“God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (sin boldly), but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides.”
— Martin Luther, Letter 99 (1 August 1521)
“He who who does not sin is not human. … Life without conflict is not life. … We need to caress conflicts.”
Speaking at his general audience today, Pope Francis said:
“Sometimes someone asks: ‘Why bother going to church, the people who always go to Mass are sinners like the others’. If you do not feel in need of God’s mercy, if you do not feel you are a sinner, then it’s better not [to] go to Mass [Italian: “Se ognuno di noi non si sente bisognoso della misericordia di Dio, non si sente peccatore, è meglio che non vada a Messa!”], because we go to Mass because we are sinners and we want to receive the forgiveness of Jesus, to participate in His redemption, His forgiveness.
“That ‘I confess’ we say at the beginning is not a ‘pro forma’, is a true act of penance, ‘I am a sinner and I confess’. We have to go to Mass humbly, as sinners, and the Lord reconciles us.”
Oh, Pope Francis. This is one of those times I wince with pity, rather than groan with frustration. A basically sound point buried by sloppy pastoralism. A fundamental understanding of the theological truths blurred by a fixation on feelings. Yes, we must go to Mass humbly, but, no, we must not wait until we feel sufficiently sinful to go! Choosing not to assist at Sunday Mass is a mortal sin, but that one careless caveat by Francis sends a totally different message: you’d be better off abstaining from Mass if you are not properly disposed. What’s missing, of course, is a reminder that the sacrament of penance is available before Mass precisely in order to redeem and perfect our otherwise imperfect dispositions. Maybe it’s just me, but I find it highly problematic for the pope, and not for the first time, implicitly to equate being humble with being a sinner. I’m sure that the theologically informed readers of FCA are aware that the general act of contrition is not on a par with making auricular confession with a priest. But, as always, how many of the very many devotees to the person of Pope Francis are aware of that disparity, and how does Francis’s “off-the-cuff” comment strengthen their attachment to making confession, regardless of how they “feel”?
Keep in mind that the context is the ongoing and increasingly rambunctious “dialogue” underway in the Church about the “freedom of conscience” which remarried Catholics should enjoy, without having to submit to the “querulous” needling of canon law. Granting as I do that the Confiteor is “a true act of penance”, the unspoken question remains, “Then why can’t the Church respect the consciences of remarried Catholics and let their Confiteor clear their way to the Altar? After all,
“although [the Eucharist] is the fullness of sacramental life, [it] is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak… [which bears] pastoral consequences that we are called to consider with prudence and boldness. Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators. But the Church is not a tollhouse; it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems.’ [EG §47]”
I suspect that not a few European clerics and layfolk would vigorously agree with the implicit laxity which ambiguity always affords.
As Padre Pio’s opening quotation reminds us, “It’s not about you.” The Mass is not primarily about feeling “recharged” or feeling “restored”, but about fulfilling our religious duty to offer a pure sacrifice to God in the Sacred Gifts. Therefore, even if we do not feel penitential, nor feel inspired by the Lord’s tender mercy, we must still assist at Mass: it is our chief duty to honor God, not simply to follow the weather sock of our own emotions and consciences. Indeed, it may be precisely by attending Mass week by week, regardless of a lack of any spiritual consolation or conviction, that we are converted by the Word and the Prayers. The most acute irony is that the pope’s emphasis in this case upon registering sufficient humility smacks of the very Pelagianism which he condemns. I had a pastor, openly enamored with Francis, say at Mass some weeks ago, “If you’re coming to Mass but it’s not changing your life, you might as well stop coming: you’re wasting your time.” A chill instantly went up my spine. If the merit of my presence at Mass depends on the quality of my progress in virtue outside of Mass, then we’re all Pelagians and the jig is up.
Now I realize that no one may be inclined to believe a “hater” like me, but I’m writing this post from a place of sincere compassion and filial respect. I think our prayers are having an effect on Francis, and I think he’s learning to speak at least less callously (getting a new speech writer seems to have helped lower the RPM’s). I wince because I think “he meant well”, and unfortunately we all know whither ledeath the road paved with good intentions. Regardless of what message he meant to convey, mixed up with it is an official, in-print sanction, yet again, of the pervasive “I’m OK, you’re OK” spirit of religiosity among so many Catholics nowadays. Indeed, I have a relative whose virtual spiritual motto is this: “I’ve made my peace with God. I don’t need to go to Mass.” Unfortunately, the weed nestled in the pope’s recent homily is precisely what my relative, and countless other believers who have “outgrown” the “need” for church, long to hear from HQ. As recent surveys indicate, and as I think we’ve known for decades, the majority of Catholics appear to be saying to the Church, “Thanks, guys, I’m good: I don’t feel aware of any sin; in fact I feel close to the Lord, so I’ll sit this one out.” What good does it do for the Holy Father to gild such a tendency for all the world to see?
Since no one loves a mere carper, I’ll answer the question you might have asked by now: “Well, what do you wish Pope Francis had said?” Something like this:
“Sometimes someone asks: ‘Why bother going to church, the people who always go to Mass are sinners like the others’. If you do not feel in need of God’s mercy, if you do not feel you are a sinner, then it’s still better to go to Mass. We go to Confession before Mass because we are sinners and we want to receive the forgiveness of Jesus, so that in the Mass we can fully participate in His redemption.
“That ‘I confess’ we say at the beginning is not a ‘pro forma’, it is a true act of penance, ‘I am a sinner and I confess’. We have to go to Confession humbly, as sinners, and the Lord reconciles us, so we can then celebrate in freedom during the Mass.”
The above statement may not be as pastorally winsome as what the pope actually said, but at least it removes the obstructions he put in the way of his own intended message. What makes this even more bittersweet is how it follows so closely on a truly profound homily on the intrinsic glory of the Mass just a day or two earlier. If it is too much for the Holy Father to express well rounded truths in a single homily, at least we bloggers can help him knit together his at times scattered garments of orthodoxy and therefore cover any potential “nakedness” in his fatherly witness. Whatever happened to fear of the censure of “offending pious ears”, to say the least? Join me as we keep praying for Papa.