Friday, December 30, 2016 - Updated: 10:22 AM
QUESTION: I sometimes feel that the Catholic Church is more about guilt than forgiveness. I am not sure where that comes from, but I know that it is very limiting and destructive. Is that a true estimation of the church’s approach?
ANSWER: Unfortunately, it may be how some Catholics feel, but it is certainly not how the Catholic Church does.
At certain times in our lives, we tend to dwell on our failures. That list is never the complete picture of our lives, and we need to find a more balanced view of both failures and successes. However, it is helpful to consider the important question raised above. Chiefly, how does God view us?
A good starting point might be the words of Jesus to Peter: “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (Matthew 16:23). This is important because often we presume that God will react to events just as we would. For example, since we might lose patience with someone who often fails, we expect God would as well. But the Scriptures are direct: our ways are not God’s ways.
In the Gospels, Peter also appears to be dealing with questions regarding forgiveness and mercy. Peter asked Jesus: “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:21-22). The New Testament is clear: the mercy of God is infinite.
In the sacrament of reconciliation, many people presume it is about sin, but really it is about forgiveness. It is the sacrament by which God bestows mercy out of love for us. That sacrament is the model for what must be the church’s constant stance. Mercy and forgiveness are forward looking. God’s focus is much more on what we have learned than what we have done. The mercy of God is meant to encourage us to avoid sin and live more freely.
Pope Francis recently said in a homily: “… if we are like the Pharisee before the altar, who said, ‘I thank you, Lord, that I am not like other men, and especially not like that publican’ (cf. Luke 18:11-12), then we do not know the Lord’s heart, and we will never have the joy of experiencing his mercy. The Lord never tires of forgiving: never!” (Pope Francis, homily, March 17, 2013).
Guilt is a burden that we are not meant to carry. It is in our lives to assist us in realizing the consequences of bad choices. Sin brings guilt because sin is not where we should be and guilt tells us that. But guilt is not the desired enduring reality God (or the church) wishes us to carry. It is the forgiveness of God that we carry, and it enables us to see a future devoid of guilt and filled with faithfulness and joy.
This is especially true as we approach a new calendar year. As we wipe away an old year, we must also turn from guilt to hope and the joy that comes from walking with God.
Father Bober is pastor of St. Kilian Parish in Adams and Cranberry townships.