Editor’s note: “Matters of faith” is a column that provides local religious leaders a place to write about how their respective faiths provide hope, courage and strength in these modern times.
Forgiveness is important in our lives. In the Catholic Church, we have ritualized forgiveness and we call it the sacrament of reconciliation or confession.
The conversation about forgiveness and reconciliation usually gets gummed up when people ask questions like, “What if someone confessed to you that they murdered someone, abused a child, or some other horrendous crime.” The answer is that a Catholic priest, upon pain of automatic excommunication, is obliged to keep each person’s confession confidential.
The priest can and should require that the person confessing the crime to turn him/herself in, get professional help, etc., before they may be forgiven — but this is the responsibility of the penitent. The priest cannot act on the penitent’s behalf without their explicit permission.
A priest at a recent retreat I attended gave this example. A person came to him confessing that they had been stealing from their employer for years. The amount stolen was rather large. The priest explained to the “penitent” that they had to make restitution in order to be forgiven. The penitent became angry, stormed out of the confessional, shouting “then I guess I am going to hell.”
The priest had ascertained from his conversation that the penitent had been going to confession for a while to different priests and had been confessing the same sin. It appeared that this was the first time that this person was challenged by a priest. Instead of saying two Hail Marys, the penitent was told that they had to really make up for their sins and make an effort to not do it again. Now, the penitent wouldn’t necessarily have to admit their sin, but that money would have to be returned some way and the penitent would have to stop.
Forgiveness is necessary for us, but there are many impediments to reconciliation. First, we all must realize that we have sinned. I’ve had people come to confession and say, “It’s been two years and I honestly cannot think of any sins.” I want to say, “Jesus, is that you?” Denial ain’t a river in Egypt. We must have the humility to ask forgiveness from the person we harmed and from God. We must be willing to make up for what we have done. This depends upon what we have done, of course. We must also want to not do it again, which requires us to want to change our life.
Reconciliation is about transformation and growth. God loves us, so He will help us to change our lives with His grace.
How does sin affect us as human beings? Sin deprives us of our freedom (we have freedom only to do what is good), makes us less human (we fulfill our human destiny by serving God), and distances us from God and one another (sin is the refusal of relationship with God and others).
Ultimately, sin involves not wanting to face the reality of our lives and to live a lie. Sin is really not about sin. It is more about pride and telling lies to ourselves and to others that we are good, everything is OK, and nothing is wrong.
Martin Luther wrote, “Sin boldly.” We can sin and we certainly do, but as long as we admit it, seek reconciliation from God and from others, then sin does not have power over us. Jesus tells Peter (Mt 18:21), that if your brother sins against you 7 x 70 times and asks you for forgiveness, you are to forgive him. As those who are in A.A. say, we are only as sick as our secrets.
The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rev. Dr. Rowen Williams, wrote about monastic spirituality in his book, “Silence and Honey Cakes.” He wrote that the job of the monk is to stay in his cell and weep for his sins and the sins of the world. We are powerless to keep sin out of our lives, so the holy life is one where one acknowledges his/her sinfulness, expresses gratitude for God for forgiveness, and attempts to do good and avoid evil.
If there is something that we all struggle with in our lives at this time it is narcissism and materialism; if there is something that separates us from God and each other, it is the combination of these two. One becomes a consumer of all things including Christianity.
In the book “Rebuilt,” which is about two priests who transform their parish in Maryland, the priests/authors lament how parishioners are no longer parishioners, they are consumers. One goes to church to consume, to be served, and if they are not happy with the service they receive they complain to the pastor, the vicar general, and the bishop (usually in reverse order), until they get it their way.
So church is not about community, it is rather about the reception of a product or service to be provided by them (the definition of them changes frequently). It is ultimately about the consumer, that he/she is pleased with what service is being offered, like someone who is buying food or services at McDonald’s, Walmart, or the Marriott.
If we don’t seek forgiveness and reconciliation, we remain eternal adolescents. Our world is just about us and it is about our self-justification for our bad behavior and blaming others for our problems. My friends with teenagers teach me that sometimes being a pastor is like being a parent with teenagers. Why aren’t you giving me what I want? You are responsible for my happiness. So and so’s parents or pastor gave them this, why don’t you? You, meanie! I hate you!
There is always the lurking adolescent within all of us when we fail to take responsibility for our actions, and the consequences of these actions, and we wish to blame others for what we really need to take care of ourselves. The problem that underlies this is the belief that we have to be perfect or at least appear perfect. Reconciliation helps us to realize that we should not seek to appear perfect or even good, but that we seek forgiveness and reconciliation knowing that we are flawed.
It is so healthy for us to be able to say, “Yes, we are sinners.” We don’t have to appear perfect, because guess what? We’re not. We admit our faults, ask forgiveness, and move on. Otherwise, we stay in the rut where we have to justify ourselves and our actions, which takes too much energy. Personally, I love the sacrament of reconciliation. I don’t receive the sacrament as often as I should, yet when I do, I think, gee I needed that. I wish that I had gone earlier.
I’ve learned in my life that the truly holy people no longer make an effort to justify themselves. They actually have a better sense of self and sense of peace in their hearts, because they know in their bones that God loves them and has forgiven them. They don’t need to prove themselves to others, because they are fully aware of the sin in their lives. If they are Catholic, they are not infrequent participants in the sacrament of reconciliation as well as the other sacraments, especially the Eucharist. Whatever tradition we belong to, we require forgiveness in our lives if we are going to have any peace in this world and the next.
Rev. Dinsdale is the priest at St. Marguerite Catholic Church in Tooele.