I come from a large Catholic family and some of us attend Mass every week. There are also those who never go, but they are not bad people. They are prayerful, but never attend church. What I want to know is, if they died in the state in which they are living, would they go to heaven even though they never attended church, yet lived as good people?
I’m not saying they do not sin, but they are not bad people. When I have told them they will not go to heaven if they don’t go to church, they have asked me, “Well, what about the people that attend Mass every week, but are not good people? You’re telling me that a person who goes to church and simply tries hard not to do bad, is going to heaven, but a person who does not go to church and is a much better person and does good, is not going to heaven?” How should I answer that?
It is clear that, in trying to get your family to go to church, you are sincerely attempting to help them. Therefore, let us look more closely at your questions. You ask if they will go to heaven if they should die in the state in which they are living (never going to church), even though they are “good” people. But what do we really mean by “good”? What is goodness? In the profoundest sense, goodness is everything that is of God. He is goodness itself. All that is “good” originates in Him and comes from Him. Of course, not everyone understands this. Thus, we tend to think that as long as we are consciously doing nothing wrong against others, we are “good” people. But what about wronging, or offending God? Are we being good people when we do that?
Going to Church on Sunday is something God has asked us to do. It is the third of the Ten Commandments, and Jesus also asked us at His Last Supper to “do this as a remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). The Catholic Church teaches that “Sunday . . . is to be observed as the foremost holy day of obligation in the universal Church” (CIC, can. 1246 § 1). “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation the faithful are bound to participate in the Mass” (CIC, can. 1247).
The faithful who attend Mass on Sundays are not perfect people. They are people, however, who are trying to follow Christ by doing what He asks, and hopefully also out of love for Him. You see, in order to truly begin the journey on the road to eternal life, one must first recognize his or her own sinfulness and total dependence on God. One must have a desire to please God in everything. And when we fail, as we often will, to get up and try again.
At the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we get to witness the sacrifice that Jesus made when He offered His life for us on the Cross. The word “mass” means “missa” – to send. We witness the love that it took for Jesus to do what He did for us, and then we are “sent” out into the world to transform it, by loving as He did. He shows us the way to salvation. It is the way of love.
“God predestines no one to go to hell.” (CCC 1037) For that to happen, a person would have to willfully turn away from God (a mortal sin) and persist in it until the end. It is a mortal sin to miss Mass deliberately, and if one refuses to obey God’s law to the very end, then that person does run the risk of losing his or her eternal salvation (heaven).
Perhaps your relatives do not know that it is a grave sin against God to miss Mass on Sunday. From your letter, it seems that you have tried to inform them of this. In asking you about who is and who is not going to heaven (based on church attendance), it seems that your family is trying to shift the attention away from themselves. This is what many will do in order to avoid looking at their own actions. We waste precious time when we do that, though. One of the devil’s most effective tricks is to convince us that we have all the time in the world. But Jesus said, “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7: 13-14).
Grace MacKinnon is a syndicated columnist and public speaker on Catholic doctrine and teaches in the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas. Her new book Dear Grace: Answers to Questions About the Faith is available in our online store. If you enjoy reading Grace’s column, you will certainly want to have this book, which is a collection of the first two years of “Dear Grace.” Faith questions may be sent to Grace via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org. You may also visit her online at www.DearGrace.com.