Monday, September 24, 2018

There is no ‘try’ in the Act of Contrition. And there is a very sound reason why.

I have been hearing confessions for the past 17 years of being a Catholic priest, and I have noticed something that happens frequently in the penitents and the way that they pray the Act of Contrition.  Very often, they add the word ‘try’ at the last part of this prayer, and this does affect the ways that the penitent lives in his restored state of Sanctifying Grace which he received as a result of the confession that was just made.  

For the benefit of non-Catholic readers, perhaps a bit of explanation would help you to understand the context of this reflection.  At every celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation or confession, after all the sins have been told to the priest confessor, there is some counsel or advice given to the penitent, at the end of which the penitent is required to pray what is called the Act of Contrition or Act of Sorrow.  

There are different variations to this prayer, and one very common one has the penitent saying “O my God, I am sorry for having offended you.  Because you are so good, and with the help of your grace, I will not sin again”.  The other versions are essentially variations of this but the content is always the same in that there is sorrow or contrition expressed, there is a plea for God’s help in terms of being responsive to his grace, and there is a firm commitment to not sin in the future.  In none of the versions of this prayer is there the word ‘try’ where the penitent says that he will try to not sin again.  Yet, many penitents have inserted it right there where it doesn’t belong. 

To non-Star Wars geeks, the above picture features Yoda, the Jedi Grand Master who trains his protege Luke Skywalker in the ways of The Force, and stresses the imperative to 'do' which is strong, rather than 'try', which is weak.

It does seem rather trivial, you may think.  After all, it is just a little word, made up of three letters.  “Surely God wouldn’t mind or take any offence!” you may say.  What’s the big deal?  Am I trying to create a storm in a teacup by writing a whole blog centered on the added use of one small word?  On the surface, it may appear to be so, but I hope that by the end of this read, you will experience a light bulb moment.

Our Christian doctrine has always stressed the power and necessity of God’s grace.  It is his love, his energy and his power that makes all things possible.  As Christians, we believe strongly in the primacy of grace, where it is God’s initial movement of love that creates anything and makes anything possible.  It is by God’s grace that he has created out of nothing, and it is by God’s grace that we are made.  It is by God’s grace that we receive his love, and it is ultimately by God’s grace that we sinners have the undeserved mercy of God which accords us the promise of heaven for eternity after our life on this earth ends. Why Mary is so esteemed in our Catholic belief is because we see in scripture that she is hailed by the angel Gabriel as one who is ‘full of grace’, a human being who has the plenitude of God’s love and grace.

Powerful as God’s grace is, God does desire for our cooperation with it in our lives. The fuller we are in this cooperation with grace, the more fruitful our lives will be.  A person who cooperates with great love and effort with God’s grace will result in a life that bears the fruit of holiness, greater charity, zeal, patience, forgiveness, peace, joy and love for God and for one’s fellowman in great amounts.  Mary, who cooperated most fully with God’s grace could live so perfectly a human life because of her full cooperation at every point in her life.  

It then naturally follows that a person who doesn’t put in much effort in cooperating with God’s grace will naturally therefore not bear much in terms of fruitfulness.  His or her ‘state of grace’ will slowly be diminished as the days post-confession go by. What does a cooperating soul look like? It is one which has a great desire for holiness and sanctification.  It has a heart that is grounded in humility and seeks what God’s desires and wills, and it has one eye always cast on the sights on heaven and its eternal promises. At the same time, it is also one that isn’t just lost on these lofty thoughts alone.  It is one that is grounded very much in making great effort to love God concretely by living a righteous life, loving the people that God loves (which means all people), and not loving what God does not love (all sins and disordered inclinations).  These are all the ways that one cooperates with God’s grace.  When one fully cooperates with God’s grace on offer, one can live a holy and sanctified life.  This is the truth that the Church teaches.  One reason why many habitual sinners find themselves stuck in their habits despite frequent confession is because of a lack of effort put in cooperating with God’s grace, especially in moments of weakness and temptation.

Understanding this, we begin to see how nefarious and injurious it is when we inadvertently slip in the word ‘try’ when we make the Act of Contrition or Sorrow. We are saying that with the help of God’s grace, at best, we can only try to reach holiness.  The adding of this word weakens (and even insults) very much the power of God’s grace, and at the same time shows a great lack of desire in us to want to cooperate with God’s grace in our lives.  I am saying that I will only be half-hearted, unenthusiastic and lackluster in my efforts at holiness post-confession.  Omit the word try, and it changes the entire intention of the prayer.  It shows the great trust and confidence in the power of God’s grace and the great possibility of living a holy life when I not just try, but actually make it a point to be conscious of every moment to give my life over to God’s grace working in me. It shows that I will henceforth have a steely resolve to cooperate willingly and with great love with God.  The word ‘try’ unconsciously added to the prayer undermines greatly a soul’s potential greatness, and at the same time undermines the power of God’s grace.  In the church’s formulation of all the versions of the Act of Contrition, there is always a clear indication of a firm intention and a resolution for holiness. The word ‘try’ does weaken one’s resolve.

Am I making a mountain out of a molehill?  Only if our prayers that we pray are mere words that we form with our lips and have nothing to do with our hearts and inner disposition.  But if the aim of prayer is loving God and through that, having our lives moulded and shaped into the best versions of ourselves, then no. 

Monday, September 17, 2018

Wearing the Roman Collar as a witness to the faith, not just fashion statement.

Some of my lay friends have often commented on my sartorial choice of wearing my clerical black with the Roman collar almost all of the time.  Apart from being at the gym (they haven’t yet designed a gym outfit specifically for priests and religious), all who see me either in the church setting or even outside of it will know that I wear my Roman collar faithfully.  Why is that so?  Is it that I don’t have other clothes in my wardrobe?  Am I all that sartorially challenged?  

First of all, it is not about fashion.  My approach toward life needs to be something that says that my life is not about me.  My purposeful choice for God and his will has resulted in dedicating my life to the Church as a priest and to serve God’s purposes.  As such, this is demonstrated via my willingness to put aside what I prefer or what I want affecting even something as mundane as my choice of clothing.  It may seem small or inconsequential, but it is something that is chosen for me, rather than something that I choose for myself. It reminds me that even for something as simple as what I am to wear, I am not to worry.  Besides, it really makes things so easy that each morning when I open my wardrobe, it’s a no-brainer that I reach for my black section of my shirts and just take any one of my many black clerical shirts.  It challenges me to live out Jesus’ teaching where we should not be worried about what we are to wear, what we are to eat, etc.  

The second reason, which is perhaps even more important than the first, is that my wearing of this clerical garb is a sign of witnessing to the faith.  This became increasingly relevant as news of the abuse crisis in Pennsylvania rocked the Church the world over.  

I know that there are many priests and religious who for personal reasons hardly wear their faith through either a religious habit or clerical garb.  And there could well be some who are considering going about dressed in their lay clothing now, especially because of the way this Pennsylvania report has shaken so many around the world.  It could be a case of safety in anonymity, even though they may not be guilty of anything connected to those reports.  But this second reason of mine for not ditching my Roman blacks at a time like this and instead, to wear it with even more fidelity and pride, is because through this act, I am standing strong in united support and compassion for my abused brothers and sisters who had suffered innocently through no fault of theirs, at the hands of wolves in sheeps’ clothing.  

I am perhaps opening myself to being silently judged as an ‘associate predator’ though I have never abused anyone.  By wearing with fidelity this mark of my priesthood I am saying that not all priests are abusers, perverts nor are we hiding those who are.  I am standing up as a member of the collective part of the larger body of Priests who will bear the Cross of Christ for better or for worse, in good times and in bad.  And if I should be falsely accused as a child abuser, I am in that moment standing very close to Jesus who too was falsely accused of something so serious as to cause him to deserve a criminal’s death sentence in such a shameful way.  

Of course it will be the easier thing to assimilate into the world somewhat incognito, where people looking at me and my dressing will not associate me with a Church that has been so tarnished, and so badly at that.  As far as I am concerned, the Church was never a perfect Church, and on this side of heaven, it never will be.  All of us are a work in process.

Not all priests and not all bishops are bad.  Just as one swallow does not a summer make, so neither does a number of bad priests and religious mean that all of us are bad.  My wearing of my collar is my witness to the world that I still do believe that Jesus is the savior of the world, and that the Roman Catholic faith is the channel through which God’s grace comes to his people, wounded though it may be.  Ditching my clerics at this point is to say that I only believe in a sin-free, perfect and unblemished church, which it isn’t.  The Church is a mystery because though it is a channel for God’s grace to reach her people, it is also very plagued by the temptations of the devil. 

In the gospels, Jesus tells the young man to take up his cross and follow him.  By wearing my collar with fidelity and consistency, I am acting out one dimension of faithfulness and am taking up a cross as well.  The more the church is tainted and seen as a source of scandal, the heavier this cross will be.  

Monday, September 10, 2018

Is there a silver lining in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church?

It is without a doubt that the Catholic Church has been dealt with a severe blow in the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report.  Like a cascade of domino tiles, there have been similar reports of abuse and internal shuffling of abuser-priests in other Dioceses in other parts of the world.  

I had been praying and pondering over the many painful and truly horrific stories of those who had been abused, and I consciously offered up all I could in terms of my own mortification as I kept myself isolated from people during my bout of Chicken Pox recently. Yes, I know that this suffering of mine was hardly a dent compared to what the abuse victims suffered in their ordeals, but I also do believe, as I always have, that God can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.  Every form of personal mortification offered up with great love for a cause outside ourselves can benefit the souls of others, and this is a fundamental belief that is at the heart of the Body of Christ.  Conversely, any brokenness and suffering and abuse that has been impacting one single soul also negatively affects the overall health and spiritual well-being of the entire Body of Christ, as is evidenced in the way that the universal Catholic Church is still suffering and reeling in spades.

Again, I am not trying to justify the heinous sins of the Church, from the clerics to the higher ups in authority in this blog.  It would be so wrong of me to do so.  But I have been asking myself whether there is any goodness that can come out of this? After all, the deposit of our faith is that Christ saved humanity by his willingness to undergo the most heinous and torturous death that a man could undergo in his time, and it was this horror that paved the way for our salvation.  Many have gone through a great suffering in this crisis as well. We need to remember that there was a very brilliant silver lining despite the pain and sorrow that Jesus underwent on the Cross.

In a somewhat similar way, I do think that something good and positive can come out of this scandal. Certainly not in the scandal itself, which is evil and bad from every single angle and in every single way. But I am hopeful that from this dark page of our Church’s history, a purging of sorts will begin to take place. There is a purgation that needs to happen, and there is a purification that needs to be undergone, not unlike the way gold is purified by having its dross and impurities burned away by exposing it to intense heat.  

Just as persecution purified the early church, revealing those who truly embraced the Cross and truly loved Christ in his Church.  These hard times caused to emerge many heroic Christians in their virtue and pursuit of sanctification with their lives.  These saints formed the Church, and this present difficult road that the universal Church is made to go through will also result in making Catholics really choose to pursue their faith and to be clear about what their faith is about.  

If one’s faith all this while had been based on merely belonging to an institution or a parish that had deep roots in history, this scandal will probably cause one to jettison the faith. If one’s faith had been riding on the coattails of one’s family traditions, where one had been going to Church because one’s parents and grandparents had been doing so on a regular basis, this scandal will likely be the cause of stopping one’s coming to Church each Sunday.  If one’s being Catholic doesn’t go beyond a ‘because I was baptized at birth and confirmed as a teenager’, I wouldn't be surprised at all if this scandal will cause one to say ‘forget this’.

That’s because one’s faith hadn't been really rooted in the true fundamentals of the faith – a belief and worship of Jesus Christ the Son of God and in having a real relationship with him. If one’s belief in Jesus is truly radical, one also will be clear in one’s understanding of the Church’s teachings and Catechesis of the faith.  One begins to really own one’s faith and fundamentals, and can articulate it in conversations why one is holding on to these beliefs and tenets.  

In a non-threatened and non-challenged environment, it is easy to not be all that serious and clear in one’s understanding of the faith.  When there is no pressing reason to be intelligible and clear about one’s beliefs and the direction toward which one’s life ought to head, one can easily just ‘coast along’ and be influenced easily by any trend or movement that sparks the interest of the popular masses.  

Of course we hope and have the great desire that all our leaders, be they leaders of the faith, or those who serve in governing our nations, be people of moral excellence.  Inside each one of us, we have this need to see this virtue in others, especially in those to whom we seek direction and guidance. The truth is that the church is made up of men and women who bear the scars of original sin.  Would that they aren’t.  This is a tragic time in the history of the Church, but I do strongly believe that because God has allowed this to happen, his Holy Spirit is also with us right there in the middle of the storm, and with prayer and perseverance and great humility, a holier and purer church will emerge.  This is a time where we hear a clarion call to moral excellence ourselves, and not just want this in others.  It’s time to demand this of ourselves as well.  

And as for the present storm, we just need to ride it out together, united in faith.