My image of God the Father, enthroned in heaven in flowing white robes and Birkenstock sandals, was overshadowed by my certainty that he didn’t want me to have any fun. Not only was God all about rules, he’d drop anybody that strayed off his path. Parochial school should have taught me how to live but instead I learned how not to die and burn. The result was that I treated Moses’ Commandments with the same reverence I reserved for one of Letterman’s “Top Ten” lists.
So, my moral life was an exercise in hell avoidance. I feigned contrition with a half-hearted sincerity in hope that, should I die tonight, God would go easy on me. I knew how to say I was sorry for breaking the rules. I promised to stop doing the things I had just confessed even though I had no intention of doing so. I even knew my Act of Contrition. I apologized to God without knowing why my sins were sins. (As to that, years later as a married man I learned something about true contrition, namely, if you’re going to apologize, you had better know what you are apologizing for or else you’ll find yourself in even more trouble.)
For several years I saw confession as apologizing to a priest who “stood in” for God. If anyone had corrected this impression in religious education class, I missed it because I never listened. Later I learned that it isn’t merely a priest to whom I am confessing but truly, it is Christ. During reconciliation, the priest sits in persona Cristi capitas — in the person of Christ the Head. He offers not his mercy but that of Christ.
Later, also, I would come to understand the difference between apology and repentance and between the private and public nature of sin. In repentance you don’t merely turn away from something, you turn toward something else (see Acts 26:20). And my sin, no matter how private it is, has a ripple effect on those around me.
Everyone in my life suffers to some degree from my selfishness and sin; no sin is ever completely private since we are all bound together in one mystical body. The world looks down upon it as weakness, but as I matured, I came to see the beauty involved in humbling yourself and going before another, staring into the eyes of mercy, and admitting failure.
For years, my faulty understanding stymied my approach to Christ, keeping me from the greatest gift that God had to offer: total forgiveness. I totally failed to connect the dots given me in Catholic school and at countless Sunday Masses. It was only when sin and misery reached such a blinding level that I earnestly began to seek not fame or fortune but the peace that only Jesus can give that my approach to Christ began to change. I learned that St. Augustine was right when he said that we are all restless until we rest in the Lord.
In order to change a skewed understanding of the sacrament, it helps to realize Jesus came not to abolish the law, but to complete it (Matthew 5:17). He came to show us how to “have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
I was not unique in my confusion. Many people today dismiss the moral code set forth in the Ten Commandments because they assume that religion as all about rules, conformity and some sort of guilt-ridden mind control. The doctrines of Christ, safeguarded by the Catholic Church, are dismissed as contrary to human freedom. In this context, obedience is seen as a form of weakness. By extension, Jesus Christ is viewed as the weakest man to walk the planet.
The question Catholic teens ask me most frequently in regard to sexuality is, “How far is too far?” What’s behind that question? What young people are really asking, once we look beneath the euphemistic wordplay is, “What exactly is everything I can do sexually—without going to hell?” They want to clearly delineate the line so they can approach it and tap dance on it, and then justify their behavior.
Can we mature in our understanding of the Law so that we mature in our approach to Christ and our readiness to receive God’s mercy? Well, let’s take a minute to look at it more closely:
The Law (Commandments)
Thou shalt not…
- Have other gods before me
- Take the Lord’s name in vain
- The Sabbath day holy
- Dishonor thy father and mother
- Commit adultery
- Bear false witness
- Covet thy neighbor’s wife (lust)
- Covet thy neighbor’s material goods
The Life in Christ (fulfillment)
- Be single-hearted toward me
- Be reverent in speech and conduct
- Keep priorities
- Be respectful and obedient
- Defend life, womb to tomb
- Be faithful to vocation, future spouse
- Be trustworthy
- Be honest in word and deed
- Have only pure admiration
- Be grateful for what you possess
Do you get it? Living a faith-filled life is not so much about what we shouldn’t do as about what we are called to do as we move forward in God’s love. You can use this parallel above as the beginning of your examination of conscience the next time you prepare for the sacrament of reconciliation. In particular, ask yourself how you measure up to the list on the right as you prepare your soul for the sacramental mercy of Christ.