Speaking at a prayer service for victims of organized crime, Pope Francis made the mobsters an offer they can refuse: Hell. After comforting family members who are victims of mob violence, Pope Francis spoke forthrightly to the criminals: “This life that you live now won't give you pleasure. It won't give you joy or happiness. Blood-stained money, blood-stained power, you can't bring it with you to your next life. Repent. There's still time to not end up in hell, which is what awaits you if you continue on this path."
The clear clarion call of the Christian message is that hell can be avoided. It’s an offer that can be refused. Refusing the path to hell and choosing the path to heaven is the choice at the heart of the call to repent.
The word for “repentance” means “to turn around” - to re-orient oneself towards God rather than towards selfish pleasure. Repentance is not a gloomy and pessimistic practice, but a joyful one, for as we repent, we are turning away from death, hatred, and darkness to life, love, and light.
But wait a minute - isn’t this a Pope who wasn’t going to talk so much about sin, repentance, and judgement? Isn’t he the Pope who is famous for saying, “Who am I to judge?” This sounds rather judgmental, doesn’t it? In the face of organized crime, shouldn’t Pope Francis shrug his shoulders and say, “Who am I to judge?”
Pope Francis knows it is part of his role - as it is for every Catholic priest - to speak out about sin and warn of the reality and risk of hell. Lest anyone think that Pope Francis only speaks out about the evils of organized crime, he has spoken bluntly about the evils of abortion, war, and immorality of all kinds. Mobsters are not the only ones who are in danger of hell if they do not repent.
In fact, everyone is called to repentance - not just the assassins, thieves and gangsters. The New Testament lays it out very clearly: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Furthermore, the ones who need to repent the most are the ones who don’t think they need to. Self-righteousness or dismissing our sin is the sure way to continue on the downward path.
Repentance is not just a way to avoid hell and head toward heaven; we don’t repent just because the Pope tells us to. Repentance is a dynamic step forward into a healthy life. The attitude at the heart of repentance is for a person to say, “I got it wrong. I don’t know everything. I’m still a work in progress and I need help.” It’s tough to admit this, but only when we admit that we don’t have all the answers can we begin to find the answers. Only when we admit that our life is empty can we begin to find how to fill it.
The second dynamic step of repentance is that we stop blaming others and we accept the blame ourselves. This is a vital step toward maturity, then after we stop blaming others, we automatically start to take responsibility for ourselves. Once we realize others are not to blame, we begin to take responsibility for ourselves and our situation.
Repentance helps us to see that we are not victims. We are not caught up in a web of actions and reactions beyond our control. We are not destined for crime and misery. We are not “born that way.” Rather, the gift of repentance reminds us that we have free will. We can choose to go with God or choose to go away from God.
This is the offer Pope Francis makes - not just to the killers and gang members, but to all of humanity. The offer of hell is an offer we can refuse, and Pope Francis, like a genuine godfather - out of concern for his children - calls us to refuse hell and repent so that we might be forgiven and live.
Fr. Dwight Longenecker’s latest book is The Romance of Religion. Visit his blog, browse his books and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com.