A couple of years ago, Victorian society was moved by the catastrophic death of six older teenagers in Mildura. The teenagers were walking along a dimly-lit road in a rural Victorian city around midnight. A crazy, irresponsible driver, with numerous driving convictions, and partly influenced by alcohol, swerved around a corner and ploughed into the young people. Six were killed; many more injured.
One newspaper report mentioned that all were, or had been, students at the local Catholic college, St Joseph's High School.
This was just a striking case of a common phenomenon: many people, for whatever reason, die young and never have the fulfilling life so much promised by our rich society.
Moreover, many people of all ages die suddenly without, apparently, any time to think over and assess their lives.
Let us, then, consider the case of a young adult Catholic, "John", who like the Mildura six was killed instantly in a vehicle accident. One second John was alive and skylarking and a second later he faced his judgment before a merciful but just God.
Now John was a typical non-practising, young adult Catholic, one of the over 90 percent who spent twelve years in Catholic education without deriving much obvious spiritual benefit from the experience.
In fact, neither his family (whose attitude to their religious faith was vague), nor his school (whose teachers shared every shade of religious persuasion and practice), gave John clear and unambiguous guidelines for living. John settled for the drift of the secular majority with a wafer thin cultural Catholic overlay.
If the Lord explores with John his beliefs, John would hardly know what to say. If asked about his religious practice, John would reply honestly that there was not much of that (except for certain ritual events in school). He had not worshipped nor been to church for years. So the Lord says "fail" on those two, but then allows that John had little guidance.
The Lord turns to life style and John is challenged there too: his moral stance owes a great deal to TV soapies like Neighbours and Home and Away and the moral confusion of the dominant secular culture. John is decent enough but his morality and behaviour owe little to his nominal Catholicism.
The Lord next explores John's life in relation to the Commandments and there are some challenges there as well. He mentions sin but John is not sure what this means and does not care to ask.
However, the Lord then turns to service. Has he done anything for others, the little, the less, the least and the lost? At this John brightens. He points out that on the back window of his second hand car there are two stickers: "Make Poverty History" and "Save the Whale". The Lord seems impressed.
John can tell that the judgment is on track at last and in quick succession mentions that he has been on a number of camps for underprivileged children, helped some young Aborigines with their homework and given a few dollars to the Salvos' annual doorknock.
John need go no further. The Lord says: "Come John, you blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the World because I was a poor kid and you took me on a camp; I was a Salvo and you gave me a few dollars; I was a young Koori and you taught me some English; I was an endangered whale and you showed your concern, I was a tree and you hugged me."
Is this all the Lord requires from us: a certain decency of heart and an occasional, cheery concern for some of the poor and marginalised? This writer certainly hopes so but wonders!
In the wake of Vatican II, discussion of tough, uncompromising and unpleasant issues, such as the "Last Things", tended to disappear from homilies at Sunday Masses. But across the secular society, on occasion, and rather ironically, Christian expressions like "icon" often appeared in media comments.
These days, when you go to a Catholic funeral, you will often notice that after the liturgy, as the priest, the eulogists and the congregation pour quietly from the church, many place the deceased happily with the Lord in Heaven, no matter how the dead person lived during life.
Of course, the Church cannot judge, the individual mourners cannot judge either, and at a funeral it is appropriate to be respectful of the dead person's memory. However, in all this kindness, Hell does not exist and Purgatory is not a possibility.
But, does this approach owe much to Revelation or more to a generalised hope that a "merciful God" makes few if any demands on His creatures, and cares even less about personal sin? What does the New Testament have to say on these matters?
In the New Testament, both the Gospels and the Epistles of St Paul make numerous dire references to Hell in the words of Jesus:
* "I advise you whom you should fear. Fear him, who after he has killed has power to cast into Hell; yes, I say to you, fear him!" (Luke 12:5).
* "In Hell, in torment, Dives lifted his eyes and saw Abraham afar off with Lazarus in his bosom" (Luke 16:23).
* "If your hand offend you, cut it off; it is better for you to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into Hell, into the fire that can never be quenched" (Mark, 9:43).
Church teaching mirrors Scripture and tradition down the centuries: that there is a Hell where those who have committed serious and unrepented sin(s) place themselves after death.
There is another place or state called "Purgatory" where those who have committed lesser faults or have "temporal punishment due to sin" uncompleted, place themselves until the "debt" to God's justice is repaid.
Of course, there is nothing in Scripture or tradition which gives any idea of the numbers or percentages of those whose unrepented sins places them in one or the other place after death. This may have given rise to the "one-or-two philosophy"!
One Sunday at an early morning Mass in a university chapel, a brilliant young priest gave the bleary congregation an attractive and brief homily on Hell. The homily was reassuring: "everyone" would save his or her soul, except perhaps "one-or- two" whose lives were so utterly evil that they had lost all power whatsoever, to love. Hence, without any capacity to love they could not enter Heaven. Purgatory was not mentioned. This is a comforting philosophy, if true.
On 28 March 2007, Pope Benedict XVI addressed a parish gathering in the Archdiocese of Rome. He reminded his hearers that in the modern world many people, including some believers, appear to have forgotten that if they failed to be sorry for their sins and promise to sin no more, they risked "eternal damnation." "Hell really exists," he said, "and is eternal although few like to talk about Hell much any more."
Certainly, the Pope added, "forgiveness of sins for those who repent is a cornerstone of Catholic doctrine; God is always ready to forgive our sins if we repent." However, God has given men and women free will to choose whether "spontaneously to accept salvation. The Christian faith is not imposed on anyone; it is a gift, an offer to mankind."
Meanwhile, what do modern mystics and visionaries tell us of Our Lady's well-attested apparitions and warnings on the subject of the "Last Things"?
Since 1830, there have been many apparitions of the Blessed Virgin accepted as "worthy of credence" by Church authorities after close examination. Across the 20th century, Our Lady's messages and tone have become increasingly urgent. The century saw two World Wars, widespread violence and unimaginable horrors. Meanwhile, a pervasive secularisation of society has eroded any sense of God for many, perhaps most of humanity. Human wickedness has plumbed the depths.
In a number of her apparitions of the 20th century, Mary granted the visionaries experiences of Heaven, Purgatory and Hell.
Those at Fatima, Portugal, in 1917, were the most striking. At her appearance on 13 July 1917, the three children were given an appalling vision of Hell after being assured that each of them would be saved.
The eldest, Lucy, recorded that experience: "Our Lady showed us a great sea of fire which seemed to be under the earth. Plunged in this fire were demons and souls in human form, like transparent burning embers, all blackened or burnished bronze, floating about in the conflagration ... amid shrieks and groans of pain and despair which horrified us and made us tremble with fear."
Sister Lucy, the only one of the Fatima visionaries to survive into adult life often remarked on the large numbers of souls in Hell.
After Lucy, the most famous mystic of the 20th century, the Polish nun, St Faustina Kowalska, was favoured with many visions of Jesus Christ between 1929 and her death in 1937. These remained largely unknown during her lifetime, except within a small circle of her religious superiors and her confessor.
However, the posthumous publication of her diary, including her dialogues with the Lord (Divine Mercy in My Soul), now accepted by the Church as worthy of belief after a thorough investigation, gives a new urgency to the matters discussed here. The overwhelming burden of Jesus' message is mankind's desperate and increasing need for God's mercy.
Of course, God's mercy for sinful humanity is a major theme in Revelation and the fact that Jesus reit- erated the theme in such a striking way to St Faustina highlights its importance.
However, while God's desire to grant mercy is stressed, there is the caveat that human beings must repent and ask for the mercy so readily available. The corollary is the appalling fate of unrepentant sinners.
In one diary entry St Faustina outlines her experience of a visit to Hell. She mentions that most of the souls in Hell disbelieved in the notion of such a place and outlines the horrors they face. Her mission is to remind the world of matters most would prefer to forget.
She writes: "I am writing this at the command of God, so that no soul may find an excuse by saying there is no Hell, or that nobody has ever been there. I, Sister Faustina, by the order of God, have visited the abyss of Hell so that I might testify to its existence. I cannot speak of it now, but I have received a command from God to leave it in writing."
After describing the suffering of the damned in graphic detail, Faustina remarks that she prays even more fervently for the conversion of sinners: "I incessantly plead for God's mercy on them."
In similar vein, Faustina writes in her diary of Purgatory in traditional Christian terms, having been taken on a visit to Purgatory by her Guardian Angel: "I was in a misty place full of fire in which there was a great crowd of suffering souls. They were praying fervently, but to no avail, for themselves; only we can come to their aid."
As she left Purgatory, she believed she heard an interior voice in which Jesus said, "My mercy does not want this, but My justice demands it."
The appearances of the Blessed Virgin at Fatima and the dialogues of Jesus with St Faustina are echoed by other visionaries across the years since then, from Kibeho, Rwanda, to Betania, Venezuela, both in the 1980s.
Heaven's message is clear and unmistakable: God wishes all people to be saved; all receive enough support to be received into Heaven. However, many are not saved through their own life's choices, in spite of God's mercy so readily available to those who ask.
Hell and Purgatory exist and are to be understood in traditional Christian terms. They cannot be ignored, denied or wished away.
Dr Barry Coldrey is a former secondary school teacher in Christian Brothers' colleges, the author of books and articles, and is active in Catholic youth ministry.