A man ought to examine himself…

April 6, 2010


A few weeks ago I started a series on the Mass. If you want to catch up click here.

Just like families that get together to share a meal or celebrate a special event have traditions and rituals for the way they do things, our Catholic family has rituals and traditions we practice when we celebrate the Mass together. Ours start with the Introductory Rites. (Rites: Ceremonies surrounding the Sacred Liturgy and the sacraments)

The Mass begins with an entrance song or antiphon prayed by the entire congregation (an antiphon is a prayer, often taken from the Bible). If you drop by a daily Mass you’re more likely to hear the antiphon. Most Sunday Masses begin with a song and the processional which includes an altar server carrying a crucifix and other servers following behind, along with the celebrant (the priest celebrating the Mass).

After the procession, the priest goes to the altar and kisses it. Now don’t worry my Protestant friends, he’s not worshipping the altar and making it an idol. A kiss is a sign of devotion. Just like your favorite aunt who gives you a big kiss on the cheek when she comes to dinner, the priest kisses the altar as a sign of our love and devotion to Christ for His sacrifice.

The celebrant then leads us in making the sign of the cross. Like I mentioned before, this signifies our identity, who we are as the family of God.

Next, he welcomes the family of God gathered for this celebration with a greeting  taken from Scripture. For example: The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all (2 Cor. 13:13). And because the Mass is a liturgy (a work of the people) we participate and respond by saying, and also with you.

What follows is known as the penitential rite.  This is where we humble ourselves before God, acknowledge we’ve sinned and fall short of ever measuring up and that is why we need Jesus. We know we can’t approach God on our own merit so before we enter into corporate worship we take time to confess our faults and ask for forgiveness. Ideally, we’ve spent time before Mass examining our hearts for this penitential rite and preparing ourselves to receive Holy Communion.   

This rite may include a couple of traditions. Sometimes at a special Sunday Mass the priest will sprinkle the congregation with holy water as a reminder of their baptismal promises (to reject sin and follow Jesus) and as a symbol of healing and cleansing. 

More often the celebrant asks us to call to mind our sin in silence and ask for God’s forgiveness. Then he leads and we all pray a prayer. My favorite penitential prayer is called the Confiteor. It goes like this:

I confess to Almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters that I have sinned through my own fault. In my thoughts and in my words, what I have done and in what I have failed to do.  And I ask Blessed Mary, ever virgin, all the angels and saints and you my brothers and sisters to pray for me to the Lord our God.

I’ll say this about many parts of the Mass, but…

I love this tradition and rite. It makes so much sense doesn’t it? I mean here we are, gathered to worship and one of the first things we do is humble ourselves before God and one another and ask our brothers and sisters in Christ to pray for us to overcome our faults. This is the beauty of the Body of Christ isn’t it. And, it’s Scriptural. (If you’re not sure about asking Mary to pray for us, click here for a little perspective.)

If you read my letter to Claire about Confession and mortal sin vs. venial sin then you know that the Bible tells us there are some sins we are to pray about for one another (I John 5:16-17). These venial sins are the very ones we’re confessing in our hearts before we prepare to celebrate the Mass. This penitential rite is also part of what St. Paul reminds us to do before we receive Holy Communion: 

Therefore, whoever eats the bread and drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.  A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself…But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgement.  (I Corinthians 11:27-29,31)

These verses explain the Biblical basis for the penitential rite:  Examining our hearts and confessing our sin before recognizing His body and blood and receiving Him in Communion.

These verses also say a lot about Communion and what the early church believed. I must admit that when I was a Protestant and I read those verses in light of what I’d been taught about Communion was faced with several questions, such as… 

If the bread and wine are symbolic and not truly the body and blood of Christ then why does Paul specifically say that taking the bread and wine in an unworthy manner is a sin against the body and blood of Christ? How can you eat bread and drink wine in an unworthy manner? How is it possible to sin against a symbol?

And, if the bread and wine are supposed to be symbolic and not changed into the body and blood of Christ then why would we be judged for not recognizing it as the body of the Lord?  If it’s just a symbol then why would St. Paul risk creating confusion by telling the people to recognize a symbol as the actual body of the Lord?

On the other hand, if it really is the body and blood of Jesus and I take it without confessing my sin, acknowledging His sacrifice and His real presence then St. Paul’s words make sense. I can see how I would be sinning against the actual body and blood of Christ.

Of course those questions and thoughts take me well beyond the scope of the Introductory Rites and this post. They’ll have to be addressed at a later date. But it does make you wonder, what exactly was St. Paul telling us about Holy Communion in these verses?

What is clear is that the Bible says we are to examine our hearts before coming to the Lord’s Table.  There’s no doubt that we Catholics take St. Paul’s words to heart, so much so that it’s a part of our worship at every Mass.

This is all I have time for today. I’ll finish the Introductions tomorrow.

I know, I know, I know

March 3, 2010


When I said God’s word for me this Lent is humility I wasn’t kidding or thinking in the abstract.

Saturday morning Scott and I were in the car talking while waiting at a four-way stop. I don’t remember the details of the conversation but Scott was about to tell me something I really didn’t want to hear. It was nothing big, no life or marriage altering announcement, just something I’d done that was bothering him. Instantly, instinctively protecting my pride, I cut him off…

Me: I know

Scott: You didn’t even let me finish what I was saying.

 [True, but I knew where he was going with this conversation and I wanted to let him know that I already knew.]

Me: I know, Scott. I know.

Scott: When you cut me off like that and won’t let me explain what it is you’ve done and what I’m thinking, that drives me crazy…

Me: [Cutting him off again] I know, I know, I know.

Scott: Do you realize this is what Claire does when we’re trying to explain something or correct her? She interrupts and won’t listen.

 [Cringing, I flashback to Wednesday when I was trying to explain to Claire why something she’d done to her sister was wrong and she kept interrupting saying I know Mom, I know. In her pride she didn’t want to be corrected and told what she was doing that was wrong. That lead to a conversation about how she needs to listen even when she thinks she already knows what she’s done wrong and what we’re going to say. ]

Me:[Long pause]…I do that a lot. I’m certain that’s where Claire gets it. I’m sorry. 

Scott: [Nodding and accepting my apology he graciously lightens the tone of our conversation with his humor…] Finally, one bad habit they have that can’t be blamed on me!

Nope, this one is all on me. And more than I wanted to admit at the time.

As we drove through the four-way stop God brought to my mind a time when I was 14 and my sister Meg and I were stopped at a light (coincidently only two blocks away). She was trying to tell me something my prideful heart didn’t want to hear. I did the same thing to her that I did to Scott. Like the good big sister she was, she put me in my place for it. Clearly I didn’t learn my lesson.

Later I asked God…

Have I really been doing this for all these years? Am I that prideful, that slow to learn? Did I really pass this habitual response on to Claire?

I don’t think I need to tell you God’s answers. Ouch!

It’s week two and God isn’t letting me get away with much.  I think this is going to be a long Lent.

what you don’t know…

February 16, 2010


Dear Claire:

This weekend you made your first confession. Your dad and I couldn’t be more happy for you. As I watched you and your friends kneel and pray in the front of the church I realized how grateful I am that we’re raising you in the Catholic faith and you’ll grow up experiencing the grace of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. 

This was not the case for your dad and me. We didn’t experience this sacrament until after you were born.  And oh, the hurdles we had to overcome before our hearts and minds were even open to the idea of confessing our sins to God in the presence of a priest.

You see Claire, we were like most Protestants who believed going to confession was unnecessary because we could go directly to God to confess our sins and receive forgiveness. We didn’t understand why Catholics practiced this “man made” tradition and we certainly didn’t believe another human being had the right to absolve someone of their sins. In our eyes confession wasn’t Biblical and I even told a few of my Catholic friends so.  No one ever corrected me by sharing the Biblical basis for confession. 

This is why I am writing Claire. There may come a day in your life when you question whether or not going to confession is an important or necessary part of your faith journey. I can almost guarantee you that someday a well-meaning non-Catholic will try to tell you that you don’t need to confess your sins to a priest and they may even try to convince you it’s not Biblical. I want to make sure that when that day comes you know the Biblical reasons for this beautiful sacrament because if you’re not careful, what you don’t know could lead you away from this gift of grace.

One of the most common arguments against confessing your sins to a priest is that we can go directly to God to confess our sins. This is true Claire, we can go directly to God and we should on a daily basis. However, the Bible makes it clear there are times when we should confess our sins to another person. James 5:16  tells us, Therefore confess your sins to each other so that you may be healed.

This begs the question, to whom do we confess our sins? Should you go to your friends, your parents, a deacon, a youth pastor?  Is it enough when you’re 16 to simply confess your sins to a friend in youth group, afterall, they are an “other”?  Do I confess my sins to a group publicly or privately? These are important questions because if it doesn’t matter who then I could go to just about anyone and then I’d have to ask what exactly is the point? 

Of course we can confess our struggles and sins to one another and pray for one another. This can be a good thing but the Bible makes it clear that when we commit a sin that leads to death that our prayers for one another are not the answer.

I John 5:16-17 — If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that he should pray about that. All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death.

Claire, this is the difference between venial sin (disobedience to God involving light moral matter that does not lead to death) and mortal sin (the deliberate, conscious, free transgression of a moral law in a serious matter that leads to death/separation from the life of God — i.e. adultery, armed robbery, murder, lying under oath). 

This difference between what the Church calls venial and mortal sins is something I never learned when I was growing up. I was taught all sin is equal in the eyes of God. But clearly the Bible does not teach this. Instead it says that all wrongdoing is sin but some sins lead to a spiritual death and some do not. So, if someone ever tries to tell you that there’s no spiritual difference between some sins you may want to point out that the Bible says something very different.

Because we know God’s grace is huge and no sin is too big for forgiveness we have to conclude that these mortal require something more than the prayers of our brothers and sisters. While the passage in First John does not tell us what they require, the Church has taught throughout the ages that these mortal sins should be confessed to a priest in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. [And not just these sins but venial sins that keep us from loving God and others or lesser sins that have become habits in our lives.]

It’s likely that if someone is challenging your Catholic faith they’ll ask if that means we believe God can’t forgive those sins if that person comes to Him with a repentant heart? By no means Claire, God is bound to the promise of His grace in His Sacraments but He’s not bound by His Sacraments. God is bound by no one. The reason we confess mortal sin in confession with a priest is because these sins are serious, intentional choices against the life and love of God.  They are sins that lead to spiritual death.  We need that life in us restored (which happens with a contrite heart and through the power of the Holy Spirit and authority bestowed on the priest by Jesus — John 20:19-223 ).  And, if we are making conscious choices and committing such serious sins it’s safe to say we also need the spiritual direction and guidance of one who’ll counsel us and lead us in the way of holiness. 

Now it’s important to note that even if our sin is not mortal we benefit from confessing our sins and selfish ways and receiving the grace  and forgiveness of this sacrament so that we can overcome our flesh. Not to mention the fact that confession is humbling and keeps your pride in check.

Someday you may ask why confess to a priest? Why not any man or woman who calls themself a pastor?  What’s so special about priests? Or, someone may challenge you like I challenged my Catholic friends by saying, Priests don’t have any special authority to forgive sins, they’re just men, they aren’t God.

As Catholics we can answer these questions by looking to the Bible.

Why do we confess our sins to a priest, Claire?

The answer: Because they’ve been given the authority to forgive sins.

John 20:19-23

On the evening of that first day of the week when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent  me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

There are  many important things to learn from this passage: 

1) Jesus sends his disciples out on the same mission that the Father gave him. What was his mission?  Reconciling the world to God through the forgiveness of sins.  So Jesus gives the ministry of reconciliation to his disciples. Who in the Catholic Church has the role of administering the Sacrament of Reconciliation?  Priests.  

2) Jesus gives the disciples the power of the Holy Spirit and the authority to forgive sins. He breathes His life upon them in the Holy Spirit. The same life that is imparted to the repentant man or woman who confesses their mortal sin in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. 

 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

Notice that Jesus isn’t telling them that if they have a personal beef with someone and they don’t forgive this person for offending them then this person is not forgiven. That would be un-Biblical and wouldn’t make sense in the context of this passage. In this passage Jesus is giving his disciples His authority to absolve someone of their sins.

As Catholics we believe the authority given to the disciples is passed on to priests through apostolic succession. Just as the Father sent Jesus and Jesus sent the disciples so too, the disciples sent others with the authority and ministry of reconciliation.  The key here is being sent with authority.

This issue of authority is an important part of our Catholic faith Claire. A man doesn’t just wake up one day and decide to open a parish in a Catholic diocese. He doesn’t decide he’s going to be a priest and then all the sudden he has authority to forgive sins and celebrate Mass etc. He must be sent out by the Bishop  just like in Biblical times when there was a laying on of hands and a sending forth with authority. In some cases there were men claiming to be of the church but they were not teaching sound doctrine and the people were warned against listening to those who’d not been sent with authority.

St. Paul talks about being given this ministry of reconcilation as well: Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation…We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:17-18, 20) 

3) The forgiveness of sins administered through the disciples must have been very important and necessary because it was one of the first things Jesus did when He appeared to the disciples as a group after His resurrection.

Of course  some like to argue that we don’t need to go through another human or “mediator.”  Some non-Catholics will quote from the book of Hebrews to support this claim. But just remind them Claire that anytime they pray for someone else they are “mediating” between that person’s need and Jesus. And besides, Jesus clearly gave the disciples his authority to forgive and retain sins which means He is telling them to act as a go-between on His behalf. Kind of hard to argue with Jesus on that point.

It might also help if you remind them that as Catholics we see the priest as Christ’s representative. We know the authority and forgiveness first and foremost comes from the Father through Christ.

 Our Heavenly Father knows our human needs.  He gave us the gift of hearing these words of forgiveness from a priest. As Fr. Malley is quick to remind us, God made us a “sensing” people and He expresses His grace to us through our senses and not just through a mystical, abstract and hidden faith. You will quickly learn what a gift it is to hear the words “I forgive you in the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit”  from one who has been given the authority to forgive from Christ. There is a peace that comes with this that can’t be explained. That’s probably why Jesus says “Peace be with you” two times to His disciples in that passage in John. Forgiveness and reconciliation brings peace to the heart.  

Claire, it’s my heart’s desire that you grow up knowing what you believe as a Catholic and why. And as someone who grew up thinking that much of Catholicism was un-Biblical it’s especially important to me that you know the Biblical basis for our Catholic beliefs.

So now, should you ever run into a well-meaning non-Catholic who attempts to tell you that confessing your sins to a priest is un-Biblical and unnecessary, you can explain that it’s not only Biblical but it’s an incredible gift and blessing from God. Of course they may not like or agree with the Catholic interpretation of Scripture. But that’s ok, you can just ask them why their interpretation of Scripture is right and the Catholic one is wrong. Which is a good question for them to consider.

In the meantime, I pray you never take for granted this gift of grace God has given you. Avail yourelf of His mercy and love in this sacrament so that you can grow to be more loving like Jesus and live in peace.