There is a pain among us as Christians today that is too seldom talked about. It is the pain of losing a loved one, not through death or even through physical separation, but through the loss of a shared common faith, religious practice and morality. Let me explain with an example: you are a parent trying to live out your Christian life in a conscientious fashion. You go to church regularly, pray, and basically live a decent moral life. When they were young, your children naturally followed you and shared your convictions and practice. Then gradually, or perhaps suddenly, they stopped going to church, stopped sharing your views on sexuality and marriage, and defiantly or apologetically began to live in a way that contradicts what you believe and practice.
At first you challenged and fought. You demanded that they go to church and live as a Christian sexually, but to no avail. Eventually, in frustration, you arrived at an unhappy truce: You continue to practice, they don’t. As a priest I have met literally dozens of parents (in half a dozen countries) who are anxious with worry about their children in this state. However this is not just limited to parents worrying about children. This pain affects us all, deeply. None of us have not felt the deep pain of loss when a son or daughter, a friend, or a brother or a sister, who used to walk beside us, no longer does.
One of the deepest bondings of all is weakened and strained. We are pained: both because we feel a sense of loss and personal rejection and because we are worried about the other’s long-term happiness and salvation as well as their long-term bonding with us. This pain is very common, very deep, and too seldom talked about. How should we react? What can we do as parents, friends, brothers and sisters? What can we do as the body of Christ? Obviously we can pray and continue to live out our own lives according to our own deepest convictions, hoping to love and challenge with our lives more than with our words. This is what we must do….and, most times, is all we can do. But it is important to understand what we are really doing when we are doing this. Something deeper is happening than is seen on the surface. What? In John 20:22, Jesus tells the earliest Christian community: “Whose sins you forgive they are forgiven; whose sins you retain, they are retained.”
In Matthew 16:19, he tells Peter: “Whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven.” The traditional interpretation of these texts takes their meaning to refer to the institution of the sacrament of reconciliation and to the giving of papal powers to Peter and his successors. They mean at least that much but much more is implied in these texts. What Jesus is doing here is giving the whole Christian community the power to forgive sins and the power of binding and loosing. What does this mean concretely?
It means that if we are truly members of Christ’s body then when we forgive sins, the person is forgiven. Likewise it means that if we love someone and hold them in our life, that person, regardless of his or her own actions, is not cut off from the body of Christ. If you continue to love somebody, they are bound. Hell is only possible when one has put oneself totally outside of the range of love and forgiveness of the Christian community, when one has rendered oneself incapable of being loved and forgiven in that she or he has actively rejected not only the religious and moral convictions of the Christian community, but, more importantly their love.
To make this concrete: If a child, or brother or sister or a loved one of yours strays from the church in terms of practice and morality, as long as you continue to love them, hold them in union, and forgive them, they are bound, still part of the church (because of your love). Irrespective of their official external relationship to the church and Christian morality they are in grace because you are part of the body of Christ and when someone touches you they are healed and forgiven, just as persons at the time of Jesus were healed by touching him. When you love someone, unless they actively reject that love, they are bound…bound to the body of Christ, sustained in salvation. And this is true even beyond death. If someone close to you dies in a state where, externally at least, he or she is not practicing as a Christian and is at odds morally with the body of Christ, your love and forgiveness will continue to bind them to the body and will continue to forgive them…even after death. To put the matter quite crassly: No one can go to hell if they are loved by someone who is within the body of Christ unless they refuse that love. It can be consoling to know that few persons will reject that type of love. It takes a strong person to go to hell!