Be honest. What is the first thing that comes to mind after reading the above title? If it is punishment, welcome to the CGCC (Catholic Guilty Conscience Club). Although judgment and retribution can evoke images of a courtroom, a guilty verdict and sentencing, there is another view to be considered. Retribution can also refer to a reward, and judgement can be an assessment of performance in an event or contest. Particular Judgement and eternal retribution pertain to what happens at the “very moment” of death. To debate the breadth and width of a moment that occurs in the realm of eternity would be somewhat futile. Church teaching, as expressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, addresses the process of death in the following paragraph:
“1022 Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven—through a purification594 or immediately,595—or immediate and everlasting damnation.596 (393, 1470)
The “evening of life” will occur for each of us at a time known only to God. We will encounter Christ, the Just Judge, and receive eternal retribution. Without knowing the details, we do have the encounters we experience in the Sacraments, especially in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. We confess our sins, make an act of contrition and receive absolution and grace. We are given a penance, and while we are completely forgiven of all sins, any temporal consequences must be addressed. Anything from a simple apology to repayment of stolen items will put everything in right order. A “purification” takes place through the Sacrament of Confession, not unlike the purgation that will take place for those not ready to enter “into the blessedness of heaven” upon death.
“Immediate and everlasting damnation”, the last possible outcome of eternal retribution, must be carefully unpacked and examined in the light of God’s love, forgiveness and mercy. Once again, we turn to the catechism for guidance:
“1033 We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves: “He who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.”612 Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren.613 To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called “hell.” (1861, 393, 633)”
It is important to note that it falls to us to “freely choose” to love God, to repent, and accept His mercy and forgiveness. The choice to remain separated from God forever, though hard to imagine for most, will be effected by “definitive self-exclusion” resulting from “our own free choice”.
Let us pray for the grace to realize that the Jesus who has embraced and nurtured us throughout our life on Earth, awaits our arrival to eternal life with Him with arms wide open.