Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger

Lest I be accused of plagiarism, I must be bold to say that I do not own this title. I certainly own sin — my personal sins — as a step toward my salvation. Or, at least, my claim to need salvation which I neither deserve nor can earn but, thanks to Jesus Christ, can at least hope for. The title, however, belongs to eminent psychiatrist, Karl Menninger, M.D., who wrote a fascinating and provocative book that is still current after 49 years. Why? Well, the question remains unanswered. Why does a society, a culture if you will, continue to deny the obvious? Why is mostly everything tolerated — behavior, lifestyle, identity, ideology — except the confession that sin abounds? Dare I say it, we are not all A-OK all the time?

Our understanding of sin has certainly shifted in time, even as time itself continues to document present sin, for those with eyes to see. Our learning, our science as we like to call it, has given us an excuse to shift the responsibility of sin from the individual to society and, most recently, the past. With every passing year, we are becoming angrier with “other people” because of the awful things they do or have done (even taking it out on totems, like flags and statues): war, slavery, exploitation, indifference, molestation, murder, etc. — add your own grievance. But we tend to rationalize, scientize, that it was because of their environment, mental illness, former traumas, et. al., and not their departure from the standard of a holy God.

Sometimes we even blame things, inanimate objects. We say cars and planes cause pollution. Tanks wage war. Guns wreak violence. We create an anthropology of blame and retribution around certain ideologically contrived theories about religion, race, culture and nationality — quite unscientifically, if one follows what genetics reveals about the common origins of humanity. It might surprise you that Gregor Mendel, Moravian scientist and Augustinian friar, working in the 19th century in Brno, was the first to study genetics scientifically. But St. Paul had the inspiration to write, nearly 2,000 years earlier, that “(t)here is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).

What Paul implies — what Christianity teaches — is that what divides us, sets us against one another, makes us rivals, saps our joy, is our alienation from the holiness of God and our failure or refusal to take personal responsibility for our actions. A fundamental equality exists among all human beings, not only in our origins but in our destiny, ensured by the saving action of Jesus. The original unity of humankind — male and female, created in the image and likeness of God (cf. Gen 5:2) — is restored in Christ. That sin persists, and continues to divide, is a result of human choices that stray from the pattern of God’s holiness. Sin does not totally eradicate freedom, but ill-informed exercise of freedom can lead to sinful choices.

Our faith teaches that holiness is not only possible, but that it is the calling, the destiny of every human being. The holiest form of divine presence is available to us, as near as food and drink to our lips, to be consumed and nourished by, is in the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, the Holy Eucharist, the Mass. It is, by its supernatural nature, heaven on earth, transformational and sanctifying. None of us is worthy, but to receive this presence so that we are able to experience its effects, our hearts, minds and souls must be willing to accept Christ on his humble terms, not our prideful dares or demands.

What does this mean? When I receive the Body and Blood of Christ and say “Amen,” I am saying “yes” to what it really is and does. “Yes” to this being the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ, in the form of the consecrated bread and wine, his real presence, and “yes” to all that he is, does and teaches. It means I am willing to be changed in thought, in attitude and behavior, so that I become more an integral part of his mystical body on earth, a member of this communion of faith that acknowledges him as Lord of all creation and Lord of my life.

It might occur to us, from time to time, that we are not yet ready to say “Amen” with our whole being, that we are holding back in some way from a full and honest assent. The mere awareness of our sins is a big step forward to an understanding and appreciation of what this gift means for us. The Holy Eucharist can indeed remit sins that are sometimes called “venial” — sins that may not separate us totally from God but compromise our relationship. Only decisive and persistent sin, material cooperation in grave evil — what is called “mortal,” death-to-the-soul sin — can render us incapable of receiving effectively, honestly, rendering our reception sacrilegious, a complete contradiction of our “Amen,” a lie.

I am old enough to remember, in the ’50s, when I was in grammar school, long lines at confessionals on Saturday afternoons, even in torrid weather. Mass was only on Sunday and, typically, Catholics would prepare for Sunday Mass with a confession the day before. It was not necessary, priests would remind us, to go to confession before every reception of Holy Communion, but it was sound spiritual practice to make a good confession at least once a month.

Unless you or I are convinced that there is less sin in the world, less sin in our personal lives in 2021 than in the ’50s, does it not seem that this remains good counsel? If for no other reason than it gives us opportunity to take some responsibility for our contribution to the world’s sorry state, to acknowledge our complicity in the dissonance of vice rather than the harmony of virtue, it makes good sense to be relieved of our sins’ burden. Fess up and reform. Move on!

There is another good reason. Pent up anger at the world and all the bad things “other people” do, deprives me of an opportunity to be a part of the change. This at least is something positive I can do: own up to my sins and receive God’s healing mercy that will empower me to be strong and persistent in virtue, to be the change I want to see. The old adage comes to mind that whenever I point a finger at someone else, the other three fingers point back at me.

Anger is such a debilitating state to be confined to. Pride in anger, rage really, only locks down the human spirit. It is certainly not the music of heaven. Blaming others, the world, society, the culture, some group of people according to some man-made classification, solidifies the bondage of anger. Confession frees us from the bond, liberates us for charity, gives us the God-given gift of forgiveness that we, in turn, can share with others, fellow sinners, all in need of God’s mercy. Indeed, the welcoming church we all long to see can only be that communion of life and love if it forgives and embraces repentant sinners — and accompanies those on the way.