Actual Sin

Last week we talked about the church’s teaching on Original Sin, and this week we are going to talk about actual sin.

I just want to spend a few minutes giving some context on why we spent so much time on Original Sin. Our program is called Faith and Mission, and sometimes by the word faith we mean what the church confesses as true. Our faith is what we believe. And the doctrine of original sin is a part of our faith as Catholic Christians. Therefore, it is important that we know what the church teaches about the human condition. We need to know this as we try to live those teachings and proclaim those teachings in the modern world where we live.

I thought it was important to make sure that everyone understood that original sin is a condition rather than an action or attitude, and it leaves us in a condition that makes our mission of being the Light of Christ in the world just a little bit harder. The condition of original sin is that we are born outside the church. Even though we are alive physically, we are dead spiritually because of original sin.

Baptism fixes that condition. Then the condition that we are left in after our baptism is this thing we called concupiscence. As a result of concupiscence, it’s just a little bit harder for us to be the children that God called us to be. Imagine if everywhere you wanted to go was slightly uphill no matter where you were going. That’s sort of what concupiscence does to us.

Saint Thomas Aquinas was one of the great systematic teachers of the faith who wrote about 700 years after St. Augustine. And he used the system of categorization and philosophical methodologies of the great Greek philosopher Aristotle. And their wording is somewhat peculiar to our ears but was the way that thinkers discussed the ideas they were thinking about. And so once we get over the unfamiliarity of the sentence structure, we can see what the great Saint was trying to teach.

Aquinas notes that original sin wounds our nature in four important ways. One of our powers — a word Aquinas uses when he’s talking about intrinsic capabilities or potential capabilities that we have by virtue of being a human person — one of our powers is reason. And the wound to our reason that we get from original sin is ignorance. Perhaps to put it in modern words, we don’t really know how to think properly because of original sin. Another fundamental power of the human person is the will, function that chooses. And because that power has been deprived of being organized to good outcomes, that wound we all carry is malice. It is why we can freely choose to do wicked things whereas God made us to choose to do good things. And the fourth one is concupiscence. God made us to enjoy what is good, but he made us to do so guided or moderated by reason — our thinking power — and the wound is that we are no longer moderated by reason when we go after things that are good.

Between our discussion last week of the scriptures, and the early Fathers, and these words from St. Aquinas in the 13th century, we can see that Original Sin means that we have to work hard not to slip into actual sin, which is the topic for today.

Again we lean on Saint Thomas Aquinas who gives us a framework for thinking about sin and evil. Thomas explains that evil is not a thing in itself but it is the lacking of a thing. The word we frequently use when discussing this nature of evil is the word privation. Evil is the privation of God’s goodness. It’s the lack of God.

There are different kinds of evil but when it comes to actual sin we are focusing on moral evil. Moral evil is the non-conformance with God’s eternal law and correct reason. So when the free thinking and choosing creature which is us — remember that humans are the only creatures of God here on Earth that are endowed with intellect and will. So when humans who know God and His law deliberately refuse to obey God and His law, that’s when we have a moral evil.

And the decision is to refuse to obey. It is the act of actual sin. In every sinful act we have to consider two things according to Thomas. We have to consider the fundamental substance of the act, what was done or what is the action itself. And there are acts which are fundamentally evil. The act of murder is a good example of this. Murder is the intentional taking of innocent human life. There is no way for murder to be anything but morally evil. There’s no way to explain away murder. And the actual sin of murder, like any other actual sin, separates the person from God.

Some actual sins like the sin of murder are so serious that they totally separate the person from God, and he finds himself like Adam and Eve outside the garden: he finds himself outside the church. And that’s what we mean when we talk about a mortal sin. We have committed a sin sufficiently grave or serious that we are no longer connected to God; we have disconnected ourselves from God and his church. We are spiritually dead. And that’s why we go to the sacrament of reconciliation to be brought back into the right relationship with God and his church. So what leads to an actual sin is the act of choosing. And the choice is fundamentally to obey God’s will or to disobey God’s will. To walk with God like Adam and Eve before the Fall. Or to walk apart from God as they did after they were removed from the garden.

Sometimes an actual sin is an act that I commit; I do something. We call those sins of commission, which means I did something that is contrary to right reason informed by faith. For example, stealing somebody’s car is a positive act that is a sin of commission. Sometimes a sin is failure to do what is supposed to be done. Here, you have a sin of omission. I didn’t do what I was supposed to do. Whether it is a sin of commission or a sin of omission, at the heart of every sin is that act of the will where I chose to do something.

A good example of a sin of omission is not going to Mass on Sunday when I don’t have a good reason not to. I knew I was supposed to go and I chose not to do what I was supposed to do, and that’s a sin of omission. There are acts which are not as clear-cut as the act of murder in terms of their seriousness of the sin, which is why you hear the difference between mortal sins and venial sins. And this relates to the fact that some sins come from ignorance, from not really knowing. Sometimes they come from passion, when our emotions are overheated, sometimes from infirmity, when our wills are weakened in some way, and sometimes from malice, where we just want to do something evil. Actual sins don’t always have to be acts in the sense of being something you do. You can have sins of thought, mental sins, you can have sins of words where we say something. And of course you can have sins that are deeds where we do something that is sinful.

Every actual sin has an objective element and a subjective element. The objective elements of a sin are the object itself — that’s the deed that was done or the word that was spoken or the thought that was thought — and the circumstances in which those things happened. And as human persons, every act that we do has a subjective dimension too. The subjective elements are kind of what we were thinking as we were doing it.

It’s possible to have a sin where a sinful action happens but the person doing it isn’t fully aware that it’s a sin for whatever reason, and that’s ignorance. That makes it a material sin, according to St. Thomas. It rises to the level of a formal sin when the person doing it freely chooses to go against the law as understood by him in his conscience. So if perhaps in the dark in the parking lot I somehow stole another person’s car but thought it was mine or a car to be shared that would be a material sin because I did take another’s property, but it would really only be a formal sin if I took the car knowing that it was the property of somebody else.

Probably for most of us, the focus should be on these internal acts of the mind. Something can still be a sin even if I didn’t actually do it. If I thought about it, considered it, and wanted to do it, then I sinned. My intellect considered, and my will chose. Think of the Ten Commandments. There is a commandment that says we cannot steal something that belongs to somebody else. But there is also a commandment that says we cannot look at something that belongs to somebody else and desire it for ourselves. Thou shalt not steal, and thou shalt not covet. This is a great reminder for us how careful we must be when it comes to internal sins, the sins of our mind.

The importance of these internal sins is confirmed when we consider what are known as the capital sins: these are the sins of vainglory, avarice, gluttony, lust, sloth, envy, and wrath. Four of the seven do not really have a physical expression. Vainglory is a thinking kind of sin, as is avarice or greed, as is envy, as is wrath, or destructive anger. And the other three start in the mind before they are expressed with the body.

Sometimes it is hard to associate these old fashioned words with our modern lives, so this chart of the social media apps connected to the seven deadly sins is a pretty good tool to think about what those old words mean today.

As missionaries in our modern world, we most likely use some of these social media apps. And we can make the choice to step away from them if we cannot figure out how to use them in a better way. And they show us how some things are not sins until they get out of balance. Eating is good, when done with reason guiding our passions. Watching TV is not necessarily bad, unless we are bingeing on some show and not being productive when we have things to do. And these social media apps really convince us of the truth of the Church’s teaching on original sin and its wounds. I used to be on Twitter, and it is such an angry place.

Moral theologians have worked over the years to help us in our battle against sin by simplifying and re-presenting the consistent teaching of the Church so that we can more easily understand the nature of sin and how the Devil will work against us as he worked against Adam and Eve in the Garden.

St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Alphonsus Liguori wrote a great deal about moral theology, and they produced great lists and categories of sins, of vices and virtues. Sometimes the lists are so long and complex that we easily give up trying to work on our sins because there seem to be so many.

A Dominican priest, Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, wrote a lot on moral theology in the 20th century, and he developed the idea of three root sins based on the writings of St. John in his First Letter. If the word concupiscence is too big, we can substitute the word “desire” and see how St. John and Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange are talking about the root sins of sensuality, of vanity, and of pride.

If you remember from the presentation last week, we are still targets for Satan even as we are missionaries for Christ. So, while we are out proclaiming the Good News, we have to be alert to the movements of the Evil One. Just as he had no creative power in the Garden of Eden, he has none here. He cannot make us do anything. He is a keen observer of what trips us, and he will arrange for us to face those temptations over and over again.

A great salesman reads the customer and figures out what product the customer might actually buy mostly by eliminating those products he has no interest in. The Devil works much like that. And that’s why we can focus on three root sins. For most of us, one of these three is the way the Devil gets us. And the better we understand what these mean, the better we can be alert to how the Devil might get us and bring us down to his level. It is harder to be a good missionary for Christ if we are wallowing in our root sin.

So I’m going to touch on each of these three root sins.

The root sin of sensuality is basically that I put my sense of self in things and feelings. I should get it from God, but instead I get it from stuff and feeling good. Many people who struggle with addiction of one kind or another will learn that their root sin is sensuality. If we use food to make us feel better, or eat when we are bored, that’s a sign. If we base our choices on whether or not it might be hard to do, that’s another indicator. If we can only do good or be productive when we feel like it, that’s another indicator. The Devil whispers in our ear, “It’s too hard!” and “Eat this, or smoke this, or buy this, and you’ll feel a lot better.”

The root sin of vanity is basically that I put my sense of self in how other people react to me. I should get it from God, but instead I get it from people. We can see how destructive social media can be for people who struggle with vanity as their root sin. What people think of me becomes much too important to me. And I will abandon my principles to fit in and get along with others. I’m a bit fickle as a friend; you might be traded in for a new and better friend if I struggle with vanity. The Devil whispers in this person’s ear, “Look over there!” and “You need to be fashionable.” and “He just doesn’t get with the program, does he?”

The root sin of pride is basically that I put my sense of self in me. I am so awesome I don’t need God or anyone else to validate me. Two major ways we manifest pride are haughtiness and self-love. People who are fighting pride present as know-it-alls, arrogant jerks; they get asked “who put you in charge of everything?” And this is how the devil works on them: he presents them with people in their lives who are incompetent or insufficiently aware of my awesomeness.

If we have a good sense of how we might be tricked by the Devil, who Jesus called the “Father of Lies,” then we can learn how to fight off the Devil and be the missionaries we are called to be.

Each of the root sins has opposing virtues. These are habits and attitudes we can cultivate so that when the Devil attacks us through our root sin we are already in better shape to fight him off.

If we struggle with sensuality, then we can start working on learning to live without constant sensual rewards. The word discipline is also called ascesis, where we get the word asceticism from. We can work on learning how to go without, which is a powerful antidote to our inclination to need something to make us feel better.

If we struggle with vanity, then we need to stop looking at others for validation. Learning to accept ourselves as we truly are is a great way to begin to get free of vanity. We can learn to be less attached to responses or reactions from others, and just do what we think is right because we know God loves us more than any other human person could love us.

If we struggle with pride, then we can practice compassion and docility as antidotes to self-love and haughtiness. Putting ourselves in the place of others helps people fighting pride to see things from another’s perspective. And just accepting what comes, especially docility to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, makes us more patient.

All these tools help us be better people sent into the world to change the world by being Christ in the world.

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No Middle Ground

The last line of the Gospel is quite challenging. “From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.” [Mk 7:23]

With these strong words, Jesus is reminding the Pharisees and scribes, and he is reminding us today, that the human person is an integral thing. We are not, as Fr. Neil explained a few weeks ago, a spirit trapped in and essentially separate from our material body. We are one thing: body and soul and mind united.

Jesus’s list shows us how mental sins are linked to physical sins. Greed, malice, deceit, envy, arrogance are all mental states; they are the evil thoughts that come from stony hearts. From those mental states come the evil actions: murder, theft, unchastity, blasphemy. Every kid has tried the “The Devil Made Me Do It” defense when caught with his hand in the cookie jar, but every parent knows that we used our minds to decide to put our hands in the cookie jar. As Jesus said, the evils come from within, and they defile.

Where the Greek pagans sought to separate the spirit from the body, the Jews and the Christians understood the two are integrated in one whole person. St. James reminds his readers that we must have an integrated relationship with our Lord, too. He says, “Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves.” That part about self-delusion is so important. We cannot say we love Jesus on Sundays and that’s the last time he is part of our day until next Sunday. Jesus is particularly hard on the Pharisees because their words do not match their deeds. They honor him with their lips but their hearts are far from him, as Jesus rebukes the Pharisees with a quote from the prophet Isaiah.

God looks at our hearts as he considers our deeds. We cannot compartmentalize our relationship with Him. At the end of the day, either he is our Lord or he is not. That’s the point Moses is making in the reading from Deuteronomy. If he is my Lord and Master, then I should obey his instructions. If he is not, then I should stop pretending. He knows what’s going on in my heart. Even if I am able to deceive my neighbor, I cannot deceive God. That’s what the word omniscient means. It means He knows everything. So we should stop faking our faith if our hearts are not united to His.

Struggling with our faith is not the same thing as faking our faith. Jesus is hard on the Pharisees for their hypocrisy, but he is gentle with the father of the possessed boy in chapter 9 of Mark’s gospel when he cries out, “I believe, help my unbelief.” He shows the rich young man that despite his regular acts of religious devotion he still loves his money, and the young man walks away. But he responds to the nagging prayer of the Phoenecian woman when she tells him even the dogs get scraps from the table. Our God can hear any honest sentiment from us: it’s okay for us to complain about injustice, to wonder why God seems so far from us, to want a better life, to whine about our troubles and to pester him to give us good things. His willingness to listen is endless. He’s always there when we look for him. And he will always hear what we have to say. But He does not want to hear platitudes and insincere praise. He can see right through that.

That’s what Moses is driving at with his statement to the people. They can either do what God tells them to do and receive all the blessings he has in store for them, or they can go off on their own. That’s what St. James is driving at with his invitation: either humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you and is able to save your souls, or don’t. Maybe these Scriptures are what inspired the Yankees catcher Yogi Berra to say, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” 

There is no middle ground. If we believe God is who he says he is, then we receive his Word and our lives are transformed by that Word. We hear and we obey. We do what we are told. Our obedience is our path to docility and humility, and they pull us even closer to God, and we are no longer hearers only but also doers. Our thoughts and our actions are in greater harmony with God’s will and his plan for our lives. We are becoming the human persons he made us to be: integrated rather than separated between mind and body. We do the good things we do because our hearts are no longer stony but transformed into godly hearts that are close to God. Just as evil acts come from wicked minds, the merit of our good deeds comes from the state of our hearts. We are no longer disjointed as the Pharisees were, saying one thing but doing another. We are integrated in mind and body and soul, truly God’s children.

As we prepare to offer our sacrifice of thanksgiving and praise, let us put at the foot of the altar all the times we tried to manage our relationship with God and recommit ourselves to just being his children. When we come forward for Holy Communion, let us be praying that we truly do commune with Him, that our wills become one with his will, that our hearts and minds and bodies be fully integrated according to God’s plan for our lives.

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Original Sin

Today I would like to begin talking about the problem that we face as people of faith in the world. Remember we are the Church Militant. So what are we fighting? We are fighting sin, and we are fighting from a disadvantaged position. And this is the problem that Jesus came in human form to fix when he came to redeem us on the Cross in his Passion and Resurrection. The problem we are dealing with is the problem of sin.

When we talk about sin we really have to talk about two different categories of sin. There is something called Original Sin, which affects everyone in the human race, and there is something called Actual Sin, which is all those times we do what we know to be wrong but we do it anyway.

Original Sin is a concept most commonly associated with St. Augustine of Hippo, and theologians who don’t fully understand the concept or just don’t like the idea frequently attribute St. Augustine’s writings on Original Sin as a psychological consequence of his pre-conversion life of sexual immorality. But Orginal Sin is not at its core a sexual thing. It’s a pride thing. Pride – and its partners, envy and presumption – is at the heart of how we can understand the concept of Original Sin.

The first book of the Bible is Genesis, and it opens with the origins of mankind and the original relationship we had with our creator. As you may already know, there are two creation stories back to back, the first focusing on the physical elements and finally the creation of human persons, and the second – though Bible scholars say it is actually the older story – starting with the male human person and concluding with his perfect partner, the female human person. One of our diocesean priests, Fr. Llane Briese, pointed out that the Book of Genesis is regular prose, just straightforward declarative sentences and syntax until it gets to the point when the Lord God took the rib from Adam and with it formed the woman. When Adam sees the woman, he breaks into poetry. The gift of a suitable helpmate, a partner for life, was so great the man burst into song. And the chapter ends with a description of their idyllic existence: “And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.” [Gn 2:25].

But things took a turn for the worse in the next chapter, when the serpent shows up and starts chatting with the woman. Notice how the serpent, which we understand is Satan, the Adversary, doesn’t force himself upon the woman. He just asks a couple of questions. “Did God say you shall not eat from ANY tree in the garden? Notice how suddenly God’s instructions sound so contraining: no trees! 

But the woman explains that only one tree is forbidden. And it is forbidden because it is deadly; it’s fruit is poisonous. It turns out God said “yes” to everything else. That’s a far cry from “no trees” but the Devil is very skilled at phrasing his questions. So what is really a helpful protective instruction is recast as an unjust limitation on our autonomy.

And we get in the Bible the first indication of why Jesus called the Devil the “Father of Lies.” Here in the third chapter of the first book of the Bible, he tells the woman a whopper of a lie: “You won’t die! You’ll be like God, knowing good and evil.” He appeals to her pride, her presumption and her envy. And she reconsiders everything.

And the surface features of the fruit look great. It’s nutritious. It’s pretty. And it’s a short-cut to wisdom. How easily she is distracted from the fundamental reality of the fruit: that it is deadly. So, she eats some and offers it to Adam. And Adam, knowing everything the woman knows, goes along with her and eats it, too. Adam is supposed to protect his wife from all dangers, and here he is unwilling even to object to the lies of the Devil, and equally unwilling to stand up for the truth of God even if it means marital discord.

After eating the fruit, their eyes are opened, and they suddenly have shame over the same nakedness that they did not have prior to eating the fruit. And they hide from God. They hide from the same God who breathed life into them, who made them from clay, who walked with them in the cool of the evening. They know on some interior level that they no longer fit in the Garden of Eden. They seem to understand that they do not belong in the same harmonious relationship with God they had before eating the fruit.

I cut out of the chapter the dialogue between God and the serpent, and between God and the man and the woman. But the end result is that God shows he does in fact respect our freedom. He respects our freedom even when it goes against his will. He did not create us to be separated from him. We chose to separate ourselves when we chose to listen to the lies of the serpent and obey his instructions instead of God’s instructions. For Adam and Eve are us. Adam just means “man” and we learn from the scripture that Eve means “Mother of all living.” Since we chose to live in a condition that separates us from God’s presence, he sent us out from the Garden of Eden and allowed our lives that had been honorable work and cooperation to be marked by toil and domination.

And we can never go back by our own power. Most of the rest of the Old Testament is story after story of the chosen people – us – being helped along by a great prophet or leader and then not being faithful to God and his ways. He sends his prophets to warn us, and the ones we don’t kill we drop into a cistern or chase out of town. He sends angels and columns of fire to protect us and we whine about how good it was when we were slaves in Egypt. He gives us a special land, and we mingle with the locals and adopt their pagan religious practices. Finally, he sends his own son to take all our sins upon himself and sacrifice himself on the Cross for us. The sins of mankind should be redeemed by a man, but only a god could pay the price, so God became Man and redeemed us all.

You have probably noticed that the serpent – an evil spirit – was already there in the Garden of Eden and chirping in Eve’s ear when she walked by the tree with the forbidden fruit. So, where and how did those evil spirits get there?

Scripture speaks in a few places about the evil spirits that prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls. And a further development of this theology occurred later. But we can see that there was some kind of rebellion among the spirits which God made, which is a reminder that these spirits are not corporeal — they do not have bodies — but they are spiritual — they have intellect and will. Some chose, as John Milton put it in his epic poem Paradise Lost, “Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heaven.” This kind of imagery is certainly supported by the verse here from the Book of Wisdom. Envy is sadness at the good of the other. Pride is the opposite of humility. And St. John shows us in his letter that the disobedience of the spirits seems to have come before that of mankind. So we have a sense that even in the Garden of Eden God gave his children the freedom to choose between good and evil, between life and death.

Not all the spirits were or are evil, as one of the great Arch-angels, Michael, is shown here — and in many other works of art — defeating the Devil. There is a picture like this above the choir loft in our church, and we say his prayer after every Mass.

From the Gospel of Matthew we have one of the great lines Jesus said: “Get thee behind me Satan.” And he said it to the guy he had just said was the rock upon which he would build his Church, and he promised the gates of Hell would not prevail upon it. But here Peter is on the verge of denying the power of God and getting ready to insist that God’s plan is not the best plan. Even the Rock of the Church is — before the Sacrifice on Calvary — unable to rest in the presence of God and trust his providence but feels compelled to have everything make sense to him. That is the same place Adam and Eve were when looking at the forbidden fruit. If it doesn’t make sense to me, then it’s wrong. That kind of mentality puts us where God ought to be, but that is the mentality of the Original Sin.

And St. Paul makes crystal clear in his letter to the Romans that everybody after Adam and Eve inherits the consequences of their decision. The Original Sin happened at the origin of mankind, and nobody escapes it. We all fall short of the glory of God, thanks to our decision in the Garden way back when.

During the very early days of the Church, infant baptism was not the normal way people joined the Church, though we have in stories from Acts like the one about the centurion where the whole family is baptized, so infants certainly were baptised. But we should remember that the Church was persecuted by the Jews and by the Romans until nearly 300 years after the Crucifixion. So, most people came into the Church as adults and were baptized at that age.

But everyone naturally understands that an infant is not capable of committing a sin since they don’t know what is right and what is wrong. This is why St. Cyprian of Carthage — which is just across the Mediterranean Sea from the bottom of Italy — could distinguish between the instance of actual sin and the condition of Original Sin.

And St. Augustine wrote a lot on the doctrine of Original Sin as he was contesting the claims of Pelagius. Pelagius taught that humans could gain entry to Heaven by their own merit. He basically said a person can be good enough to go to Heaven. St. Augustine said that was impossible, and he pointed to the story from the Garden of Eden to support his teaching. Building on what we just read from the letter of St. Paul to the Romans, that “Sin came into the world through one man and death through sin” (Rm 5:12), St. Augustine makes the claim that had Adam not sinned, he would have entered into Heaven rather than being “divested of his body” which is another way of saying he died. When we die, our soul is separated from our body. St. Augustine teaches that Adam’s sin brought with it death for everyone. Because of Adam’s sin, everyone is born outside the Garden. Everyone is clothed with mortality instead of immortality, and with corruption instead of incorruption. Augustine argued that our fallen state was so intrinsic that even the idea of doing something good was itself a gift of God’s grace. So deeply are we inclined to sin thanks to the original sin of Adam that the process of even considering to do something good starts with the gift of God’s grace.

St. Augustine distinguished between the sin associated with acts of individual humans and the sin that left us in our fallen state. He calls it “the one sin in and by which all have sinned.”

As we are all the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, we inherited from them their state when they started to have children. That state is outside the Garden of Eden. Their first children, Cain and Abel, were conceived and born after Adam and Eve were put outside the Garden, and in short order one son killed the other out of resentment. This helps us remember that like Cain and Abel, we are all conceived and born outside the relationship God intended for us. We are all born outside the Garden. Not a one of us — except the immaculate conception of our Blessed Mother Mary — was conceived without Original Sin.

Now, being born with Original Sin might not be such a terrible thing except for the mark it has left and the burden under which we must all live. While the distance between us and God is closed through the sacrament of Baptism, the burden of concupiscence remains. Baptism heals the wound of the Original Sin in which we are all conceived and born, but the scar tissue of concupiscence remains. Baptism means that we can now say “Yes” to God, but concupiscence means that “Yes” doesn’t always come easily.

Concupiscence is that inclination toward wickedness that we all can see within ourselves and in others. It’s why little boys pull the wings off of flies. It’s why big boys try to get cozy with girls who are not their wives. It’s why people choose to tell a lie when they know the truth. It’s why we don’t share anything of our own, even if we have more than we need. It’s why our anger turns to wrath. It’s why our enjoyment of good food turns into gluttony. It is our disordered passions ungoverned by our intellect and faith.

That last point is perhaps the most important point for Catholics to consider. The fact that we mentioned disordered passions ungoverned by intellect and faith implies that passions can have a good order and they can be governed. St. Augustine carried on the teaching of the Apostles when he rebuked the heretic Pelagius for his claim that we can govern our passions so well that we earn our way into Heaven. Augustine said it all flows from God’s grace.

But Augustine would have rebuked the heretic Martin Luther for his claim that thanks to Adam and Eve we are totally broken and hopelessly beyond repair. Martin Luther was a depressive, and his vision of our condition he likened to “snow-covered piles of dung.” We were made dung by the original sin, and that’s all we ever could be, and Jesus gave us a pretty cover over our evil natures and our faith in Him is how we get saved and gain entry into Heaven. Augustine might have told Luther to look at Augustine’s own life as recorded in his famous book, the Confessions, and see how a man who led a thoroughly dissipated life changed his behavior after his baptism and learned to control his passions through his intellect and his faith. It’s a bit odd to me that Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk and still saw things the way he did.

St. Augustine would completely endorse the quote from the Second Vatican Council document on the modern world. “Finding himself in the midst of the battlefield man has to struggle to do what is right.” We’re not Pelagians; we don’t think we can operate ourselves right into Heaven. But we are not Lutherans either; we do think we can “co-operate” ourselves into Heaven by working with God’s grace. We are not inert piles of dung. We are living, choosing, thinking, praying human persons born into a fallen world but pointed to the risen world redeemed by the risen Christ.

We are the Church Militant. We are the battlers. But we are also the battlefield on which the battle for our souls will be fought and decided.

Original sin explains why we start where we start and why we start at a disadvantage with concupiscence to weigh us down as we try to follow Christ.

Next week, I’d like to talk about Actual Sin, and how we go about choosing not to do God’s will in discrete moments. Those little battles we either win or lose with the Devil are moments when we come face to face with the temptation to commit Actual Sin.

After a couple of weeks of looking at the problem of Original Sin and Actual Sin, we will turn to the solution, which is the Cross of Jesus and the life of grace. As Christians, we should always remember that the battle has already been won, and we are on the winning team. God has given us the gift of salvation, and all we have to do is accept the gift. It’s just that the Devil never gives up, so we have to be alert and vigilant all the time.

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Why Faith and Mission?

We are calling this Sunday morning Faith formation program Faith in Mission because we want to focus on the critical role the laity plays in the work of the Church Militant, the Church of the people who are alive in the world. As Catholics, we believe the fullness of the Church includes the Saints in Heaven, which we call the Church Triumphant, the Souls in Purgatory, which we call the Church Suffering, and the people of faith on Earth, which we call the Church Militant.

The Church Triumphant are those souls who have arrived in their Heavenly home, and Death lost its battle for their souls. The Church Suffering are those souls who died and are on their way to Heaven but still have to make satisfaction for the sins they committed while alive on Earth. Death has lost the battle here, and the souls are completing their preparation for being with God and beholding him in all his glory in Heaven. The Church Militant is us: people who claim Christ and try to serve him and love him as he deserves. We have received the sanctifying grace of Baptism, and we are supposed to spend the rest of our lives growing in holiness so we can be with God in Heaven when we die. Death has not yet given up the fight for our souls, which is why the fighting imagery is appropriate for our condition.

Over the next few sessions, we will examine the reasons why we chose Faith and Mission as our program title, but today we can introduce them as the tools we need to do the job we were given upon our baptism. We need to know our faith, and we will certainly spend a good amount of time on the faith the church confesses, but knowing the doctrines and practices of the church is only part of our call as lay people in the world. We need to know what we are to do with that knowledge, and we need to know how to use it, when to use it, and where to do our ministry, our apostolate.

I’m going to use the term apostolate rather than ministry because lay people are not ministers but they are apostles. So let’s take a look at that last statement. What can I mean when I say, lay people are not ministers but they are Apostles? I mean that the ministerial clerical state is not the same as the lay state but the lay people are – just like the ordained ministers – called to a vocation. From the Second Vatican Council document Lumen Gentium, we are told that there is a universal call to holiness. How the various parts of the church live out their call to holiness will differ, but every baptized catholic christian shares in that one call.

For example, Bishop Jones is the pastor of his diocese. He is the shepherd of his flock. Jesus was speaking to him when he spoke to St. Peter at the end of the Gospel of John and said, “if you love me, feed my sheep.” The imagery of a shepherd can be a guide for any bishop trying to be a holy bishop: he cares for his flock, he feeds his flock, he protects his flock from external threats, he guards against internal threats and removes them when he finds them, he goes after the lost sheep and rejoices when it is found.

Father Smith is called to offer the sacraments, reverently praying the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and offering Absolution of sins in the confessional, but also conferring grace through the sacrament of baptism and anointing of the sick. All these basic activities of the Priest can be done in a holy way or in an irreverent way. So, the priests live out the universal call to holiness in a specific way on account of their priestly vocation as they offer sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving to God for the people, and serve in the person of Christ to be a channel of his grace to his people.

The deacons are ordained to service, at the altar in service to the priest, and outside the sanctuary in service to the people in whatever way the Lord, through the bishop and his priests, deems needed. In this ministry of adult Faith formation, I am serving as a deacon according to what the bishop and my pastor have asked me to do.

The bishop can be a loving father to his priests and care for his diocese in all the little and unremarkable ways of episcopal service, or he can choose other priorities. Father can administer the sacraments in a reverent way or not; it is in these activities that he will respond to the universal call to holiness. The Deacon can serve at the altar reverently or not. He can prepare carefully for his other service ministries or just wing it. But that is how he will respond to his call, by serving or ministering to the people of his parish and diocese.

People who are not ordained are not absolved of the universal call to Holiness and the service that Holiness entails. It’s just different from the call of the ministerial clerical state. It is certainly not less important. Everyone should keep at the forefront of their minds that the apostolate of the laity and the apostolate of the ministerial clergy are of the same worth in the eyes of the Lord. Just because you and I are not priests and therefore cannot confect the Eucharist, that doesn’t mean our role in God’s plan for Humanity is in any other way less than the role of an ordained priest. A great number of the saints and Doctors of the Church were not priests or bishops, and here our parish patron saint should spring to mind. We are all called. We are all Apostles even if we are not all ministers.

Notice in the quote from Lumen Gentium that growth in holiness depends upon receiving Gods’s gifts and then cooperating with his will. This is an active call. And Scripture confirms that this call is not reserved to a few but is for everyone.

Perhaps you have noticed I have been using the terms Apostle and apostolate, and you might wonder why. Apostle comes from the Greek language, and it means someone who is sent. Remember from the gospels how Jesus sent the Twelve out two by two to proclaim the kingdom of God and heal the sick. They were sent. They were apostles. Later, after the resurrection, he sent them on a global Mission: To Jerusalem, the whole of Judea, and even to the ends of the world.

Apostles are sent people, and our English word has Greek origins. But our church is the Roman Catholic Church, and the official language of our church is Latin. That is why we are called the Latin Rite Catholic Church. In the dogmatic constitution on the liturgy, the fathers of the Second Vatican Council gave permission to say some parts of the Mass in the vernacular, so an English community might hear the gospel proclaimed in English and the Polish parish might hear Polish. As was so common after the Council, people who were given an inch took a mile. So now we have English Masses and Spanish Masses where perhaps not one word of Latin is ever heard. Thankfully, that is not the case here at St. Catherine’s.

Even in English, we call our central liturgy “The Mass.” Did you ever wonder why? It’s almost entirely prayed in English, but we still call the thing Mass, which comes from the Latin word missa which is the Latin equivalent of the Greek word apostolos, which means sent. The English word mission is from the same Latin word. As lay people, you have a mission. It is the last thing you hear at Mass. And it is why we call the source and summit of our faith the Mass.

Missionaries are people sent with a purpose to share the good news with people who have not really heard it yet. And that’s what the lay people are. They are missionaries, sent to share the good news. How do we know this? It is the very last thing you hear from the sanctuary at Mass. The Deacon says in Latin ite missa est. In English, “go forth, the mass is ended.” Sometimes you’ll hear, “go, glorifying the Lord in your lives.” But the connection to Mission is much clearer when you translate the Latin plainly. Ite Missa est is simply “GO, it is the sending.”

What a great reminder to the people of God sitting in the pews of their vocation: Go! You are sent! You are a sent people. You are the branches, still connected to the vine for sustenance but expected to bear fruit. You are a people giving thanks, a people of Faith with a mission. Your mission is to take the graces you received by participating in the sacrifice of the Mass and share those graces with the people who were not there.

As a permanent deacon, I am also working in the world, and I share in that call to infect the world with gospel values by how I live my daily life at work and in my family. Marriage is my first vocation, and serving as a deacon can never become more important than my calling to glorify God as a husband and a father to my wife and to my children. So, even as I tell you to go, I am also telling myself to go. But father stays. His call is to the ministerial priesthood, and he gives up the good of traditional secular family life for his Priestly call. He is the vine, and we are the branches. He stays near the church so he can offer the mass, baptize our children, hear our confessions, and anoint us when we are gravely ill. We don’t want him to go because we want him to be here when we come to church to be renewed and refreshed in the sacramental life.

So, Father is not sent out into the world but stays here like a gardener tending the garden to keep it beautiful so we can savor it when we need renewal. For this reason, we certainly cannot outsource to the priests the job of bringing the Light of Christ to the world that is darkened by sin and ignorance. The world needs Jesus but it doesn’t know Jesus because the world turned its back on him and has now forgotten what it once knew about him. The world needs Jesus, but it doesn’t remember him enough to recognize that it needs him. So, if not Father, why not us?

The world needs missionaries, and we have over two thousand lay people in our parish and two priests. So we know who can go out into the world and share the good news. It’s us. We are a sent people. We are missionaries. This is our mission.

In future sessions, we will return to the themes of Faith and Mission. If we are sent, we need to know where. We need to know what. We need to know what we are seeking to complete our mission. We need to know our faith. Our faith in mission.

There are many good books that are sources of knowledge about the Catholic faith and other good books that can encourage us as we try to follow our vocation to holiness in our lay apostolate. In fact, we have some for sale in our renovated store just down the hall.

The primary sources for what we talk about during our time together Sunday mornings will be the books of the Bible. The Bible is the word of God. We accept it as it was given to us, and we believe it is the word God chose for us to hear through the human writers he inspired. We will definitely go through how what we know as the Bible came into its current form, for that is the kind of question all of us might encounter if we dare to reveal that we are Catholic Christians.

The Bible is a fixed anchor, part of God’s good news that is never updated. Even if we find certain imagery confusing or out of date, we do not change Scripture. It is not a book; it is truly God’s word.

Sacred Tradition is the unwritten teachings of the Apostles handed down from them to us through the centuries. Sacred Tradition is the Church applying the unchanging and complete revelation in Jesus Christ to the dynamic environments in which the Church lives out its mission. This can be a very confusing subject even for Catholics but especially for our Protestant friends who were told that the Bible alone is the authoritative source of all Christian teaching.

Various people at various times wrote down what the Church was grappling with, and those closest to Jesus and the Apostles are called the Fathers. You will also come across the word Patristics, which is the same thing. The Patristic period ends about 700 years after the Crucifixion, but wise and deep thinkers kept on. Some of these men and women were later judged to be so wise that their teachings are especially worthy of study, and we call them the Doctors of the Church. Our parish patron saint, St. Catherine of Siena, is a Doctor of the Church.

The fourth pillar of our program is sometimes the hardest to grasp because it is the prayer books we use in our public liturgies. For people raised in the modern world with its fascination with anything new, respect for old and familiar things because they are old and familiar is a challenging proposition. But this is how things used to be.

We must be able to defend how we pray because how we pray is linked to what we believe. You’ve probably heard the term “lex orandi lex credendi” from Fr. Neil. This is what he was talking about. So we will want to go over the liturgy, where it came from and how it changed or did not change over the centuries.

Finally, a point on the structure of our Sunday morning sessions. I want to have an opportunity to present some material. I also want us to have some time for questions and comments. Some Sundays I will be serving at the 7:30 Mass, and others I might be serving at the 10am Mass. So we will plan on me leaving at 9:45. If we gather for tasty treats after 7:30 Mass, and I start talking a few minutes before 9, then we should have 20 minutes or so for question and answer. Our program should cover areas that you believe are important, and those will come up naturally during our discussions.

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Don’t Put God in a Box

P1000085A fundamental challenge for all of us who call ourselves Christians is the tendency to put limits on God when what he wants is for us to depend on him in everything and at all times. From the Old Testament reading today we see that a man brought 20 barley loaves made from the first fruits. Remember that the first-fruits are what we’re supposed to offer to God rather than to give him whatever is left over after we have taken care of ourselves. First fruits is about fitting our possessions around God rather than fitting Him around them. So, a man brings 20 barley loves made from the first fruits, and Elisha says, “Give it to the people to eat.” But the servant objects. He asks, “how can I set this before a hundred people?”

The Gospel reading today is the beginning of the sixth chapter in John’s gospel. This is the scene just before the famous bread of life discourse, in which Jesus scandalizes the Devout Jews in the crowd when he tells them that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood or they have no part in him. But before he scandalizes them, he feeds them. And again, just like in the Old Testament scene with Elisha, the disciples deny the majesty and Providence of our God. When tested about how to feed such a large crowd, the disciple Philip complains that even 100 days wages would not be enough for each of them to have even a little. A quick inventory reveals that they have only five barley loaves and two fish. Another disciple, Andrew this time, asks but what good are these for so many?

You know, the questions that the disciples and the servants ask in the stories from the scriptures are all perfectly rational and perfectly reasonable. And I think that is precisely the problem. A disciple of Jesus Christ must dare to look beyond what is perfectly rational and perfectly reasonable. The Psalm that we just sang reflects the attitude God wants us to have: We sang, “the hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs.” One of the verses we read is sometimes used as a prayer before meals: The eyes of all look upon you O Lord and you give them their food in due season.

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Life and Death

Today’s readings are about life and death, from the musings of Solomon in the Book of Wisdom to the story of Jairus and his daughter from the Gospel of Mark. Solomon directs our gaze to the origins of death, and the Gospel story makes it clear that the God of Life has the ultimate power over death.

Connecting back to the Creation story in Genesis, Solomon remembers that we were not made for death but for life. He writes, “For  God formed man to be imperishable; the image of his own nature he made him.”

When we say that we were made for life and not for death, it’s useful to remind ourselves what those words mean when we use them in this context. For Christians, God is life. In response to a question from his disciples, Jesus says, “I am the truth, the way, and the life.” And in the Transfiguration, Jesus’s glory is revealed as being so white that no fuller — a person who cleans and bleaches clothes — that no fuller could ever duplicate. In the Transfiguration, the disciples get to see, for just a moment, what real life looks like. Thus we understand that when Solomon says we were made to be imperishable he is saying that we were made for life, that we were made for God. God made us to be close to him and to be with him in the fullness of life. Made in His image, we were made to enjoy a close relationship with him.

If that is life, then what is death? Death is the absence of life just as evil is the absence of God’s goodness. Evil is not a thing; evil is the lack of a thing or the absence of a thing. The thing that is missing is God himself. Sometimes theologians describe evil as a privation, which is a fancy word for the absence of something or the lack of something. Evil is the lack of God’s goodness, and death is the lack of his Life.

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Why So Mysterious?


I was invited a few years ago to come and preach at another parish on Trinity Sunday. As he introduced me, the pastor mentioned that the Trinity was one of those subjects where the longer you talk the more likely you are to preach heresy. So here goes. 

The reason why it’s so difficult to talk about the Trinity is because the Trinity is one of the mysteries of our faith. When we talk about a mystery of the faith, we mean something that we know is true because God gave us that truth. There are many things that we know to be true by our natural powers of observation and our intellect. We can, using our brains, figure out a lot of the truths of our faith. But there are some that are just too magnificent, or too glorious, for us to understand by our own natural power. In believing mysteries, we confirm our belief in a god greater than ourselves.

The trinity is one of these mysteries. When we try to preach about the trinity we stumble over the apparent conflict between our claim that God is one and our faith is a monotheistic faith, and our claim that there are three persons in the one Godhead: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. A rational person can ask a good question of how can three be one? You can see how it’s a bit difficult to evangelize when you start with a mystery like the trinity. Yet the doctrine of the trinity is central to the Catholic faith.

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Now What?

Here on the third Sunday after Easter the readings seem to be exploring the question, “What do we do as an Easter people?” Many Christian communities have the tradition of an Easter greeting in which one person says, “He is risen” and the other person replies, “He is risen indeed.” Today, let’s take a look at the implied question that would follow such a greeting. The implied question is, “Now what?”

The Gospel today picks up the story at the end of the Walk to Emmaus, when two of the disciples walked and talked with Jesus without recognizing him. They only recognized him in the breaking of the bread, and immediately he disappeared from their sight. Just as they are telling the others about their experience, Jesus appears and gives them his peace. Then he opens the Scriptures to all gathered there just as he had during the walk with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.

These stories from the days after the Resurrection show us how the Apostles were grappling with the mystery of what they knew to be true: that Jesus Christ died, was buried, and rose again in a glorified body that could go through walls but also eat regular food. Truly human, truly dead, truly alive, truly God. As Father Mike Schmitz of internet podcast fame likes to say, “Man oh man, oh man.”

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Good Friday Sixth Word

There was a jar filled with common wine. They stuck a sponge soaked in this wine on some hyssop and raised it to his lips. When Jesus took the wine, he said: “It is finished.”

John 19:29-30

The New Covenant is now set. What began Thursday evening as a Seder meal that seemed to be interrupted just when they would have drunk from the cup of consummation is now revealed to be the holy sacrifice of the unblemished lamb, the Lamb of God. Thursday evening, Jesus told his disciples that he would not drink from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.

By accepting a bit of sour wine, Jesus is completing the new Passover sacrifice. Where the old Passover freed the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, the new sacrifice has freed everyone from slavery to sin and death. Those who are marked with the blood of the Lamb through baptism and faith in Christ are freed to enter into the kingdom of God.

The Paschal victim is also the Paschal priest. He offered the perfect sacrifice: Himself. He, who was without sin, took upon himself all our sins. In dying upon the cross, Jesus paid the price that we cannot pay.

The Seder meal was a liturgical memorial of the Passover. The food, the readings, the vestments, and the instructions on how to sit, were all prescribed and unchanging. The new Passover meal is the holy sacrifice of the Mass. More than a memorial meal, it is a mysterious participation in the sacrifice at Calvary.

Jesus has said, “it is finished.” He has drunk from the cup of consummation. He is about to go to his Heavenly Father. He has completed his earthly ministry, and through his sacrifice, he has transformed the Cross from an instrument of torture and death to the means of obtaining eternal life.

Faithful cross! above all other,

One and only noble tree!

None in foliage, none in blossom,

None in fruit thy peer may be;

Sweet the wood and sweet the iron!

And your load, most sweet is he.

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Good Friday Fourth Word

When noon came, darkness fell on the whole countryside and lasted until midafternoon. Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which means: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Matthew 27:45-46

Jesus hanging on the cross, is still an observant Jew. He is reciting the 22nd psalm; the Son of David is reciting a Psalm of David as his life slowly slips away. The Psalms were the hymn book and the prayer book at the time of Jesus. And so Jesus is praying to his God the prayers of the persecuted, the one suffering at the hands of others.

At the same time, Jesus continues to teach his children even as he dies on the cross in front of them. In reciting this famous Psalm, Jesus is pointing to himself in the words ascribed to King David.

Verse 6 of Psalm 22 is: “But I am a worm and no man, scorned by men and despised by the people.”

And the gospel narrative tells us that was indeed what was happening on the ground below him.

Verse 7: “All who see me, mock at me, they make mouths at me, they wag their heads; ‘He committed his cause to the Lord; let him deliver him, let him rescue him, for he delights in him!’”

Verse 14: “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint.”

His body is stretched, hanging from the Cross, and soon enough, water and blood will flow from his side.

Verse 16: “A company of evildoers encircle me; they have pierced my hands and my feet.”

Indeed, the Precious Blood drips from the places the Roman soldiers drove spikes through his hands and his feet.

Verse 18: “They divide my garments among them, and for my raiment they cast lots.”

The verses in the first half of this psalm accurately predict the condition of the Son of Man hanging on the Cross. In the days to come, the disciples of Jesus will understand how the scriptures of their day, what we call the Old Testament, should be read as pointing to him. This psalm of David written centuries before the day of crucifixion only becomes clear after the day of crucifixion.

The tone of the Psalm pivots at verse 22: “I will tell of your name to my brethren; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.”

Verse 24: “For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted.”

Jesus teaches us that suffering for the glory of God has a noble purpose and a heavenly end. This day will be remembered as Good Friday.

Verse 27: “All the ends of the Earth shall remember and turn to the Lord.”

Jesus proclaims the Good News to Jews and Gentiles alike. All the ends of the Earth are offered salvation on this day that is a Good Friday.

Verse 28: “For dominion belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations.”

Jesus announces his victory over Satan, who discovers on this day, Good Friday, that his rule is merely temporary, and it will end with his destruction.

Verse 30: “Men shall tell of the Lord to the coming generation, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, that he has wrought it.”

The song that begins with a cry of despair, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” ends in the confident trust the Son has in the Father. For Jesus knew that day would be known as Good Friday to the coming generation, for on the Cross that day he brought deliverance to a people yet unborn.

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