During these final two Sundays before Lent, I will give some instructions regarding our celebration of Sunday Mass – especially in relation to the reception Our Lord in the Eucharist. I begin with the words of today’s Gospel, “Child, your sins are forgiven.”
To receive Jesus we must ask him for the forgiveness of sin. Please note that, in today’s Gospel, the first thing Jesus did for the paralyzed man was to forgive his sins. When you think about who Jesus is and who we are, that requirement becomes immediately apparent. During Sunday Mass, we express the need for forgiveness in a variety of ways: At the beginning of Mass is short moment of silence, an invitation to call to mind one's sins. It is not an in-depth examination of conscience, but merely recalling about our most notable failures during the past week or the past twenty-four hours. I made a stupid, cutting remark. I drank to excess. I choose my own comfort instead of reaching out to someone. Whatever. The Scripture readings and the homily often provide a closer examination of one’s life. In the Creed we state that we believe “in the forgiveness of sins.” God’s pardon is not something we necessarily feel emotionally; it is something we accept because of our faith in Jesus. At the most solemn moment of the Mass, the priest speaks Jesus’ words: that he shed his blood “so that sins may be forgiveness.” In the Lord’s Prayer, we ask the Father to forgive us our trespasses in the measure we forgive those who trespass against us. That line should make us a little nervous. I know it does me. Before receiving Communion we confess our utter unworthiness to receive God. “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you…” To receive Communion, we rely on his Word, not any merit of our own.
I hope you can see that when we come to Mass, we do not do so in order to tell God what great people we are. Rather we acknowledge our sinfulness: only he can make us worthy. Are you all with me so far? I want to point out something else. In the front page of the missalette you will notice the Guidelines for Reception of Communion. Our bishops – that is, those ordain to teach in the name of Jesus - tell us very clearly: “A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to receive the Body and Blood of the Lord without prior sacramental confession.” On reading this, one will naturally ask: What is a grave sin?* The Bible makes a distinction between “sin unto death” ” (1 Jn 5:16) and everyday sins. As the book of Proverbs states, the just man falls seven times (24:16). I used to tell people that is true because one day I counted! The fact is I usually fall more than seven times a day, that is, I commit venial or lesser sins: acts of impatience, gossip, snap judgments, laziness, impure thoughts, wasteful spending, greed, envy, overeating, fudging the truth, sullenness and so on.** In the grand scale of things, they may be small, but they add up. With God’s grace I want to overcome them. In themselves, however, they are not barriers to Communion. They do not rise to the level of a grave or mortal sin.
Before giving examples of grave or mortal sins, let me first state the definition of sin. A sin, any sin, has three elements: knowledge, consent of the will and something objectively wrong. Sin is a knowing and deliberate violation of God’s law. If I do not do it willfully, it is not a sin. To take an extreme example: it is obviously wrong to kill someone, but if someone has killed another person in an automobile accident. What a terrible burden it would be, but it would be not a sin as such, because the driver clearly did not have the intention to kill the other person. The speeding or the inattentive driving may have been a sin, but we would not say the driver committed the sin of murder. That was not his intent. Likewise, you can do something intentionally, but not know it is wrong. That may be the case with some couples who are cohabiting. Fornication, like murder, is a grave sin, but the couple may realize it. It still does harm – as numerous studies show – but often couples seem unaware that they are “living in sin.” Something similar could be said about the use of artificial birth control. Perhaps a couple did not realize it was a sin. Well, now you know.
Granted that all sin must be knowing and deliberate, what then constitutes a grave sin? Although it is somewhat risky because circumstances always vary, I will try to give some examples. Almost everyone knows that adultery is seriously wrong. One of the Ten Commandments says, “You shall not commit adultery.” And let’s face it: No one commits adultery by accident. It doesn't just happen; something led up to it. If someone has committed adultery, they need sacramental confession before receiving Communion. A little bit different case is abortion. The act is obviously gravely wrong, but the persons involved – the mom, the boyfriend, and the medical personnel – often do not have a full realization until afterwards. When they become aware of the seriousness of what they have done, they should seek sacramental confession before receiving Communion. Finally I want to give a more common example: Missing Sunday Mass. All of us have a serious obligation to worship our Maker and Redeemer. “Keep holy the Lord’s Day,” states the Third Commandment. To miss Sunday Mass is a grave sin. This surprises some Catholics. Well, now you know. If you have missed Sunday Mass, without a valid reason such as illness, you should receive confession before returning to Communion. I could mention other grave sins, but you get the idea. If you are in doubt, you can discuss it with a confessor.
I will say more next Sunday about how one receives Communion with reverence. This Sunday I have emphasized the importance of seeking forgiveness - not to burden you but because I want you to have the joy of the man Jesus healed. “Rise, pick up your mat and walk.” And the people responded by giving glory to God.
*Some ask, “Why make a distinction between mortal and venial sin? Sin is sin; every sin is an offense against an infinitely loving God.” The question is valid, but I would respond: A mountain is a mountain, but there is a big difference between Mount Rainier and Mount Baldy. Sulking and carrying on an affair are both sinful activities. Suppose someone says, “I am devastated because I found out my husband is having affair.” Would the other person reply, “Well, I have a problem too; my husband sulks a lot”? I don’t think so. No sensible person would put the two behaviors on the same level. There is a qualitative difference. That common sense perception, evident in early Christian writers, is at the base of our distinction between venial and mortal sin. One diminishes a relationship; the other breaks it.
**I do not wish to make light of any of these "lesser" sins. In his Divine Comedy Dante shows how, if practiced consistently and without repentance, they can land a person in Hell. And all of them must be purified on the Mount of Purgatory before one can enter Paradise.
From the Archives:
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Bulletin (Forgiveness and Communion)
From Bill Donohue:
Whenever the Catholic League criticizes a work of art, cartoon, movie or TV show, we are told that (a) we’re the intolerant ones (b) what is offensive is in the eye of the beholder (c) art is supposed to make people uncomfortable (d) no one can criticize anything until they have seen it (e) protests have a ‘chilling effect’ on free speech (f) it’s not real anyway, and (g) get over it. So why have Muslims been spared this lecture?
Meanwhile, Colorado politicians propose legislation which "ignores the serious problem of sexual abuse in public schools and other public institutions, and focuses instead on religious and private organizations"
Or as Mark Shea puts it: The trick to abusing kids in Colorado? Just don't be Catholic. They'll look the other way.
Who is the "Fairness Foundation" and why is he attacking Catholic hospitals?
Father Jonathan Morris on the Intelligent Design Controversy (Fox News article) reply
Preaching Schedule (revised)
A Child Who Needs Your Help
(Mary Bloom Center in Peru, February 2012)
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