It’s a safe bet that most people reading this Quiet Corner article are not axe murderers, terrorists or guilty of laying violent hands on the Holy Father.
Few readers will have sins as colorful as the Biblical scarlet. An examination of conscience most likely will reveal the dishonesty, infidelity and materialism of the work-a-day world. Hedging on the truth to spare people’s feelings, the occasional immodest glance, an eagerness in satisfying appetites, neglect of prayer, the ill-tempered remark — the stuff of everyday life constitutes the waywardness that most believers experience. True, serious sins have sadly found their way into every life, but most of these have no doubt been long ago or quickly expiated. The sins of day-to-day living probably generate few deep regrets and less salutary contrition.
In this coming Sunday’s Gospel, a Pharisee enters the temple and considers his own daily life as a ranking member of Jewish society. His conclusion of general innocence is probably accurate: “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of men — greedy, dishonest, adulterous — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.” The modern Catholic might remark that he too is free of serious greed, dishonesty and unchastity. To justify himself he might observe that he goes to Mass each week and donates to the Catholic Charity Fund. Perhaps he even reads the Rhode Island Catholic.
So how is the average Catholic, the less-than-hardened sinner, who probably tells the priest in confession, “Father, I can’t think of any sins” — how is this lamb among wolves ever to arrive at real contrition, real sorrow, real repentance? How much emotion can be stirred up when one’s offenses are wrong but routine? As long as the average sinner focuses only on himself or, like the Pharisee, only on his neighbor, his compunction will always be tempered. It is only when the sinner takes his mind off his own faults and off his neighbor’s failings and reflects on the exalted supremacy of God that authentic and effective repentance will begin to seize the soul. Genuine repentance does not begin with a consideration of the imperfections of man but rather with a reflection on the excellence of God.
Pope Pius XII lamented in 1943 that the greatest evil of his day was the loss of the sense of sin. This loss of the sense of sin is directly related to mankind’s loss of a sense of God. With no perfect being to contemplate, with no ultimate standard as a measurement, with no lofty sense of duty toward a supreme deity, man’s conscience grows dull. Where there is no awe at virtue, there is no horror at vice. Ignoring God and forgetting Christ, mankind sets his standards too low and fails to grasp the magnitude of every sin. Missing Mass seems not so bad in today’s irreligious environment. But missing Mass is the height of ingratitude when one considers the brilliance of the sacrifice re-enacted there. The pan-sexualism of today’s society may seem a laughing matter when viewed on the screen or in the tabloids. But that same risqué business becomes sordid when understood as a perversion of the creative energy of God. Indifference to social issues may appear to be just a distinction between a liberal and a conservative mentality until the fatherhood of God is understood to embrace and provide for all peoples.
The repentant tax collector in this Sunday’s Gospel is rightly the icon of biblical sorrow for sin. His fear of God — in the finest sense of that phrase — prevents this publican even from approaching the center of the holy building. His dutiful reverence for God humiliates him before the Divine Presence. He dare not approach the holy place because his sins have come into such stark relief when contrasted with the purity of the supreme being. The conscientious Christian should be doubly struck with an awareness of his own sinfulness when he contemplates the excellence of God but also when he ponders the saving death of Jesus Christ. In Christ’s embrace of the cross, the superiority of God becomes tangible, palpable, even physical. In contemplating this, any man should be driven to his knees.
Neglect of God’s excellence leads to complacency with man’s transgressions. Man gets very self-satisfied when he has no heavenly ideal with which to compare himself. The fear of God, notes Proverbs, is the beginning of wisdom — and contrition.