False Piety, True Contrition
By Gregory F. Augustine Pierce

There's an old joke about a priest and a deacon who are peeking out from the vestibule at a man sitting in the back pew of church, beating his breast and saying aloud, "Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner."

The priest turns to the deacon and says, "Now look at who thinks he's a sinner!"

This joke is based on the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14), which was addressed "to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else." Who among us would ever want to see ourselves as the Pharisee in this story, bragging about how holy we are? But the tax collector? Oh, boy! That's me—a sinner and not too proud to admit it to anyone who might listen.

This reaction, of course, is not what Jesus had in mind at all. In fact, Jesus was viscerally opposed to public displays of piety. "When you pray," he advised his disciples, "go behind closed doors, and your heavenly Father, who is in private, will hear you."

Jesus noted that the tax collector went home "justified," while the Pharisee did not. "Justified" is a difficult word in English, because it implies that a person is "vindicated," as in "my decision was justified by the fact that everything worked out in the end." But it also means to make something straight, as in "The left margin of this article is justified."

The tax collector was not justified simply because he beat his breast and said he was a sinner. He was justified because he was truly contrite. True contrition, as the Church teaches, has four steps—none of which can be skipped if we are to be "made straight."

Step by Step

First, we have to admit that we did something wrong. This is what the Pharisee (like many of us) was unwilling to do. The tax collector, on the other hand, admitted that he had done many bad things, and he was genuinely sorry for them, which is the second mandatory step of contrition.

The third step is what Catholics call "a firm purpose of amendment." That means we have definite plans about how we are going to change our behavior. A vague "I'll try harder to be good" or "I won't do it again" is not good enough. The idea is not to mimic the tax collector who came back every week to beat his breast and say what a sinner he was. The point of admitting our sins and asking for mercy is that we are supposed to stop sinning!

The fourth and final step in true contrition is penance. That is, we must suffer the consequences and make up in some way for the harm we have done. To be justified, the tax collector could just not go out and "sin no more." He also had to try in some way to make right whatever he could—perhaps giving money back to people he had cheated or, if that was impossible, by donating money or time or talent to some good cause. If there were no other way to change his sinful behavior, then the tax collector would have to quit his job if he were to be justified.

Beyond 'I'm Sorry'

If the tax collector were truly contrite and not just putting on a show of piety, he would have wanted to follow all four of these steps. That's why he would have gone away justified. Otherwise, he would have been no different than the Pharisee. Nor would we.

The same is true for everyone—including corporate executives, government leaders, sports stars, celebrities, even Church officials—who want to say "I'm sorry" without following all four steps of true contrition. For if all four steps are not taken, then we run the risk of someone saying, "Now look who thinks he (or she) is a sinner."

Even in the business of asking forgiveness, we have to make sure that we are not exalting ourselves with false piety, for as Jesus said at the end of the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, "Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted." This goes for sinners too.

Gregory F. Augustine Pierce is president and co-publisher of ACTA Publications in Chicago. He is the author of Spirituality @ Work: 10 Ways to Balance Your Life On-the-Job (Loyola Press) and the editor of Christmas Presence: Twelve Gifts That Were More Than They Seemed (ACTA).

Next: The Widow and the Judge

Questions for Reflection:
• Talk about a time you were able to make amends for a wrongdoing, or when someone made amends to you.

• What has been your experience with the sacrament of Penance?

Discuss this month's Questions for Reflection
from “God in Our Midst.”

Forming a Right Conscience
By Judith Dunlap

There is a very solemn scene in the movie Pinocchio where the Blue Fairy asks Jiminy Cricket to kneel as she dubs him the "Lord high-keeper of right and wrong, counselor in moments of temptation." It makes me think how great it would be if all our children were given tiny umbrella-wielding consciences to keep them on the straight and narrow.

Instead, the job falls to us parents to help our youngsters form a conscience of their own—not an easy task in today's culture.

As Christians we have very definite ideas of what is right and wrong. We are called to value others as much as we value ourselves and to value ourselves as much as God values us. We like to party and enjoy all God's gifts, but never at the expense of disrespecting others or ourselves. We believe that "going for the gusto" means becoming all God created us to be.

We help our children internalize this message when we take the time to listen and ask questions as they unpack their good deeds and bad. Why did they do what they did? How did they feel? Did the action help or hurt others/themselves? How was the action wrong? How was the action right? But most important, we have to somehow teach our children to stop and take the time to ask themselves these questions before they act.

We play the role of Jiminy Cricket for the first few years of our children's lives. We are the outside voice that points out right from wrong, until hopefully, like Pinocchio, they learn from their mistakes and successes and begin to listen to the quiet voice inside. Then, like that little wooden boy, they too are on their way to becoming all their creator hopes they grow to be.

For Family Response:

Have family members talk about what they think God would want them to be like in 10 years.

Discuss this month's FAMILY CORNER.

Media Watch
Bend It Like Beckham
By Frank Frost

British soccer star David Beckham is the Michael Jordan of Europe. In the funny and uplifting Bend It Like Beckham, two adolescent girls dream of playing soccer like him but must fight family opposition to pursue their dreams.

Jess Bhamra (Parminder Nagra) is a bright girl ready for exams to enter university, but she is obsessed with Beckham, whose poster she talks to in her bedroom. She regularly plays soccer with the boys in the park, where her skills are always in demand. She is noticed there by Jules (Keira Knightley), who invites her to join a girls soccer league team.

Jules faces resistance at home from a mother who sees her passion for soccer as a passing phase and who is determined that Jules grow into a "true woman" concerned with boys and her figure.

But that is nothing compared to Jess, whose traditional Sikh family objects to her playing with bare legs and expects her to become an attorney. Forbidden from participating in organized soccer, Jess sneaks out to play, at first abetted in her deceit by Jules, and then also by her coach, Joe (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers).

Jess's parents learn about the dishonesty and order her to stop. But by this time the stakes are high for both Jess and her team because they are moving up in the big tournament. Still, Jess accedes to her parents until she learns that the team has been invited to play in Germany. Once again she sneaks out, escalating the inevitable confrontation with her parents.

The crucial choice comes when the championship game—to be attended by a soccer scout—is scheduled for the same day and time as the wedding of Jess's sister. Jess makes the hard choice, opting for family, no longer willing to deceive. But there is unexpected room for compromise. In the climactic scene, the director intercuts the rough-and-tumble soccer championship with the spirited celebration of the wedding party. The message is clear: Loyalty to family and one's ethnic roots can coexist with untraditional dreams.

Bend It Like Beckham wins sympathy not just for the girls who aspire to soccer stardom but also for their bewildered parents. While Jess's parents are firm, it is obvious that they are acting out of love for their daughter. Even Jules's air-headed and determined mother attempts to understand her daughter's passion. By running the parallel plotlines the movie avoids painting richly portrayed Sikh traditions as excessively restrictive or unusual. The movie also provides a timely sympathetic look at non-Christians with dark skins who may look different from some of us but are essentially the same.

Bend It Like Beckham provides a great platform for parents and teens to talk about life choices.


For Media Watch:

What values do you find in this film?

Discuss Frank Frost's film review
in this month's MEDIA WATCH.

By Judy Ball

St. Maximilian Kolbe (1894-1941)

Signs of holiness surfaced early in the life of Maximilan Kolbe. They reached their height in his final days as prisoner Number 16670 at Auschwitz.

Born in a small village in central Poland, he entered the Conventual Franciscans in his teens. Offended by the religious indifference he observed at home and in his travels, Maximilian created the Militia of the Immaculata, a movement that invited its members to see themselves as soldiers for the Mother of God, and developed a popular newsletter.

Meanwhile, National Socialism was on the rise. When Hitler's troops invaded Poland in 1939, Father Kolbe was briefly arrested. The Nazis came for him again in 1941 and had him transported to Auschwitz on May 28.

Like the other prisoners there, Father Kolbe was exposed to unspeakable horrors and brutality. But he maintained courage and hope and quietly continued his priestly work.

In July, a prisoner escaped the death camp. Punishment was swift: Ten men from Block 14 would be selected, at random, to die as a lesson and a deterrent. When the commandant arbitrarily chose Francis Gajowniczek, he begged for mercy. Moved by his fellow prisoner's pleas, Father Kolbe stepped forward.

"I would like to take that man's place," he said, explaining that he was a priest and that Mr. Gajowniczek had a wife and children. His wish was granted. Father Kolbe and the others were sent to a starvation bunker. Two weeks later, he and three others were still alive. They were injected with phenol; their bodies were cremated in the camp ovens.

Maximilian Kolbe was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1982 in the presence of the man he had saved. His feast day is August 14.

Laura Blumenfeld

Her story begins with violence and revenge. It ends with transformation and hope.

After Laura Blumenfeld's father was shot in Jerusalem in 1986, she wrestled with dark thoughts: How could she get even? A reporter for The Washington Post, she devised an ingenious way. She set out to research and write about revenge—and to somehow meet Omar Khatib, the Palestinian who had randomly selected his target and missed killing Rabbi David Blumenfeld by mere centimeters.

She recounts her sometimes dangerous, always gripping journey in her book, Revenge: A Story of Hope. It was a journey that took her to Israel and far beyond as she explored the meaning of revenge in various cultures. It also took her to the West Bank town where the shooter had grown up. Masking her real identity, she befriended the Khatib family and, with their help, began corresponding with Omar, then serving a 25-year sentence in an Israeli prison.

Over time, Ms. Blumenfeld told Every Day Catholic, it became clear that "revenge doesn't have to be about destroying someone." Her goal became transformation. She would get her revenge by making her father human in the eyes of the man who shot him. "If I could do that," she reasoned, "then Omar would never want to kill again." Her plan worked on Omar, on whose behalf she testified when he was being considered for early release and who is now free and planning a diplomatic career. He even wants to meet the man he shot.

The transformation plan worked on Ms. Blumenfeld, too. She found a constructive way to use her anger and pain. It's a lesson she hopes to pass on to her two children: "Believe in goodness. Believe in God. Believe in your own strength."

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