Zeal for Souls

“Zeal for souls” is a phrase seldom heard in homilies, on retreats, or in conversations even among devout Christians. This is striking, since zeal for souls has been the force powering the lives of every canonized saint and every significant renewal movement in the Church. One thinks of St. Therese of Lisieux’s vision (in her early teens!) of blood dripping from the corpus of the crucifix as she prayed: she wanted to catch the Blood of Christ, as so many souls had need of it and it tore her to see it wasted. Or of St. Francis Xavier’s holy frustration over the lack of Christians willing to go on mission to the Far East: he saw that the harvest was vast, ripe for conversion, but the laborers were so pitifully few. St. John Bosco’s vivid and often frightening dreams accurately revealed to him those of his young charges who would die soon, along with those who were in danger of damnation – and he responded with zeal to save those souls.

Zeal for souls is fueled by the acute awareness that, as C.S. Lewis memorably put it, every human being I encounter will one day either be transformed into a being glorious enough for me to be tempted to worship, or hideous enough to make me recoil in horror. As Psalm 1 says, there are only two paths, righteousness and wickedness; and as the New Testament clarifies, those paths end in Heaven or in Hell. One corollary of this truth is that the only relationships that will last forever are those that endure into Heaven (nothing worthy of the name relationship persists in Hell). What better way to love someone than to do all in my power to ensure that he or she ends up in Heaven; that is, is saved from Hell? How can I say I truly love without passionately desiring the beloved’s salvation?

After “zeal for souls” was on my heart earlier this week, I began reading Ralph Martin’s The Urgency of the New Evangelization. Martin points out that the new evangelization is often spoken of in terms like, “Relationship with Jesus Christ will enrich your life, give it meaning, make you the best person you can be, make your life fruitful”, etc. Certainly, Jesus Christ alluded to such reasons for believing in the Gospel: but His most frequent reason to believe in and surrender to Him as Lord was to be saved from the fires of Hell and gain entrance into Heaven. The same Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus teaches us to love our enemies and turn the other cheek also contains six or seven references to Hell.

Jesus’ most fiery sermons by far were directed at the Pharisees, who were certain of their salvation but whom Jesus declared were hell-bound. Jesus is clear: “The road to life is narrow, and few attain it…the road to death is wide, and many attain it”. But current preaching and catechesis in the Catholic Church give a kind of sleepy assurance that only strenuous effort and focus will land us in Hell (and even then, would God be so unmerciful?); whereas if we coast along, perhaps avoiding murder, rape, plunder, and pillage, we’re assured a place in Heaven. It’s not that this is preached or taught, in so many words: but it is surely the atmosphere and underlying premise. And such a premise robs the gospel of its urgency. The stakes are extreme and eternal; we need to live in that reality.

Do I love my family? My friends? Do I care about the people I work with, see at church, socialize with? Suppose a word or action on my part helped them to accept Jesus as Lord, thereby rescuing them from Hell and opening to them Heaven? Suppose my failure to speak or act – or my speaking or acting in a way the scandalized or at best obscured the beauty of Jesus shining through my life – turned them away from salvation? I’m not talking “eternal security”/once saved, always saved. But I’m talking about letting others know the joy of Jesus and the salvation that He offers (to be walked out in one’s life henceforth, helped by His grace); and letting them know that ultimately, refusing that joy and salvation means choosing misery and damnation.

St. Teresa of Avila wrote that she would be willing to die a thousand deaths if that would help “one more soul praise God just a little more”. St. Paul wrote to the Romans that he would willingly be separated from Christ if thereby his beloved fellow Jews might be joined to Christ. Lord Jesus, You Yourself wept with longing:

 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Mt 23:37)

Lord, give us that kind of zeal for souls. Give us Your zeal for souls. Let Your thirst for souls, that all men be saved and have knowledge of the truth, rage in us. Let our every thought, word, and deed burn with that zeal. “I have come to cast fire on the Earth: how I wish that it were already enkindled!”(Luke 12:49) Give us no rest until we claim the whole world for You!



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About admin

I am a Catholic clinical psychologist with a solo practice in Omaha, NE. In the Franciscan seminary, I completed about 2/3rd of an M.Div./MA in Scripture. In my 3rd year of temporary vows, I discerned a call to the married life. My lovely wife Mary and I have a son, Michael, as well as a number of children preceding us to Heaven through miscarriages. We are delighted to be in the Omaha archdiocese and love the Heartland.
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