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We Trust in God's Mercy
By Father Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.


When Are My Sins Forgiven?
Can a Catholic Hold That Office?
What Does the Virtue of Hope Mean?
Why the Rooster?
A Cloth With Relics

Q: When I say the Act of Contrition, are my sins taken away immediately? Or is my prayer simply a request that God in his mercy will grant forgiveness—as in the Sacrament of Penance?

A: God knows each person’s heart. Therefore, God forgives when he knows that we are truly sorry for our sins. As part of that forgiveness, God counts on us to do all that we can to repair the damage that our sins have caused.

If we want to consider everything settled once we have admitted that we are sorry for our sins, we are not taking sin seriously enough. We risk living in an illusion.

God knows that no amount of contrition can, by itself, undo sin’s damage. Thus, the Act of Contrition, which is part of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, is part of this sacrament, not a substitute for it. God rightly expects us to work toward mitigating the damage that our sins have caused.

Sin disrupts our relationship with God but also with other people. If I tell a lie about my next-door neighbor, my lie affects both God and that neighbor. I cannot “cut a deal” with God and ignore the fact that my sins always have consequences beyond what I may expect. Sin has a life of its own, a life that I need to face whenever I seek forgiveness.

Sin tends to confuse our sense of what is “public” and what is “private.” Our temptation is always to consider sin as affecting only our relationship with God.

Every sin claims to open up our world, but each one actually shuts it down in some way. Auxiliary Bishop Robert Morneau of Green Bay, Wisconsin, wrote several months ago in his column for the diocesan newspaper, The Compass: “Sin leads to blindness, darkness and death. One example would be that of greed. When this capital sin takes over, we can no longer see what really matters. All of one’s passion is directed to the acquisition of more and more. Sin fosters self-preoccupation and a cramped life.”

Bishop Morneau recalled that St. Augustine of Hippo described sin as “a turning in on oneself.”

Like Adam and Eve, we are tempted to point to others if someone questions us about our sins. The Book of Genesis indicates that sin’s first casualty was a sense of personal responsibility. God-given freedom can easily be exchanged for a glittering form of slavery.

We are constantly tempted to regard sin as the most “natural” thing in the world while viewing sin’s opposite, virtue, as something that requires superhuman effort on our part. But nothing could be further from the truth! We are “wired” for virtue, with the help of God’s grace.

While encouraging you to keep praying the Act of Contrition, I also suggest that you use this prayer to help you repair whatever damage your sins have caused. There is always more to repair than we are inclined to admit.

Q: Can a practicing Catholic be a justice of the peace? Can he or she officiate at weddings? I know of two Catholics who are justices of the peace. Also, can a Catholic justice of the peace officiate at the wedding of two Catholics?

A: The Constitution of the United States prescribes that there will be no religious test for federal office (Article VII, Number 3). State legislatures could impose such a requirement for state offices, but, to my knowledge, no U.S. state does so.

The Catholic Church has no list of government offices that a Catholic cannot hold. Catholics have sometimes resigned from offices that they felt they could no longer hold in good conscience.

A Catholic justice of the peace must follow the same wedding regulations that a Methodist, Hindu or atheist justice of the peace must observe regarding, for example, gender, minimum age, family relationship and prior government registration to marry. Marriages recognized by the state have their own requirements.

As far as the Catholic Church is concerned, a Catholic justice of the peace could officiate at the wedding of two Catholics as a civil marriage. It could not, however, be a valid, sacramental marriage unless the couple had received a dispensation from the “form” of marriage as described in Canon 1108 (marriage before a priest, deacon or someone else designated by the Church).

Q: Why is it that the hope we were taught about in Catholic schools is no longer mentioned? People instead commonly express a feeling of hope that all will be well, that everything will work out.

Isn’t hope the applying of one’s mind and heart to doing the things of faith that we believe in? I remember that presumption is described as our thinking that things will get done without any effort on our part, while despair means refusing to exert the effort that we can.

If the virtue of justice is an attribute of God, doesn’t that make hope the pursuit of justice by our just actions?

A: The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes hope as “the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit” (#1817).

The Catechism goes on to say that hope inspires and purifies human activities, ordering them to the kingdom of heaven. Hope keeps us from discouragement and sustains us during times of abandonment, leading us to expect eternal blessings. Hope preserves us from selfishness and leads us to the happiness that flows from charity (see #1818).

Your understanding of presumption and despair is correct. We must do our part, but to borrow a phrase from St. Paul, “God caused the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6b).

Every virtue moves between thinking that everything is already set in our favor (and thus we need to take no action) or that everything is already set against us (and thus no action on our part can make any difference).

The saints and all the holy women and men whom we have known personally are our best teachers about what any virtue (including hope) looks like and how it is nurtured.

Q: Some paintings of Jesus on the cross include a rooster in the foreground. Why? I have noticed that the San Damiano cross, associated with St. Francis of Assisi, has a rooster crowing.

A: In the Gospel of Mark, when Peter swears at the Last Supper that, though the faith of others may be shaken, his faith will not be, Jesus responds, “Amen, I say to you, this very night before the cock crows twice you will deny me three times” (14:30).

While Jesus was being interrogated by the high priest, Peter was questioned by maids and bystanders in the high priest’s courtyard about being one of Jesus’ followers. After Peter denied this vigorously three times, the cock crowed twice. He then wept over his lack of faith (14:72).

A similar story appears in the Gospel of John (13:38 and 18:27).

Incorporating a rooster into a depiction of Jesus’ death on the cross reminds viewers not to be complacent about their faith, that they too might deny Jesus if being one of his followers seems risky. In time, Peter overcame his fear. With God’s help, so can we.

A secondary meaning of the rooster at the crucifixion could be that, just as this bird announces the dawn, the followers of Jesus need to be bold in announcing Jesus’ saving death and resurrection. By the way, many Latin American Nativity sets include a rooster.

Q: As a member of my parish’s nursing home ministry, I help arrange the altar cloths for Masses in the homes. A cloth about 12 inches square and imprinted with the crucifixion scene is inserted between the two altar cloths. Near the top of the imprinted cloth there seems to be a first-class or second-class relic that has been anointed with oil. What is this cloth called?

A: This is sometimes called a “Greek corporal” and is used as a substitute for an altar stone that contains relics of saints. Originally, only the relics of martyrs were used. The custom of using a Greek corporal arose in the Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches.

Most permanent altars in older Roman Catholic churches have such stones with relics, but these have not been required in the Western Church since 1970. Every Eucharist should whet our appetite to join the saints at the heavenly banquet.

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.

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