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‘I Don't Feel Like a Sinner’
By Father Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.

Q U I C K S C A N

Why Acknowledge Our Sinfulness When Mass Begins?
Why Should Anyone Try to ‘Prove’ God’s Existence?
In Purgatory? How Could He Know?
Why Not a 25-minute Sunday Mass?


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 and others.

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 reason.

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 worthily” (#46).

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 being promoted.

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 parish.

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.


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