29Sep We need to re-understand ‘Sin’ – not bin it

In ‘When Words prevent Prayer’ Maire Lawless critiques the 2011 missal not only for its language but for a particular emphasis:  “It encourages a deep sense of sin which only reinforces the ego and is contrary to the message of Christ who came to say that our mistakes, our failings aren’t what matters but surrender to His transforming power is.”

The reluctance of clergy  to tease out the scriptural nuances of ‘sin’ is hugely frustrating these times.  Nevertheless I struggle to understand how ‘ego’ is necessarily reinforced by an emphasis on sin in the first sequence of the current Mass liturgy – whatever about the translation overall.

First, egotism is quite obviously the ‘Pride’ of the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’.  How then will it be ‘reinforced’ by the references to sin and repentance in the penitential sequence? Does not the ego seek instead – and often find even in church  – ‘reinforcement’ in flattery, the assurance of the minister that no radical  ‘change of mind’ (repentance) is necessary, that our current prosperity is proof of God’s favour?

And if the message of Christ is indeed to be ‘transformative’ does that not imply a need for transformation?   If the Mass liturgy is to begin instead with a new emphasis on our goodness as we are, and to end there as well, what can truly  happen between that beginning and that end of the Mass ritual?  What in the end will have been transformed?

As someone who consumes far too much depressing news – both secular and religious –  I  come to Mass these times remembering that despair is also ‘sinful’ and that I personally am in need of restorative transformation – a reminder of the Resurrection.  Whatever it may lack, the ceremony, nevertheless will meet this need to some extent.  I also remind myself that my church and social context has a similar need for transformation, and that the texts (if not the homily) are likely to address that need also.  The ‘transformation glass’ at Mass will probably lack something but it will never be empty either.

Moreover, how could Mass celebrants know what other needs for transformation are present among the congregants – what family quarrels or abuses of power or resentments or unrecognised failings are represented there? How could it be sensible to assume that all had come in a state of complete  spiritual health, and that the congregation will now be ready – unanimously – to forget about ‘sin’ and celebrate some transformation that has apparently already happened somewhere else?

And given the dialogical deficit of half-a-century in the Irish Church, and the typical perfunctory routinisation of the Irish Mass – as well as the shocks that are ongoing in our ‘perfect society’ of past decades – is it not obvious that our internal church relationships are in special need of transformation?  If ‘clericalism’ is the root cause of our present ills, are not clericalism and lay clericalism also both sinful if they block honest dialogue and renewal?

What, furthermore, of the need to be reminded of the inter-connectivity of all ‘advanced societies’ nowadays – their reliance upon often unjust systems of production and investment and of the near impossibility of being uncomplicit altogether in their social and environmental costs? How many of us can be sure we have not been guilty of ‘sins of omission’ when it comes to political commitment to the tackling of these problems – or to the cause of refugees or the homeless?

Is not ‘Sin’ whatever prevents us humans from building the truly loving, vibrant communities that would ‘save’ those outside in need of love and community?  Why should we abandon or reduce the occurrence of that word ‘sin’  at the start of Mass when no other will better serve to convey these stark realities?  If it is a past obsession with the minutiae of sexual ‘sin’ that is considered reinforcing of the ego, don’t we simply need to re-understand rather than to abandon this word?  Isn’t it fairly obvious that for the earliest Christians ‘sin’ was especially the source of the ruthless violence of the ancient world – and that we need to recover that understanding?

My own re-understanding  in recent decades is that sin is essentially self-harm – and that all sin arises from a forgetting that all of us are already infinitely and equally  loved.  Were we all equally conscious, continuously and simultaneously, of that reality we would already be in the Kingdom of God. Who can say we are anywhere near that just now?

For all of our sins – the ‘whatever’ that keeps us trapped in egotism, aloofness, despondency, scandal, conflict and decline – untransformed – Kyrie Eleison.

4 Responses

  1. Edward Butler

    Words addressed by a parishioner as we laid out chairs together in order to accommodate a doubling or trebling of our congregation in anticipation of yet another communal celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation with General Absolution – “Father we didn’t know what sin was till you came here.”
    I took this as a compliment. My modus operandi was to bring the community to a deeper and more realistic grasp of the nature of sin by prayerfully and publicly confessing my own sins to them instead of expecting them to confess theirs to me. As a liturgical and sacramental celebration it worked brilliantly. I was privileged to watch family groups and neighbours actually and meaningfully being reconciled with God and with one another. We should bring it back, but above all, we should prepare it well and celebrate it with style.

  2. Pádraig McCarthy

    “If the Mass liturgy is to begin instead with a new emphasis on our goodness as we are, and to end there as well, what can truly happen between that beginning and that end of the Mass ritual?”

    The Mass liturgy does not begin with the penitential rite. It begins with the people congregating, knowing the living presence of Jesus among them.
    It continues with the good news of the goodness and grace of God:
    “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
    What an extraordinary launch!
    And then: “The Lord (be) with you!” (The verb is not there in Latin – “Dominus vobiscum” – nor in the Greek (Luke 1:28).
    Or: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the communion (fellowship) of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”
    Or: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father!”

    It’s only in the light of God’s love and compassion that we acknowledge our sinfulness. Without that, it could be just wallowing in the misery. The light of God’s love also highlights the tragedy of sin, which discards a person into the rotting garbage of the landfill and incinerator of Gehenna (Mark 9:43ff), a place associated with human sacrifice. People sometimes talk of “Catholic guilt”, without realising that it is always in the light of the casting out of the demons.

    Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.

  3. Joe O'Leary

    Today’s hell-gospel is a preacher’s nightmare but the Anglican preacher handled it well, emphasizing that the warnings are in view of the great gift and wonderful life the Gospel want to connumincate.

    I notice that the confession of sins happened between the Prayers of Faithful and the Eucharistic prayer, recited first by priest with people’s response, and then vice versa.

    This is surely better than the heavy, lumpissh “let us call to mind our sins” as soon as we’ve greeted eech other. (However, the Kyrie was in the usual place.)

  4. Lloyd Allan MacPherson

    Catholicism is caught in a feedback loop just like every other “ism” on this planet. Blame mimetic desire and it being completely incompatible with innovation these days. Clericalism is what we have become good at and continues to be the status quo piece we are all subconsciously protecting.

    Since 2011, I’ve been in a constant debate with the powers-that-shouldn’t-be about this status quo. Scientists have a hard time developing a model that shows the oceans still supportive of life past 2048, roughly when my children will be my current age. There you go – the future. What are they worth these days?

    The only way to break this mimetic feedback loop is to look into these children’s eyes and ask for forgiveness or perhaps do something that will serve as an apology. I moved from prophetic music that verges on the clairvoyant (post-apocalyptic alternative rock) to creating the municipal and parish fund raisers that will lift us out of this mess. It’s one of the largest movements ever created on the planet and it is constantly developing while Catholics, young and old, are being activated everywhere.

    According to Pope Francis and his wishes, this group of change-makers is backed by 1.2 billion who he believes will put a small donation where it is needed on a monthly basis. We are from Europe, North and South America, Asia, Africa and we are getting ready to point 100 employees in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico directly at this problem.

    No Sean, we are not anywhere near that Kingdom of God just now but once activated, it won’t take us long to get to where we need to be – 1.2 billion people is the network that can make all the difference in the world – we are lucky it is there.


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