An old man recently came to talk with me because he was confused and angered by things that church leaders taught him some sixty years ago. At that younger age, he was condemned to hell for the mortal sin of missing Sunday Mass, then condemned again for going to Mass and receiving communion without first going to confession to be absolved of his prior mortal sin. With two life sentences in fiery eternal damnation, he walked away from the church. Fortunately, he was able to meet Christ on another path, not one where he dutifully returned to the confession box but one where he humbly encountered God’s love and mercy.
Most Catholics growing up in the 20th Century were told that we must be in a state of grace to receive holy communion. We were taught that the state of grace means to be without sin. Therefore, we lined up outside confessionals on Saturday afternoons to wait our turn for absolution; then we tried not to sin again till after we made it to the altar on Sunday mornings. When Sunday Mass was offered on Saturdays, it became easier not to sin during the reduced trial period, which also inspired many penitents to go wild on Saturday nights with less guilt.
This juvenile cycle of confronting sin and obtaining grace did not offer a very healthy understanding of our union with God or one another. When it comes to grace, sin, and every other aspect of faith and religion, we need to use both our common sense and our Christian sense. What the Catholic Church calls original sin, society calls the human condition. Whatever you prefer to call it, we are flawed creatures. We sin. Many of the great saints admitted that, according to the church, we can sin hundreds of times a day: sins of omission, commission, thought, word, deed, cardinal, capital, deadly, mortal, venial…if we want to play such games. But don’t play them. They are childish games of hide-and-seek (guilt-and-regret, fear-and-relief…) that offer no dignity to our Christian nature which strives to accompany our loving Lord in a journey from here to eternity.
We should have a more mature understanding of sin and grace, as well as of Christ’s invitation to receive the sacraments. I don’t think it was ever wise for the church to suggest that receiving communion is a reward for being good or sinless. Jesus, in fact, saw it quite differently. He preferred to break bread with sinners rather than with self-righteous or self-proclaimed grace-filled-holy-ones. He made a point of reaching out to those whom His own church viewed as sinful and offered Himself to them in the form of healing power and as the bread of life. Pope Francis’ sobering question to the modern world, “Who are we to judge?” should cause us all to step back and recall that Jesus warned the Pharisees, and any of the rest of us who make judgments upon other sinners, that we are out of line, that we should remove the plank from our own eyes before pointing out the speck in theirs.
The man who recently visited with me discovered a state of grace outside the church. Sadly, the church, for many years, conveyed that God’s love, grace, and communion are given as a reward for good behavior and withheld for bad behavior. But that erroneous message is changing through Pope Francis’ reminder that God is synonymous with mercy and that Christ continually invites us to accompany Him and be nourished by Him. Our task in the church, then, is to accompany others along the road of life, not to judge them as unfit for communion with God, but to help them on the journey. Let us rejoice as our church reorients toward a healthier, holier, and more mature understanding of sin and grace.