Sunday, August 9, 2015

I Must Confess

As a young woman around 1950, the American author Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) was dragged along to a dinner party full of VIPs.  Knowing of Flannery’s Catholic faith, the hostess began to carry on about how she was raised Catholic, too, and how as a child she came up with her own personal notions concerning Holy Communion, and how now, as an enlightened adult, she realized it was just a symbol—but a pretty good one. To which Flannery simply replied, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” Flannery would later write that this defense “is all I will ever be able to say about it…, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.”

   Ninteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

The Precepts of the Church
Part III

My opening story this Sunday may not have a punch line…
…but it does pack a punch.

Voltaire was a French thinker and writer of the 18th century
who laid much of the groundwork for the French Revolution.
He was immensely popular, and immensely influential,
especially among the intellectually elite.
While Voltaire wasn’t quite an atheist,
he regularly mocked almost all religion as ridiculous,
and was especially critical of the Catholic Church.
A young man, who wanted to be a “free thinker” like him,
sent Voltaire a letter asking for advice.
You see, the young man had been raised a devout Catholic—
and that was his problem.
No matter how hard he tried,
he just couldn’t shake his childhood faith
in the real presence of Jesus—Body, Blood, soul, and divinity—
in the Eucharist.
What should he do?
Voltaire’s advice was simple.
He told the young man to receive Communion as often as possible.
But before going to Communion,
he told the young man to avoid going to Confession
and instead to go out and commit as many mortal sins as he could.
If he would just do these things, Voltaire counseled,
soon enough he would curse God, despise the Church,
and renounce his faith.
Which is what the young man did.
Four months later, he was a convinced atheist.

In my first homily of this series on the Precepts of the Church,
I spoke about the precept:

4. To receive Holy Communion at least once a year,
     during the Easter season

(In fact, I mentioned that precept last week, too.)
But that precept concerning Holy Communion
is one half of a pair
along with the precept that says:

3. To confess your sins at least once a year

Although certainly no friend of the Church,
Voltaire recognized the intimate connection
between Confession and Communion—
something that seems largely lost
even among practicing Catholics today.
In Voltaire’s day, the lines outside the confessional were long…
…but those heading toward the Communion rail were shorter;
nowadays, there aren’t too many who come for Confession…
…but nearly everybody comes forward to receive.

That could simply be because we’re much holier these days
than people were in times past…
…but I don’t think there’s sufficient evidence to bear that out.
So—why such a dramatic shift?

For one thing, we’ve lost much of our sense of sin.
A quick look at the news lately will verify that.
So many loud calls for the full weight of the law
to be brought down on a man
who illegally hunts and kills a much beloved lion in Africa!
And yet the steady stream of stomach-churning reports
about the buying and selling of defenseless unborn children
in the name of “reproductive rights” and “medical research”
elicits a comparatively weak response:
“Well, it is legal in this country…
…and who am I to impose my beliefs on somebody else?”
These ongoing revelations concerning the horrific reality of abortion
are an extreme example of the disordered human desire
to “have our cake and eat it, too.”
We don’t want to take responsibility for our sinful actions—
or our sinful lack of action—
so we seek to eliminate the unfortunate consequences
(at least from view).
But this denial of sin is nothing new;
it goes all the way back to Adam and Eve—
the first who sought to do what uniquely belongs to God:
to determine right and wrong for themselves.

We’ve not only lost a sense of sin;
we’ve also lost our sense
of the all-surpassing holiness of the Eucharist.
Survey after survey tells us
that an increasing number of American Catholics do not believe
in the real presence of Jesus in the Most Blessed Sacrament
(which might explain, in part,
why so many don’t regularly come to Mass).
Yet even without a survey,
it can be seen in the very casual way
a lot of people approach the altar and handle the Sacred Host,
and in the way so few genuflect when entering or leaving the church.
Neither is this anything new.
We’ve just heard the crowds murmur,
“How can this mere man (we know his parents, after all)
tell us he’s come down from heaven?”
And next Sunday we’ll hear them continue,
“How can this man claim to give us his own flesh to eat?”

Even though he didn’t believe in them himself,
Voltaire’s advice acknowledged that there’s a strong link
between going to Confession and receiving Holy Communion—
in recognizing sin as sin,
and in recognizing the Eucharistic presence of the Christ.
If we want to save our souls—if we want to save the world—
then we need to get them both back.

It’s the Church’s consistent, longstanding teaching
that anyone aware of having committed a mortal sin
must not receive Holy Communion—
no matter how sorry they feel—
without first receiving sacramental absolution,
unless there’s some grave reason for going to Communion
and no possibility of going to Confession.
St. Paul himself wrote that “whoever eats the bread
or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily
will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor 11:27).
It’s our mortal sins
that we’re required to confess at least once each year,
in order that we’ll be properly disposed
to receive Holy Communion at least once each year.
(And while not strictly necessary,
Confession of our venial sins—of our everyday faults—
is highly encouraged, too, as a way to grow in virtue,
fight our evil tendencies, and progress in the spiritual life.)

If it’s our mortal sins we must confess,
then we need to know what mortal sin is.
For a sin to be mortal, (1) it must be serious in nature,
(2) we must know that it’s wrong,
and (3) we must deliberately consent to do it.
(You can’t sin by accident!)
That a sin is “mortal” means that it’s deadly to the soul.
Mortal sin doesn’t only exclude us from the Sacraments on earth;
it kills our hope of heaven.
That’s because it doesn’t just wound our friendship with God;
it breaks it right off.

So, what things specifically are mortal sins?
This homily will be long enough without listing them all!
But they include:
— missing Sunday Mass;
— putting your trust in superstition or the occult;
— blasphemy or denying your faith;
— serious neglect in caring for one’s parents
            or one’s children (including their religious upbringing);
— abortion (whether procuring it or promoting it);
— using illegal drugs or driving under the influence;
— stealing or destroying someone else’s valuable property;
— denying assistance to the poor that you could easily provide;
— serious gossip, false witness, or perjury;
— viewing pornography and masturbation;
— using contraception;
— being sexually involved with someone
            the Church doesn’t acknowledge to be your spouse.

You know, every once in awhile,
an actual angel comes to me for Confession.  It’s true!
I know this, not because there’s a flutter of wings behind the screen,
but because I hear a voice say,
“Father, I haven’t done anything wrong.”
(That’s when I want to add, “But...didn’t you just tell a lie?”)
And every once in awhile, the devil comes to Confession, too.
I know this because I hear a voice say,
“If it’s a sin, Father, I’ve done it!”
(Usually if I ask about murder or car jacking,
they modify their original claim.)
If you’re going to make a good Confession,
then you need to start carefully examining your conscience
well before you begin to confess.
(And if you’re not sure how,
there are plenty of guides to help you.  Just ask!)
That way, when we come to confess,
we can do so with openness and integrity.
There’s no need to use any coy turns of phrase.
You might fool the priest, and you might even fool yourself,
but you’ll never fool God.
It may be more difficult, but it’s much more liberating
to call a spade a spade.
If you want the Doctor to really heal you,
then you need to tell him all your symptoms
and show him all your wounds.

Don’t fear for judgment or condemnation in the confessional.
In his infinite wisdom, Christ arranged this Sacrament
such that it’s one sinner talking to another.
I go to Confession every two weeks or so—
sometimes, more frequently than that.
It’s not exactly easy for me
to kneel before a colleague—a brother priest—
and bear all the dark recesses of my soul.
No, it’s not easy—but I know it’s essential.
We priests understand.

And Confession presupposes
that you have sorrow for your sins—“contrition”:
not only the movement of your lips, but the movement of your heart.
True sorrow for your sins means you’ll also have
a “firm purpose of amendment”:
a commitment that, with the help of God’s grace,
you’ll do your very best to avoid committing these sins again.
To do otherwise—to just go through the motions,
to have no real plans to change your ways—
would be a mockery of the Sacrament,
and even a mockery of God himself.

Discouragement—like we see in the prophet Elijah—
is the great danger in all of this.
If the devil can get us down,
it’s so much easier for him to keep us there.
But recognizing and confessing our sins
isn’t supposed to be primarily about
the evils we’ve done or what the Church stands against;
it’s actually an affirmation of God’s boundless goodness and mercy,
which we were made to experience in the first place.
Yes, we need to remove
all bitterness, anger, and malice from our midst,
but that’s so we can make room for kindness, compassion,
and forgiveness toward one another
as we’ve been forgiven in Christ.

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven,” Jesus said.
“Whoever eats this bread will live forever;
and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”
May we never allow any death-dealing sin
to keep us away from the Bread of Life.

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