Sunday, April 29, 2018

Been to Confession? Are You Sure?

The priest was greeting people after Mass and one parishioner came to him with a question: "Father, why do you keep saying 'go to confession' in your homilies when everyone there in the mass is already doing so?" The priest asked, "I'm sorry, but what do you mean?" "We all say the 'confession of sin' in every mass, so what need is there for us to go to confession again?" the parishioner responded. "Whoa! you have made a mistake; the confession of sin in the Mass only covers venial sins but not grave sins. The Church assumes that everyone has gone to the sacrament of confession outside of Mass, and has likely only committed venial sins since that time, and then the confession that we recite together only covers those venial sins" said Father. The parishioner, as you might expect, said, "What!!!?"

I do not know exactly how many people actually have this opinion; I could only guess. The fact, however, that I have had discussions very much like the one above, tells me that there are likely many others with the same mistaken perspective. Although I assume that all priests are taught about this crucial distinction, with the drastically low numbers of laity coming to confession, there is clearly something that is making them think that they are "OK" with God in spite of this. What could be leading in this direction? I certainly do not think that this is the only reason, but there is one thing that might be contributing to it. In fact, this one statement can easily be misunderstood (particularly by people who are looking for a reason not to go to the sacrament of confession).

The Roman Missal introduction to the penitential rite says "let us confess our sins and so prepare ourselves for the sacred mysteries." Consider this statement with me for a moment, especially as it is being stated to large numbers of the faithful who have a very poor understanding of the Catholic faith. Taken out of context from the whole of Catholic theology, this could possibly make someone think that this is all the preparation they need; especially if they do not have a good grounding in the church's teachings on sin.

The Divine Worship Mass (which I use in my Ordinariate parish) is more specific, but still makes no clear distinction between grave and venial sin: "You who are in love and charity with your neighbor and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in His holy ways, draw near with faith, and make your humble confession to Almighty God, meekly kneeling upon your knees." I am not faulting either the Divine Worship Mass, nor the Roman Missal, just stating how they can be misunderstood in today's context. It is possible that someone could come into the Divine Worship form of the Mass as well, thinking that the corporate confession of faith and declaration of forgiveness that follows both apply fully to grave sins. I am not advocating tinkering with the specific wording of the Mass (please do not assume that!). That will not truly solve the issue. Something deeper must be done.

What we need is first off a heavy dose of humility and secondly, a deeper understanding of sin. With these two things in our hearts we will be able to return to the proper practice of the sacrament of confession. Today there are many ways that people seek to avoid the sacrament of confession. Making excuses or simply ignoring it might well be the most common means, but for those who genuinely believe that the confession during Mass actually covers grave sin, I will at least give them credit for attempting to do something about their sin. The problem, however, is that this latter method is akin to taking a pain-reliever to overcome an allergy attack -- it is not intended for it, and will not have any effect.

As the Scriptures tell us many times, we cannot run from our sins. Adam and Eve tried it, and their son Cain took after them. So do we all try to avoid dealing with our sins. Yet, Christ's grace and forgiveness is so great that we should never think that we have a better method of dealing with sin. The Church's "bare minimum" of once-a-year confession is a rarity for most. I regularly encourage my parishioners to go to confession, so I will say it again. Do not come up with excuses; and make sure that you understand the Church's teachings in regard to our sins (we are dealing, of course, with your eternal destiny). Christ is waiting for you in the confessional, and He loves to give you His grace.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Mercy AND Truth

Which is more important, truth or mercy? Difficult question. The problem is, most people will answer either "truth" or "mercy" and both of those are the wrong answer. The correct answer is neither; for neither truth or mercy is more important. Truth without mercy is just cold calculated facts, and mercy without truth is just sentimentalism. So we cannot have truth or mercy, we must have truth and mercy. For anyone to criticize truth at the cost of mercy is misunderstanding both of these things, and for anyone to criticize mercy over truth is also misunderstanding.

In today's day and age, we tend to have an overemphasis on mercy and an under-emphasis on truth. This comes not just from pagans outside, but also from some of those within Holy Mother Church. That is not healthy and will never help the faithful to know how to grow in holiness. If we pit two godly things against each other, all we do is cause confusion. And, needless to say, we have more than enough confusion in the Church today; we certainly do not need any more.

So what is it that people are doing when they emphasize mercy over truth? This usually happens when someone is afraid (or intimidated) by a particular truth and they want to find a way to get a "free ticket" to ignore the truth. Hence, they press mercy (because it sounds pious) and denigrate truth. If one presses mercy enough, many will eventually forget about the truth that is being pushed out. An example of this is the man who claimed that it was all right for him to commit adultery because God was "merciful" towards him and his temptations. He was sacrificing the truth of the 6th commandment for the sake of his personal feelings.

That is not, however, mercy. Mercy does not say "go ahead and dig yourself deeper in your sin and ignore the fact of God's judgment." To use mercy in this way, as I have said many times, is actually hurting the individual. Mercy is often called upon when someone feels pressed by God's law, and it is thus used more to support moral compromise than to communicate the genuine tenderness of a forgiving God. With how many people make decisions based on sentimental ideas, we should not be surprised that this happens. Yet, we should be saddened by it, and we should do what we can to avoid it. The sentimental mind makes choices regarding what feels good, not what is correct (i.e. what is true). On the other hand, truth is able to guard us and keep us thinking clearly (regardless of our feelings). Truth is able to help us when we feel the need to make a decision solely by our feelings.

When someone sees the need to be merciful (which is a good and godly thing to do) it should be done within the boundaries of the truth. Likewise when someone feels the need to apply a particular truth, he should do so within the boundaries of mercy, for just as much as mercy can be abused, so can truth. To take a truth and use it in a way that causes someone genuine harm, means that we have abused truth; for "blessed are the merciful" (especially when they are applying the wonderful truths of God). Truth should never be sacrificed, and mercy should never be sacrificed.

When someone sacrifices truth for the sake of mercy, what have we done to mercy? He has made it into an idol (no matter who it is who does this). As we read in the first letter of St. John: "Little children, keep yourselves from idols." These words have always been important, but today they seem to have a special need because so few people know how to recognize an idol. There are various forms of idolatry today, and most of them look nothing like the idolatry of 2000 years ago. Whatever we give more importance, more devotion, or more commitment to than is proper is either becoming, or has already become, an idol. As has been said before, we humans are wonderful "idol makers" (sad to say).

A proper understanding of mercy will not lead someone to moral compromise, rather it will lead them to greater faithfulness and a deeper commitment to the truths of God (since all the moral virtues, like mercy, cooperate with and assist one another; they never compete with each other!). In the Psalms (130:1-4) we read the following:
Out of the deep have I called unto thee, O LORD; Lord, hear my voice. O let thine ears consider well the voice of my complaint. If thou, LORD, wilt be extreme to mark what is done amiss, O Lord, who may abide it? For there is mercy with thee; therefore shalt thou be feared.
Notice that? Precisely because God has mercy, does it lead the psalmist to "fear" Him. It does not make him lax, but rather makes him want more so to be faithful. The psalmist does not think, because God is merciful that he can go on sinning (for that would be mercy without truth!); no, he responds with "fear" and recognizes the awesome grace that comes to us because of God's mercy. This is the right understanding of mercy. Anything short of this, is a wrong understanding of mercy.

Those who put too much emphasis on mercy have lifted up mercy beyond where it is supposed to be, because it is never supposed to be raised "above" truth, but rather to meet perfectly with it. In doing this we make mercy into something that will do more harm (since it is divorced from truth) than good. We can never pit one grace against another; that is always unhealthy. God has revealed to us the beauty of both truth and mercy, let them never be separated. Let us have truth and mercy; mercy and truth.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Forgiving Yourself (?!)

Just exactly what does it mean to "forgive yourself"? I have heard the phrase used often, and have always been a bit confused by it. The technical aspects of "forgiveness" are quite easy to explain. Forgiveness involves a reconciliation between two or more people. One or more individuals have done something sinful against one or more other individuals, and the two parties need to reconcile (i.e. be brought to a peaceful state of harmony). The offending party needs to ask specific forgiveness for the specific sin(s) committed, and the offended party needs to grant the forgiveness that was requested, thereby reconciling the two parties to one another once again. This reconciliation is necessary because the relationship of the two parties has been damaged and it needs to be restored to holiness. Nothing new or surprising there.

As we consider this fact, we are led to ask the question, "what about the description of forgiveness fits with the idea of a single person 'forgiving himself'?" Has a person's relationship with himself been damaged by his sins? Do we even have a "relationship with ourselves"? Has he caused a breech in his relationship with himself? Are we speaking about the concept of a split personality (I doubt it!)? There is nothing, as far as I can tell, about the idea of "forgiving oneself" that fits with the technical definition of reconciliation. Admittedly, one can be upset with his own behavior and even be angry at something he has done, but that is not the same as being sinned against by another person. Furthermore, how would one forgive oneself -- "hello there me, I'm sorry for sinning against me, will I forgive myself?"

I do not believe that the phrase (or even the idea of) "forgiving oneself" ever occurs in Scripture or in any official Catholic documents (if anyone knows of a place I have missed, please write to me and let me know!). That, in itself, is a startling admission. Scripture, written over a span of some 1400 years by men in various circumstances, never once even mentions the idea of "forgiving oneself". The silence is deafening. Furthermore, if it does not show up in any official document of the Catholic Church or in the long history of approved Catholic theologians, we at least have to acknowledge that the Church does not consider it a primary concern in our spiritual well being.

Yet, in spite of this lack of reference in virtually all the areas that matter for us as Catholics, numerous people speak about it as though it were an essential factor of the Christian life. That alone says that we should make some kind of comment on whether we should be concerned with it. So then, what is it that people mean when they say that someone has to "forgive himself"? Although there are numerous times when I have been upset with something that I did, I cannot say that I ever felt that I needed to "forgive myself"; does that mean I am calloused (I hope not).

After many years of serving in the pastoral field (both in Catholic and Protestant circles), I believe that many (if not all) of those who talk about "forgiving oneself" are merely using the phrase inaccurately. I do believe that it is a genuine issue that they speak of, but that their terminology is off. Therefore, let me attempt to summarize what I believe is going on. It is my opinion that when someone says "he needs to forgive himself" that he is referring to the need to deal appropriately with the guilt he is feeling for his bad behavior. This may seem simplistic, but I think it goes to the heart of the matter; in addition, I believe most of those who say they "need to forgive themselves" would agree with this. It is their feelings of guilt that leads them to this claim.

The subject of guilt is one that the Church has very often discussed, and has a good deal of literature defining and explaining it. When someone is experiencing the burden of guilt, and does not know how to deal with it in the proper (and godly) manner, he can describe that by the terminology of "forgiving yourself" (despite the problems that entails). Personally, I would like to get rid of that specific usage. The phrase is confusing and a bit misguided. Furthermore, I have had a number of people say to me "I cannot forgive others until I forgive myself". If we, however, translate that into a more accurate terminology, they would be saying "I cannot forgive others until I deal with my guilt", which is decidedly false.

There is nothing about our personal feelings of guilt that prevents us from forgiving another person. In fact, it is often our guilt that is precisely what drives us to seek reconciliation with others (as when we realize how important it is to treat others the way we want to be treated by God). That would mean that large numbers of people who are saying that they "cannot yet forgive" someone are doing so for all the wrong reasons. I do not know every situation, but if someone is using their personal "guilt" as a reason not to forgive someone else, it sounds more like an excuse trying to mask itself as holiness.

So then, how does someone deal with guilt? I could, at this point, dazzle you with a complicated and technical explanation filled with psychological mumbo-jumbo. That will not happen. On the contrary, it is necessary for me to speak about the basics of our religion; the sacraments. Although I do not want to sound like a broken record, the right way to deal with guilt is in the confessional. Yes, I know many people say "I can't go to confession until I forgive myself (i.e. deal with my guilt)" but that is putting the cart before the horse. Our refusal to deal with our guilt properly may have the effect of sending us to eternal hell, but only when we come before God so that He may deal with our guilt does it have the effect of granting us eternal life.

Are you or someone you know struggling with "self-forgiveness"? If so, do not leave God out of the picture. He alone is able to deal fully with our guilt, and the feelings that go with it. I once knew a man who told me that he had to forgive himself before he would ask God to forgive. He died two weeks later; very unexpectedly. I pray that he was able to deal with his guilt properly before that day. Do not fall into the same trap and hold God at arm's length. Open yourself up to His grace and go to confession!