Purgatory is like a "second chance" for God's mercy to purify us, so that we can enter His presence free of the sinful baggage we have dragged around with us through our lives.

What about hell, then?

As I mentioned in last week's reflection (see www.evangelist.org), purgatory might be compared to hell in everything but hell's eternity. The pain of loss (feeling apart from God) and the pain of sense (like fire or something similar) are the necessary moments of truth that we will all have to face up to when realize how wrong we have been about how broken we are, yet how much we have been loved.

There are some for whom this moment of truth -- the judgment Jesus will make of whom or what our lives were all about -- will end in an admission that our ultimate choice was not God, but something or someone else.

Many persons today, including some Catholics, find it difficult to understand how a merciful God would allow one who dies in grave (mortal) sin to fall into the devil's clutches and spend an eternity in hell.

If they are thinking that God does not want anyone to go to hell, then they are certainly correct. Jesus came, after all, so that everyone who accepts God's mercy might be saved. But, sad to say, not everyone accepts that mercy. Hell is not about God's refusal of mercy, but the refusal of the sinner to accept God's mercy and its transforming effects.

We know that the devil, because of his pride, eternally refuses to accept who God is. He will not accept God -- his Creator -- as the sovereign good that God is. The devil refuses to know, love and serve God, and therefore refuses to have any "place" in God's kingdom of heaven. He chooses his own hell instead of God's heaven.

Does God stop loving the devil, then?

I have heard it expressed by one spiritual guide in this way: God loves everyone. Nothing could exist without God's willing it and loving it into existence. On this basic level, it might be said that God loves the devil as much as He loves the blessed Virgin Mary - or so our guide proposes.

The difference, however, is that Mary loves it and the devil can't stand it!

Maybe one could understand the devil being so obstinate, but would any human being willfully choose hell -- an eternity without God?

The teaching of the Church is clear that there is a hell (Catechism 1033-37). Clearly, the devil and the fallen angels have made their choice to be there. In heaven, there are human beings who have been canonized -- declared with certainty to be saints.

The Church, however, has never declared with certainty that any human being is in hell. I would like to think that is the case.

Yet, if we take the reality of human freedom seriously, then it would not be logical to say that, on the one hand, a person can freely choose to live a virtuous life that leads to sanctity (with the help of divine grace, of course), but one could not freely choose to live a life of vice that leads to perdition.

We are free to choose between heaven and hell; or we are not free at all, and then neither sin nor virtue would have any ultimate consequence. We would all be creatures of fate, predestined in some way for heaven or hell. That is contrary to our teaching about human freedom and salvation. We have a choice.

Even our secularized culture recognizes the importance of choices and respects the freedom to choose. If we are not free, then we are not quite human. The truth is that God does everything possible to invite us and motivate us to choose life, goodness and virtue. But even God (especially God) will not destroy our freedom and, thereby, our humanity.

It is a matter of love. Love can never be imposed; it is always a choice.

Recall the accounts of the wedding banquet in Matthew 22:1-14 to which the invited guests did not respond very enthusiastically. The banquet can be taken to be the heavenly feast that God wants everyone to enjoy. Remember how the master (God) does everything possible to get people to come in, including those on the highways and byways outside the city walls, the riffraff of society.

He even seems to provide the uninvited guests a wedding garment -- I see no other way to understand how he could have gotten the last-minute guests into the hall in any decent condition -- so that everyone could come and celebrate.

But one man refuses to put on the garment. Who is this obstinate man whom the master then casts out into the darkness? Sounds like a metaphor for hell to me!

But why does he end up in hell? Because the master did not do all he could to accommodate him? Hardly. It seems that this person refused to respect the master, who wanted to help him clean up his act. "No one's gonna make me change," it seems he was saying.

Change what: lifestyle? relationships? addiction? attitude? In the Gospel, the man is speechless. He has nothing to say. His actions speak loudly enough. Like the devil, he is declaring, "I will not serve!"

The point is that God is holy and we are not. To be with God and enjoy God's presence, we need to be transformed so that we become holy, like God. This "sanctification" happens when we acknowledge our sins and turn to God for mercy. God then clothes us in the "white garment" of His transforming grace.

That's how sinners become saints. That's how saints end up in heaven. A saint is, after all, a sinner who keeps turning to God for mercy. If we keep turning away from God, avoiding any admission of our sinfulness, refusing to accept God's mercy, if we come to the banquet hall on the last day of our life and refuse to allow the master to clothe us in the garment of God's mercy, how can we say that it is God who is rejecting us?

How many chances will God give us to learn and heed this message? For as long as we live, God will never tire of offering us His mercy and forgiveness. There is no reason to die in the state of serious sin, of the rejection of that mercy, and risk an eternity of separation from God.

In this extraordinary Year of Mercy, do not put off this opportunity to turn to God completely and trust in His mercy. Make a good confession. Let that sinful pattern or habit or obsession go. None of us can know for sure if this hour may be our last chance.

The moral of the story: Do not wait until it is too late!

(Follow the Bishop at www.facebook.com/AlbanyBishopEd and on Twitter @AlbBishopEd.)