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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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