HELLFIRE PREACHERS


The burly priest wrung his hands in a pretence of empathy and sorrow. In a voice that filled the Crematorium he boomed,
"In his lifetime Tom never accepted the Lord Jesus into his life. Now he will know nothing but endless torment in Hell. Let his life be a warning to everyone here, whose sins have not been washed clean by our Saviour's blood."

He watched the wide-eyed fear and horror spread across many faces.

A young girl's gasp filled the air, and then I noticed Tom's sister Una putting her arm around her daughter and drawing her close. Tears flowed down her frail face, as she sought to inhale deeply on her puffer. I would not have been surprised if Una had stood up and walked out angrily into the sunlight bringing Maura with her. There must be a term for this sort of evangelical fury and verbal abuse I thought. How dare he scare Maura out of her wits.

I wanted to confront this devotee of Hell, who clearly was relishing having a captive audience. It was Tom's voice in my ear "no Paddy not now, talk afterwards" that prevented me from starting a brawl. Tom and I had been friends since we had been in the same class in St Joseph's Primary School. It was just a few minutes' walk from both of our homes. I was one of the few people outside his family circle who had been permitted to visit him up until the last in St Anthony's Hospice. Yes, I know that he was more of an agnostic than a believer. He rarely darkened the door of a church, but he had told me that he would like some prayers at the Crematorium. He bore the pain caused by his cancer with dignity, but now this priest was making a mockery of what should have been an uplifting and comforting occasion. "Years ago, Tom could have given his life to his Redeemer, but had not done so. Now he must pay the price for refusing to be washed by the Saviour's blood. I have no words to describe to you the extent of his unending suffering." The preacher glared at us - challenging everyone to avoid following in Tom's unbelieving footsteps. I was sure I couldn't be the only person to be revolted by this man's repulsive remarks. Not from his lips would we hear a tribute to what a significant difference he had made to many people's lives by both his personality and his actions. I couldn't bring myself to shake the priest's hand as I left the Crematorium or to thank him.

That evening, I was still feeling furious with this abominable and objectional so-called representative of Christ. What about that verse from the Gospels? "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone"? Years ago, I had listened to many fire and brimstone sermons preached by the Redemptorists, the Passionists, the Jesuits and the Dominicans. Those men had delivered their thunderous sermons in a style worthy of the best actors. They knew how to stir up emotions as well as challenge the mind. In the past many parishes organised A Mission during the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent, and some still do. Harsh interpretations of a loving God are considered now by most people to be an appalling misunderstanding. They must bring tears to the eyes of God. Those sermons not only warned of the fires of hell, but attacked drinking and selling alcohol and especially Poitin. I enjoy a drink. I don't believe in Hell and I hope for things as yet unseen.

ANDREW FURLONG 2020

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