“Son of Perdition.” “It were better for that man if he had never been born!” Horrible words for someone who evidently met a horrible end, and they were pronounced by One who was all-knowing, and who had given their object every kind attention.
We speak of Judas Iscariot, Our Lord’s betrayer. The overwhelmingly common interpretation over time of such expressions is that Judas has been, is, and ever will be among the damned. St. John Chrysostom, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Alphonsus—the list could go on and on: Judas is clearly in hell.
I for one cannot say that I have any joy in the thought, and still less in the conviction, of a soul’s damnation, much less of the soul of a chosen apostle. I am sure that these saints didn’t, either. Nonetheless, I can’t bring myself to contradict such weighty authorities with any certainty. The sad fact seems to be well established in the tradition.
Granted, there are some apparent exceptions, especially within the Eastern tradition. Origen in his commentary on Matthew holds out hope for a Judas who was so filled with remorse that he impulsively wanted to precede Our Lord in death so as to be able to encounter him in his “naked soul” and beg for pardon. St. Gregory of Nyssa tends toward a hopeful opinion; St. Silouan of Athos says we should pray for his salvation even now.
Pope Benedict had this to say of Judas:
The choice [of Our Lord in making Judas an apostle and companion] darkens the mystery around his eternal fate, knowing that Judas “repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, ‘I have sinned in betraying innocent blood’” (Matt. 27:3-4). Even though he went to hang himself (cf. Matt. 27: 5), it is not up to us to judge his gesture, substituting ourselves for the infinitely merciful and just God.
The mystery of the Lord’s choice remains, all the more since Jesus pronounces a very severe judgement on him: “Woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed!” (Matt. 26:24).
Clearly, we should hold on lightly to any interpretation of a soul’s eternal loss. The Church does not have an opposite process of canonization. There is no particular illumination to be received from the fact of a soul’s damnation, whereas a soul’s beatitude is filled with the light of grace and revelation and so is proclaimed solemnly by holy Church. Our message is of redemption, and the default outcome for Christians is salvation.
St. John Paul II, when he was cardinal-archbishop of Kraków, was asked by Paul VI to give the annual Lenten retreat to the Roman Curia. He gave a set of his conferences, called “A Sign of Contradiction,” on the traditional four last things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. In his conference on hell, he speculated that there might be an order undisclosed to us that would resolve the problem in an unknown way. Even so, he said the traditional presentation of the teaching is all that we know from revelation.
And yet even in the Middle Ages, in the writing of St. Thomas Aquinas (in the Disputed Questions on Truth, and in the Writing on the Fourth Book of the Sentences), we read that according to Damascene, the soul of the emperor Trajan in hell was brought back to life and received the grace of repentance by the prayers of a holy monk. Thomas says that Trajan and other cases such as his moved from a state of present justice, according to their own merits, to one of “higher causes,” whereby their salvation was secured. This differs not at all from the speculations of John Paul!
Until St. Pius V streamlined the Roman Missal, it contained a set of prayers for holy Mass for a soul whose salvation is doubted. These prayers were in many missals at that time. In the collect of such a Mass, the prayer was made that at least the sufferings the soul endured could be lessened, if not entirely taken away! And here they were not referring to Purgatory.
So we can see, even if these things are not part of mainstream penny-catechism teaching, they still had and have their place. And one does not have to become a Rahnerian, modernist, progressive, universalist, or pop theologian to see these precedents and possibilities. They give us a lot more hope and confidence than just the notion that God would not really let someone fall into eternal hell. We can be hopeful about the salvation of even the worst of us without falling into a sentimental naturalism and the doctrine of universal salvation.
Perhaps the boldest and most persistent in asserting the possibility of liberation from the hell of the damned was St. Alphonsus Liguori. In The Glories of Mary, he relates example after example of Our Lady freeing a soul from hell on account of that soul’s devotion to her in life, in spite of his great sins. These souls are brought back to life, repent, and then die again to go this time to heaven. Much earlier, even Augustine has a homily during which a dead man is raised to life in order to receive the grace of repentance and die again. There was quite a commotion, and he called for stenographers to record the event!
Only the Jansensist heretics accused Alphonsus of undermining the evangelical teaching on hell. He clearly taught it, as did John Paul II in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and in his Crossing the Threshold of Hope.
More important than the fact of Judas’s damnation or—if it were possible—his merciful salvation is the example set before us. He repents, but only to the point of despair. He regrets his fall, admits his injustice, but does not go immediately and seek pardon. Every sinner, at least every grave sinner, is a Judas, one who has betrayed the Lord. St. Peter betrayed him also and at the same time, and yet Peter was restored by true contrition. He proclaimed, “Lord, you know that I love you! You know all things; you know that I love you!”
It is a certainty that God will give true contrition, which takes away even mortal sin, if we ask it of him, and especially if we ask with trust, and ask through the intercession of Our Lady, Mother of Mercy and Refuge of Sinners. And intend to make a good confession as soon as we can. Now is the time to make that good confession!
After all, the liturgy teaches us in one of the collects of the Sundays throughout the year: “O God who most of all show forth your omnipotence by sparing and having mercy . . .” St. Thomas teaches with St. Augustine that the remission of one mortal sin is a greater work of God that the creation of the entire external universe. And yet this happens all the time in hundreds of thousands of sacramental confessions! If the removal of our sin requires an almighty power, it is not hard to understand that so great a power may do things beyond our imagination even beyond the grave.
Between the next-to-the-last and the last breath, a new world can come to be. Between the bridge and the water, as St. John Vianney saw, salvation can be obtained.
Contrition, a good confession, and a penance imposed by the priest and well performed will be our best offering at this holy time. The absolution of the priest will do for us far more than we can desire or hope for. Let us hope for all, and cling to the means of grace, and then we will escape the fires of hell for sure! Or, infinitely better, we will be fit for the glory of heaven and the resurrection!