedict’s Message

By Mercedes De La Torre

ROME, JAN. 10, 2012 (Zenit.org).- On the first day of the new year, in which the World Day of Peace was observed, Bishop Mario Toso, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, commented on the Pope’s message for the Day, titled “Educate Young People in Justice and Peace.”

Bishop Toso pointed out that the Holy Father trusts young people, because they show hope and are able to receive God in the midst of human history.

ZENIT spoke with the Salesian bishop, professor of social philosophy, former rector of the Pontifical Salesian University and Consultor for 20 years of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, about Benedict XVI’s message.

ZENIT: Why does Benedict XVI address young people in particular in this 45th Message for the World Day of Peace?

Bishop Toso: Benedict XVI wished to address this message in particular to young people who today live in a world of incessant transformation, in a world that sociologists describe as “liquid”: new projects are begun and are not solidified, so that youth live in a reality that changes constantly, and even those points that seem to be the most solid also seem to change.

In this context of swift changes and a lack of solid points of reference, Benedict XVI addresses young people, seeing them as a part of the human family that has great resources of hope. In fact, young people, especially in the World Youth Day that was held in Madrid, but also in other events that we have learned about in the media, are showing — also in reference to the fall of regimes and the need to erect democratic institutions — a young, fresh intuition, which helps adults to accept the fundamental values we must invest in and which can constitute the foundation of a more just and peaceful society.

ZENIT: Why does the Pope have confidence in young people as builders of peace?

Bishop Toso: Benedict XVI’s confidence in young people is based above all on two motives: the first is that young people, in face of life and the great responsibilities of the human family, believe in the possibility of a profound transformation, of the renewal of institutions, and their enthusiasm can be the engine for positive change in our societies, even becoming witnesses and leaders, enabling adults to question themselves.

The second reason is that Benedict XVI believes in the capacity of young people to intercept God, to receive Him in the midst of human history as the One who can help humanity to come out of the dark tunnel in which it finds itself. In reality, the dark tunnels that cause despair are different, disallowing even the possibility of a more just world. They are tunnels represented by the food crisis, the financial crisis, the crisis of appropriating essential resources, the ecological crisis and, above all, the anthropological, ethical crisis.

ZENIT: How can young people help to create a more fraternal society?

Bishop Toso: As the Message for the World Day of Peace acknowledges, young people not only have the task to be involved in the educational process, but they have a mission — Benedict XVI states clearly — to stimulate, to be an example to adults and to one another.

Young people especially have a youthful and genuine intuition in regard to great values and they make every effort and commit themselves enthusiastically in the small daily things as well as those that are important: respect for the environment, the fight against corruption and illegality, the implementation of justice, and dignified and respectful treatment of persons in the field of the economy, in the field of finance. With their example, they have the possibility of offering models of what could be the construction of a new society, and new human relations based on the values of fraternity, solidarity and mutual gift — values in which young people are particularly sensitive.

It is often said that today’s young people are the first generation that think that their descendants will live in worse conditions of life. However, I sincerely believe that young people of the age of globalization wish and know that they can contribute to the construction of a better, more united and solidary humanity, the humanity that Jesus Christ inaugurated with his Incarnation.

BLUEFIELDS, Nicaragua, FEB. 28, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Nicaragua is a country that has been ravaged by civil war, dictatorships and natural disasters. Today it is one of the poorest countries in the Western world.

Capuchin  is the auxiliary bishop of the Vicariate of Bluefields, which serves almost all of the eastern half of the country, including what is known as the Mosquito Coast.

The 62-year-old prelate is a native of East Chicago, Indiana, and he recently spoke of the life of the Church in Nicaragua with the television program “Where God Weeps” of the Catholic Radio and Television Network (CRTN) in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need.

The transcription of the interview will appear in two parts. Part 2 will appear Monday.

Q: Bishop can you tell us, how did a Polish-American ended up in Bluefields, Nicaragua?

Bishop Zywiec: My grandparents were the ones who came over from Poland about 100 years ago. I was interested in becoming a priest and I was attracted to the Capuchins. They seem to be a very happy group.

I went to the seminary and I heard stories about the missions in Nicaragua, and so I volunteered. My superiors responded, “We need you there.” I was ordained in June 1974, and in January 1975 I was in Nicaragua.

Q: What was your first impression when you arrived?

Bishop Zywiec: When I arrived I was a little surprised. I came with a classmate of mine. We came driving down in a jeep that was a donation. We were bringing it down to Nicaragua and I thought we’d get a kind of heroes’ welcome.

But the thing is, about a week before we came there was a kidnapping and the president imposed Marshall Law and a curfew in the country. We didn’t know that. So, we arrived at about 9 p.m. We are crossing the border right before it closed.

The other Capuchins said: “What! You’re coming in at this time? Don’t you know that there is curfew? Some half-crazy soldier could have shot you and left you for dead on the side of the road.”

So it was a realization of the violent reality there, and that was our first impression.

Q: Have you ever been threatened or felt threatened at all during your time in Nicaragua?

Bishop Zywiec: Well, one time when I was working in the jungle. When I first arrived they sent “the older missionaries to the towns, the younger ones to the jungle.”

That was also at the time the Sandinistas, the organization rebelling against the government; they were hiding there [in the jungle], and I heard there were bombings over there and I was kind of afraid.

I said to myself, “My mom and dad are paying taxes to help the U.S. government, and the U.S. government is helping the Nicaraguan government, and they are dropping bombs on this area here, against the guerrillas.”

Well I never saw any of these bombs, but it made me a little afraid. But God is good, and I am here right now.

Q: What was the most difficult thing that you had to overcome or adapt to in your new life in Nicaragua?

Bishop Zywiec: I arrived in 1975, and this was right after the Second Vatican Council. When I went through the seminary — studying theology — I felt pretty good, you know, because we had new theology, something about pastoral counseling. I felt I was up-to-date compared to these old missionaries.

But then the government army came and took some of the people prisoners and tortured them. Some “disappeared,” or we found out later they were killed. Over a two-year period of time we found that there were 300 people who were missing because of the government.

What do you do in situation like that? We never even had training for that!

Q: You never dreamt to you would confront this.

Bishop Zywiec: No, we never talked about this in theology class! We talked about pastoral counseling, and youth apostolates and so forth, and this was a crisis. The only thing I was able to do is just take the information and pass it to the bishop — Bishop Schlaefer — and I felt very supported by him.

Q: In the Bluefields Vicariate there is what is called the “Mosquito Coast.” Where did this name come from?

Bishop Zywiec: The Eastern part of Nicaragua, which is in the Bluefields’ Vicariate, was never conquered by the Spanish, and so the Miskito Indians who lived there were autonomous.

And they also were able to, you might say, have an empire that went all the way from the Caribbean Coast of Panama through Costa Rica along Nicaragua into Honduras. So they were powerful back then, in the 1700s.

Q: Vicariate Apostolic of Bluefields is an area of 22,825 Square Miles. It’s enormous! What does a typical pastoral visit look like for you in your travels to the villagers — in seeking out your parishioners?

Bishop Zywiec: Usually what I tell the people is that I like four things: I like time to hear confessions. Then I celebrate Mass and then a confirmation or some other sacrament is requested, such as a baptism or a marriage.

And then I like to have a meeting with the church board: It gives me more of a chance for dialogue.

Then I say: “I’d like something to eat.” Generally, you know, when the bishop comes — since there is no electricity — lots of times they’ll kill a cow or a pig because there is no refrigeration. So there is food for everybody, and everybody eats!

Q: Vicariate Apostolic of Bluefields is almost half of all of Nicaragua. You are 25 priests. Are you not a bit overwhelmed?

Bishop Zywiec: Yes, that’s a problem. We have roughly 1,000 chapels and 14 parishes. A small parish would have one priest with about 30 chapels to take care of. There is a priest from north of Milwaukee; he is in his late 70s and he visits over 100 chapels.

Every Sunday in the chapels, we’ll have a celebration of the Word, so those who lead these celebrations are called “Delegates of the Word.” Usually we’ll have two of them in each chapel so in case one gets sick or one can’t make it, we always have a back up.

Then we have a catechist for baptism, a catechist for first Communion and confession, catechist for confirmation, and catechist for marriage.

We have training courses usually once a year for these different catechists. Some parishes will have courses for musicians. And then there are movements — we call them retreat movements — and it’s a way of helping the faith grow, you know, preparing leaders. So we depend a lot on the laity.

Q: How many missionaries are you? You mentioned that you have a number of missionaries that are getting older. Where is the new generation of priests coming from? Are there vocations coming from Nicaragua?

Bishop Zywiec: The priests that we can count on would be the priests who come from the Vicariate of Bluefields; there are missionaries and there are people who help, but our native diocesan priest are the ones we are able to count on more, and we find that a lot of our vocations come from families that are leaders in the community.

For example, where there is a married deacon, or a Delegate of the Word, there is this Christian commitment and that’s fertile ground for vocations, not just to the priesthood but also to the religious life. For example, in one town of about 10,000, in the past 20 years, 15 girls have gone to the convent. I think that’s a beautiful thing to see something like that.

Q: What expressions of popular faith or devotions are there in the vicariate?

Bishop Zywiec: We have lots of processions. In my experience in the United States processions are usually held inside, but in Nicaragua it’s a warmer climate and the people are use to having processions outside, such as during Holy Week.

For Holy Week in some of the towns they have processions for the Way of the Cross, and for the Easter Vigil there is the blessing of the Pascal candle outside and then the procession into the church.

For our patronal feasts as well we have a procession with the statue of the patron saint going through town, singing songs, praying the rosary. This is a normal, normal part of church life. We just pray it doesn’t rain too much.

Q: Other than the size of the territory, what would you say is the greatest challenge to evangelizing the Miskito people?

Bishop Zywiec: Although the territory is big, it is perhaps not so much a problem of size, but of transportation and communication. I think in that whole area, we have about 100 kilometers (62 miles) of paved road and the rest is gravel road. It rains a lot, and lots of times there are places where you get stuck.

Another thing is that of the 1,000 chapels, 100 are Miskito-speaking; the rest are Spanish-speaking. They are mainly farmers — subsistence farmers — involved in dairy farming or cattle farming.

Perhaps one of our main concerns is that people are not only able to receive the sacraments — to be baptized — but also that they learn their faith and what it means in their daily lives to live a deeper evangelization. I believe too, vocational promotion is an important thing for us so that we have available priests for the future.

And human promotion is an important thing in the form of schools, in the form of our health programs so that people not just hear the Word of God, but are able to live a human life and be able to be involved in the national life, and not be, you might say, forgotten — to be able to participate and participate conscientiously.

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This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for “Where God Weeps,” a weekly television and radio show produced by Catholic Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.

By Robert Moynihan

WASHINGTON, D.C., MARCH 1, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Since the moment on Good Friday when Jesus, speaking from the cross as he was about to die, said to the Apostle John, “Behold your mother,” the maternal role of Mary has been a central element of Christian faith and devotion.

The depictions of Mary’s sorrow in works of art such as the Pieta by Michelangelo have suggested a profound emotional truth: When any believer is confronted with great sorrow or suffering, we can turn to Mary, our spiritual mother, for consolation, because she experienced such great suffering.

The great Marian apparitions, especially at Lourdes in 1858 and at Fatima in 1917, suggest to thoughtful observers of the mystical life that Mary continues to “draw near” to the “little ones,” to children, to encourage them and to share with them a message of maternal comfort and exhortation.

Over the centuries, the theological reflection of the Church has come to grant special and particular titles to Mary, to make clearer who she is, and why she is worthy of our filial devotion.

Presently, the Church has proclaimed four dogmas regarding the Mother of Jesus: (1) her maternal role in the birth of Christ, the Son of God, making her truly Mother of God (“Theotokos,” Council of Ephesus, 431); (2) her Perpetual Virginity (First Lateran Council, 649); (3) her Immaculate Conception (Pius IX, “ex cathedra” proclamation, 1854); and (4) her Assumption into heaven (Pius XII, “ex cathedra” proclamation, 1950).

For almost a century now, there has been a small but growing movement in the Church in favor of the proclamation of a fifth Marian dogma regarding the role of the Blessed Virgin as the Spiritual Mother of All Humanity.

On March 25, the Vatican Forum of Inside the Vatican magazine and St. Thomas More College, in a meeting room close to St. Peter’s Square, will invite an international group of bishops and theologians to discuss whether now is the appropriate time for a fifth solemn definition or “dogma” to be pronounced regarding the Virgin Mary.

Years in the making

The movement within the Church for a fifth Marian dogma concerning the Virgin Mary’s role in our salvation is well over 90 years old. The Belgian Catholic ecumenical leader, Cardinal Désiré-Joseph Mercier, initiated it in the 1920s, with the support of the then Father Maximilian Kolbe.

Since that time to the present, more than 800 cardinals and bishops have petitioned various Popes for an infallible definition of Mary’s special maternal role in the salvation of humanity. In addition, more than seven million petitions from faithful throughout the world have been gathered by the promoters of this devotion.

The Popes who promulgated the two modern Marian dogmas, Blessed Pope Pius IX (1846-1878) and Pope Pius XII (1939-1958), both acknowledged in a positive way the role petitions from members of the hierarchy and laity had played in their respective Marian definitional “bulls.”

During 2009, cardinals and bishops from every continent have petitioned Benedict XVI to consider promulgating the dogma of Mary’s spiritual Maternity under its three essential aspects as co-redemptrix, mediatrix of all graces, and advocate. This came after five cardinals wrote to the world’s bishops in request of petitions to the Holy Father for the fifth Marian Dogma.

Those signing the request included Cardinal Telesphore Toppo, archbishop of Ranchi, India; Cardinal Luis Aponte Martínez, retired archbishop of San Juan, Puerto Rico; Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil, major archbishop of Ernakulam-Angamaly, India; Cardinal Riccardo Vidal, archbishop of Cebu, Philippines; and Cardinal Ernesto Corripio y Ahumada, retired archbishop of Mexico City.

Some bishops, particularly in the West, see a Marian definition as potentially counterproductive to ecumenism. Two of the five cardinals who in 2009 wrote to the world’s bishops for this potential Marian dogma, Indian Cardinal Telespore Toppo and Cardinal Vithayathil, archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Church, have responded publicly to this ecumenical objection by stating that proclaiming the whole truth about the Mother of Jesus will only bring about authentic Christian unity based on a unity of Christian truth and faith, coupled with the renewed intercession of Mary, Mother of unity, as a result of a papal proclamation of her role as universal spiritual mother.

John Paul II used the co-redemptrix title on at least six occasions during his papacy.

Benedict XVI, without using the title, has repeatedly emphasized the doctrine of Mary’s co-redemption or “co-suffering” with Jesus, particularly in his World Day of the Sick addresses and his 2008 prayer for the suffering peoples in China addressed to Our Lady of Sheshan.

Beginnings

In reflecting on the beginnings of this movement for a Marian dogma, it is worth noting that Cardinal Mercier (1851-1926), the archbishop of Malines, Belgium, from 1906 until his death, was a key Church leader in his time. In addition to the heroic leadership he demonstrated during World War I, Cardinal Mercier hosted the famous Catholic-Anglican dialogue known as the Malines Conversations, and obtained the establishment of the liturgical feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mediatrix of All Graces with its proper Mass and Office. His spiritual mentor was Blessed Dom Columba Marmion.

Here, in his own words, is the daily spiritual exercise Cardinal Mercier recommended. It still is valid today.

He wrote: “I am going to reveal to you the secret of sanctity and happiness. Every day for five minutes control your imagination and close your eyes to the things of sense and your ears to all the noises of the world, in order to enter into yourself. Then, in the sanctity of your baptized soul (which is the temple of the Holy Spirit), speak to that Divine Spirit, saying to Him: ‘O Holy Spirit, beloved of my soul, I adore You. Enlighten me, guide me, strengthen me, console me. Tell me what I should do. Give me your orders. I promise to submit myself to all that You desire of me and accept all that You permit to happen to me. Let me only know Your Will.’

“If you do this, your life will flow along happily, serenely, and full of consolation, even in the midst of trials. Grace will be proportioned to the trial, giving you strength to carry it, and you will arrive at the Gate of Paradise laden with merit. This submission to the Holy Spirit is the secret of sanctity.”

And it was this submission to the Holy Spirit, of course, which was the distinguishing mark of Mary’s life, especially at the moment of the Annunciation (March 25), when she said, “Let it be done to me according to Thy will.”

Dialogue

Panelists for the March 25 Day of Dialogue will include Archbishop Ramon Arguelles of Lipa, Philippines, president of the Marian-Mariological Society of the Philippines, Carmelite Father Enrique Llamas, president of the Mariological Society of Spain. Also presenting will be Dr. Judith Gentle, Anglican theologian, author, and member of Our Lady of Walsingham Mariological Society from the United Kingdom.

The morning session will constitute brief presentations by panelists discussing the issue of appropriateness of a fifth Marian dogma at this time, while the afternoon session will consist of a dialogue by panelists, press, and audience concerning the topic.

The Pontifical Marian Academy was invited to participate in the dialogue, but later notified Inside the Vatican magazine that members of the Academy would not be participating. The event, which is free and open to the public, begins at 10:00 a.m. at the Via Borgo Pio, #141.

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Robert Moynihan is founder and editor of the monthly magazine Inside the Vatican. He is the author of the book “Let God’s Light Shine Forth: the Spiritual Vision of Pope Benedict XVI” (2005, Doubleday). Moynihan’s blog can be found at www.insidethevatican.com. He can be reached at: editor@insidethevatican.com.

Confession Comeback

Efforts to Stimulate Interest in Reconciliation

By Father John Flynn, L.C.

ROME, OCT. 8, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Confession is undergoing a revival of sorts after a long period of neglect. There has been a spate of recent press articles on the sacrament of confession, or reconciliation, as it is often termed.

On Sept. 21 the Wall Street Journal reported that more than 5,000 people turned up at a Reconciliation Weekend held in March in the Diocese of Orlando, Florida.

A column dated March this year by Bishop Thomas Wenski, posted on the Orlando Diocese’s Web page, spoke about the need for confession. The loss of the sense of sin was termed “the spiritual crisis of our age,” he said.

Last year, the bishop noted, he wrote to the priests of his diocese, asking them to make more time to hear confessions. This year he explained that a number of parishes were going to organize a special Reconciliation Weekend, just prior to Holy Week.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal article explained that interest in confession is rising among some Protestant denominations. This summer, a North American branch of the Lutherans passed a resolution at a meeting supporting the rite of confession, after more than a century of neglect.

Online disclosure

Some of the Protestant versions of confession being popularized are, however, notably different from the Catholic sacrament. The Wall Street Journal mentioned practices such as individuals coming clean in videos that are even posted on sites such as YouTube, for all to see.

Other initiatives include a confession Web site, set up by an evangelical congregation in Cooper City, Florida, which according to the Wall Street Journal has postings from 7,700 people who list their faults.

The rising interest in confession marks a turnaround, the article observed. A 2005 survey reported that only 26% of Catholics in the United States went to confession at least once a year, down from 74% in the early ’80s.

The revival in confession, particularly of the public kind, can take all sorts of forms, as is evidenced in a Reuters article from Sept. 27. The agency reported on a new Web site set up by a major publisher of romantic fiction, Harlequin Enterprises. People will be able to confess, anonymously, their sins online, with others being able to read their postings.

More news on varieties of confession came in a major feature article, published Aug. 31 by the Los Angeles Times. The paper gave details about a number of Web sites where confessions can be made. One of the sites even allows other persons to comment on and give advice to those who confess.

Turning on the light

The Catholic Church is also trying to promote interest in confession. This year some dioceses launched campaigns to encourage use of the sacrament in the period prior to Easter. In Washington, D.C., for example, all the 140 churches of the archdiocese opened for confession every Wednesday evening.

The effort was part of a campaign titled “The Light Is On for You.” Included in the campaign were radio and billboard ads, and a Web page set up with a variety of material encouraging participation in the sacrament. In addition, 100,000 printed guides in Spanish and English were distributed.

Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl also penned a pastoral letter, “God’s Mercy and the Sacrament of Penance,” as part of the campaign.

“Despite our best intentions, each of us has experienced personal failure,” he noted in the introduction to the letter. We are aware, explained Archbishop Wuerl, “that a part of us is determined to do good while at the same time an element within us continually turns away from the good we know we can do.”

God does not leave us alone in this situation of our human weakness and the ever-present reality of sin, the letter added. “Jesus gives us newness of life in grace that begins to restore our relationship with God which will lead to full communion with God in glory.”

This power to forgive sins was extended by Jesus to the Church and is administered through the sacrament of confession.

God’s forgiveness

“It remains one of the great marvels of God’s love that God would make forgiveness so readily available to each of us,” Archbishop Wuerl commented.

“The sacrament of reconciliation is the story of God’s love that never turns away from us,” he said. “Like the father in the parable of the prodigal son, God waits, watches and hopes for our return every time we walk away.”

Not all are convinced, however, that these efforts to stimulate confession will succeed. Time magazine, which gained notoriety for its Sept. 3 cover issue that sought to cast doubts on Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s faith, posted an article dated Sept. 27 on its Time.com Web page titled “The Unrepentant.”

Noting the decades-long decline in us by Catholics of the sacrament, the article attempted to argue that reaction against the encyclical “Humanae Vitae” has “led to a wider re-evaluation of what constitutes sin — and whether confession is really necessary.”

The article also doubted that recent efforts in the American dioceses to promote confession had obtained any real success and concluded that future efforts are similarly doomed.

A gift

Another recent initiative to revive interest in confession comes in the form of a book titled “The Gift of Confession, (Connor Court Publishing). Father Michael de Stoop, a priest in the Archdiocese of Sydney, Australia, aimed to portray confession in a positive way, emphasizing the many benefits the sacrament offers believers.

Many people, he noted in the book’s introduction, are unaware of the theological background that can help us to understand and appreciate confession. In addition to freeing us from sin, the sacrament also restores and increases our opportunities to share in God’s divine life, Father de Stoop explained.

Thus, confession frees us from sin, and also restores our freedom to live a life of virtue by restoring within us the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The grace we receive strengthens our will to resist sin, thereby enabling us to progress in holiness.

By making us more aware of the evil of sin and the need to avoid it, regular participation in confession, the book observes, also helps us to build our character and develop good habits. Coming closer to God by means of the sacrament of reconciliation will also make it easier for us to pray.

Benedict XVI reflected on the importance of confession, in words directed to the youth of Rome, gathered March 29 in St Peter’s Basilica to prepare for the local diocesan celebration of World Youth Day on April 1.

God’s love for us, expressed by the death of Christ on the cross, has obtained for us the gift of the Holy Spirit through which our sins are forgiven and peace granted, the Pope commented.

“Christ draws us to him to unite himself with each one of us so that, in our turn, we may learn to love our brothers and sisters with this same love, as he has loved us,” the Pontiff added.

Once we are filled with this love, Benedict XVI recommended to the young people, we are called upon to make an impact in the world by means of an authentic Christian witness. Valuable words of encouragement to encourage participation in a sacrament neglected for too long.



Interview With Author Paul Thigpen

SAVANNAH, Georgia, SEPT. 17, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Those who don’t believe in hell are living with a very dangerous kind of wishful thinking, or a comfortable fantasy, says author Paul Thigpen.

In this interview with ZENIT, Thigpen discusses his new book “My Visit to Hell,” published by Creation House.

Thigpen is editor of The Catholic Answer, director of the Stella Maris Center for Faith and Culture, and an award-winning journalist and best-selling author of 34 books.

Q: You have written a novel, “My Visit to Hell,” about just that — a young man’s visit to hell. What prompted this?

Thigpen: The Holy Father recently lamented the fact that so few people in our day ever talk about hell. Maybe this book can contribute in some small way to changing that situation.

Why should people talk more about hell? Many of our contemporaries, including some Catholics, refuse to believe that hell truly exists.

And several surveys show that even among those who believe in the existence of hell, the great majority think they have little or no chance of ending up there.

Nevertheless, in the Gospels Our Lord has warned us solemnly and repeatedly about the terrors of hell. So what we have here is a very dangerous kind of wishful thinking, a comfortable fantasy that needs to be challenged.

We should be thinking about hell, and heaven as well, because our destiny profoundly shapes our identity.

The more we know about our possible destinations, the more we’ll know about who we are, why we’re here, and which way we should be headed.

I certainly don’t enjoy thinking and writing about sin and its tormenting consequences, but given the widespread denial of hell in our day, and the avoidance of any discussion about it, the time seems right for a book such as this.

Q: How has your book been received? Do you think it has appeal to those who do not claim to be Catholic?

Thigpen: Catholic readers often comment that the book has sent them running to the sacrament of confession, and for that I’m grateful.

It’s not intended to condemn people for their sins, but rather to encourage them to flee to God for forgiveness and healing.

As for non-Catholic Christians, I’ve had an enthusiastic response from readers representing a variety of religious backgrounds.

The main themes of the story — the horror of sin, the hope of grace, the dignity and danger of human freedom — lie at the heart of the Gospel that all Christians embrace.

As for atheists, agnostics, and other non-Christians, my hope is that they can identify to some degree with several characters in the book who share their situation.

The main character is in fact an agnostic who must reconsider his position in light of what he encounters on this terrifying journey.

Anecdotal evidence encourages me that the book is stirring readers to think seriously about the matters it touches upon.

One reviewer said he plans to make the book a part of his annual readings for Lent. Another reader composed a series of songs about the story.

Some book clubs are choosing it to read and discuss. It’s required reading in at least one college course, and a new scholarly study of contemporary Christian fiction devotes a chapter to it.

Q: Why did you choose the novel as a format, over poetry or simply a theological discourse on the topic?

Thigpen: Dante’s “Inferno,” the 14th-century poem about an imaginary visit to hell from which my account draws heavily, convinced me that a narrative approach to this subject could be quite powerful in ways that a straight theological discourse could not.

This isn’t to say, of course, that Dante’s vision isn’t theologically informed; his portrait of the infernal regions actually embodies the moral theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, as does mine.

Dante’s book was only one in a series of what are known as “tours of hell” that go back to ancient times, all using narrative fiction to paint a chastening portrait of sin and its eternal consequences.

Even Our Lord himself spoke of hell using a parable whose stark imagery awakens in us a sense of dread: see Luke 16:19-31.

Few people today will read lengthy poems of the sort Dante wrote; they prefer novels.

So the contemporary genre of speculative fiction seemed especially appropriate for this subject matter. You might think of it as a book-length parable.

Q: In some ways your novel is like Dante meeting Walker Percy, put in a contemporary setting. Is this partially what you had in mind?

Thigpen: You’re right — or even more precisely, Dante meets Flannery O’Connor, who is one of my literary heroes.

She and I are from the same hometown, Savannah, Georgia, and my mother went to college with her. So I’ve always felt a certain kinship with her and with her vision of the world.

O’Connor masterfully portrays sin in all its revolting ugliness. Yet always she reveals a “moment of grace,” a divine light that shines all the more brightly because the surrounding darkness is so deep.

My intent was similar: to show that even though sin deforms us into something grotesque, God still labors to reconcile and heal us.

Q: In your depiction of hell, you describe layers of it rapidly filling up from sins more readily committed in our cultural climate, for example, abortion, destroying fetuses for scientific or medical research, assisted suicide, striving for bodily perfection. In what ways do you categorize and describe some of these?

Thigpen: What I call the “moral topography” of hell — its structure of descending circles, each one punishing a sin worse than the one above it — I borrowed from Dante, who based it on St. Thomas’ moral teaching.
Below “limbo” lie the circles of “upper hell,” which punish sins of weakness.

Next is “middle hell,” punishing sins of the intellect; and finally “lower hell,” punishing sins of malice, both injury and fraud.

The lower you descend, the more serious the sin and the worse its punishment.

When I considered the sins you’ve noted, I realized that they are simply more contemporary versions of ancient sins already identified and positioned in Dante’s hell.

Like abortion, destruction of embryos for research is murder of a particularly loathsome type — a betrayal of the tiny innocents that God has given us to protect.

So those who are guilty of this sin aren’t punished with other murderers; they end up much farther down, in the lowest circle with some of the fiercest punishments, where traitors are tormented.

Or consider the idolatry of bodily perfection: It’s actually a form of gluttony, a narcissistic addiction to the pleasure of looking physically attractive.

So those who are guilty of this sin are ironically punished alongside the gluttons, whom they detest as undisciplined slobs.

Of particular interest to many contemporary readers, I think, is the circle punishing sins of the intellect.

Those holding to the popular notion that sincerity of belief is all that counts will find plenty here to challenge their assumptions.

Q: You mention in the preface that you were reluctant to write this book given the gravity of the topic. Are there ways in which meditating about hell has changed your own life?

Thigpen: Spending several months thinking deeply about hell, and writing down the fruits of that reflection for others, cultivated in me a healthy fear of the Lord, and “the fear of the Lord is hatred of evil”: Proverbs 8:13.

I came to a new understanding of how repugnant, how despicable, how corrosive sin truly is, with the result that I wanted all the more to avoid it and cling to God instead.

It also made me more deeply grateful for divine grace.

I deserve the everlasting misery of hell because of my sin, but God sent his son to make it possible for me to live with him forever instead in the joy of heaven.

I can never cease to marvel at such a gift!