Q: Although I was raised in a strict
Catholic family where I attended
Catholic school for nine years and went to
Mass every Sunday, I have recently begun
to wonder why, at the start of every Mass,
we immediately confess to God and everyone
around us that we have sinned.
Here is what bothers me: First, I don’t
feel like a sinner, especially if I am attending
Mass. Seeking comfort and the opportunity
for group worship are some of my
reasons for being there. I go to confession
when I need to express sorrow for
wrongdoing and there I seek forgiveness.
Second, if Mass is celebration and thus
a happy occasion, why do we begin it by
saying we’ve done things that offend God?
And what if we hadn’t sinned that week?
Couldn’t we start Mass by saying that we’re
good people who are gathering to praise
the Lord and partake in the Eucharist?
If you had a standing invitation for Sunday
dinner with a loved one, would you
arrive and always say, “Hey, remember a
few weeks ago when we had that argument
and I told you where to get off? Well, I’m
sorry”? What do you say to that?
A: Let’s face it: We are all sinners.
Our need for forgiveness is constant.
That’s why we pray for forgiveness
at the start of Mass.
Perhaps a line from Shakespeare’s
play Richard II could help us here.
Bolingbroke says, “The more fair and
crystal is the sky, the uglier seem the
clouds that in it fly” (Act 1, scene 1).
Personally, I don’t think clouds in the
sky are ugly, but let’s allow Bolingbroke
to have his say. In a mostly clear sky,
individual clouds are very obvious.
The closer people draw to God, the
more they are aware of the figurative
distance between themselves and God.
God is all good and we are not.
Francis of Assisi said that you are
who you are before God and nothing
more (Admonition 20). We can rightly
add, “And nothing less.” We can always
honestly say that we are sinners, even
if we have not committed any mortal
sins in the previous week.
Saints are not engaging in false
humility when they say that they are
sinners. They are simply being honest
about the gap between themselves, God
Now, to your issue with the penitential
rite of the Mass. Worship is
first to acknowledge God’s gracious
goodness. It also bonds us with other
people making the same acknowledgment,
but that is in light of the primary
The penitential rite at the start of
Mass is a reality check. We are not there
to congratulate God for having such
fine followers as ourselves (as the Pharisee
does in Luke 18:11-12) but rather
we praise God for having an inexhaustible
mercy when we genuinely
repent (as the tax collector does in the
next verse). Jesus says that only the tax
collector in this parable truly prayed.
A sense of our own sinfulness does
not make us slimy, obsequious characters
like Uriah Heep in David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. Heep, who was
extremely proud of being humble, was,
in fact, later exposed as very dishonest.
Genuine humility flows from living in
the truth about our relationships with
God and with other people.
The humility encouraged by the penitential
rite at Mass encourages us to
live more fully in the truth. When we
do that, we will cooperate more generously
with God’s grace.
The General Instruction of the Roman
Missal says: “The rites preceding the
liturgy of the word, namely the entrance,
greeting, act of penitence, Kyrie,
Gloria and collect, have the character of
a beginning, introduction and preparation.
The purpose of these rites is
that the faithful who are assembling
should become a community and dispose
themselves to listen properly to
God’s word and to celebrate the Eucharist
You offer the example of a standing
invitation to Sunday dinner at someone
else’s house. Wouldn’t only a very honest
person have such an invitation? The
penitential rite at the start of Mass helps
us live honestly, avoiding the mistake of
the Pharisee mentioned above while
imitating the honesty of that tax collector.
No one has a right to the Sacred Banquet.
We are all guests, trying to live
peaceably with the other guests but
sometimes failing. God gives us courage
to repent and begin again.
Q: Your March column began with a
question about “proofs” for God’s
existence. Why do theologians bother to try
to “prove” God’s existence through reason
or in some other manner? If God wanted
to make his existence undeniably known,
he could have done that in a very tangible
way. Then we would all simply do the God
experiment during science class, establishing
the physical proof that God exists,
and then move on to the next lesson.
That is not the case. I think too many
people are undermining the meaning of
the word faith by constructing faulty,
incomplete “proofs” for God’s existence
when there are other more pressing societal
problems to address.
Faith exists because there needs to be
an open-ended (nonprovable) question
regarding God’s existence.
A: The classic definition of theology
is “faith seeking understanding.”
Only humans can ask questions,
including theological ones. Reason
is not the only element in theology,
but it cannot be entirely absent either.
Pope John Paul II addressed this skillfully
in his 1998 encyclical Faith and
Reason. The faith-reason connection
appears frequently in Pope Benedict
XVI’s talks and writings.
Reason cannot prove God’s existence
in the same way that, using a
base-10 system, someone can prove
that 2 + 2 = 4. I agree with you that
faith is more than reason, but I strongly
maintain that neither is faith against reason.
Your example of a scientific experiment
assumes that only physical proof
is real. You cannot physically see something
called “fidelity,” but you know
very well when it is present and when
it is absent.
Good theologians are both curious
and humble. Arrogance is immediately
a red flag about whose interests are
The most common argument against
God’s existence seems to be that a good
God could not allow innocent human
suffering. Most human suffering, however,
results not from forces of nature
(earthquakes, lightning bolts, etc.) but
from humans abusing their God-given
freedom (every type of sin).
Q: Within a single week I heard about
two funerals in different states
where a priest declared that the deceased
person was in purgatory. I was under the
impression that the Catholic Church has
moved away from an emphasis on purgatory.
In each of these funerals, the priest’s
declaration was very painful to the listeners.
Is there a shift happening here?
A: The Catholic Church still
teaches about purgatory, but no
celebrant at a funeral Mass can say with
certainty whether the deceased person
is in purgatory. God’s judgment must
remain God’s judgment. Any other
position is an indirect form of idolatry—even if unintended.
In the September 2007 “Ask a
Franciscan” column, I explained
why the Church teaches that
everyone who will be saved may not be
ready to enter heaven at the moment
of death. The Church presents purgatory
more as a place of purification
than of suffering.
Q: My husband and I like different types of Masses. He was used to
going to Masses with no music when he grew up. I was used to
Masses with much singing. He insists that parishes should always
have one Low Mass—no music. I insist that this depends on the
I cannot understand his distaste for music at Mass, but he thinks that even
Sunday Masses should last only about 25 minutes. I think he misses the point
of what Mass is. How long it lasts is irrelevant. What do you think?
A: I think that in most parishes it is simply impossible to celebrate
a Sunday Mass reverently in 25 minutes. There are
three readings instead of two, a homily is required and the
distribution of Holy Communion takes longer now. How
many things outside Mass are indeed so important that a 45- or 50-minute
Sunday Mass has become a burden?
At many parishes, the earliest Mass on Sunday morning has the least
amount of music, but it usually has some. The terms “High” (with
singing) and “Low” (without singing) are not used in official Church documents
now. Music can be a powerful support to prayer.
If you have a question for Father Pat, please submit it here.
Include your street address for personal replies enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope, please. Some answer material must be
mailed since it is not available in digital form. You can still send questions to: Ask a Franciscan, 28 W. Liberty Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202.