It began with a text on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception:
“Dad, don’t forget to go to Mass today. It’s a Holy Day of Obligation. There is a noon Mass at St. Jude’s, FYI. Remember, intentionally missing Mass on a HDO is a mortal sin.”
Four hours later, my father responded,
“Just got back…it was packed and I arrived with a minute to spare, but one of the ushers found me a seat. I feel good thanks to going.
Question, though: Is missing a Holy Day of Obligation a mortal sin if you are aware of it and choose to ignore it or a venial sin otherwise (not knowing it and missing it)? Analogous to not knowing a law and breaking one is cause for arrest”
I took a breath and said a quick prayer for pecking out a reply,
“Grave offense, but mortal sin depends on three conditions: 1) grave matter; 2) full knowledge; 3) deliberate consent. If it’s serious, you know, and do it anyway, it’s a mortal sin.”
A few moments later, he responded again:
“A lot of these words are subject to interpretation. I would like to meet you sometime privately and discuss the topic further.”
Five days later, my mom, wife, and daughter caught an early morning bus to New York City for the day and my dad asked if he could stop by to see my two boys and drop something off for me. “Of course,” I said, “come on by.”
He arrived smiling, recounting almost getting in an accident with an 18-wheeler on the drive over to my home, and gave his grandsons hugs. “Have a seat, dad” I told him in between firing off work emails, “I’ll put some coffee on.”
We went into the kitchen, just the two of us, and he laid his copy of the Baltimore Catechism that I had sent him over the summer on the table, as well as a frayed black prayer book the size of an index card.
“My dad gave me this prayer book,” he said reflectively, fingering through the yellowed pages.
“Yeah?” I asked, and then inquired about his religious upbringing as a child. Did he go to CCD? Did his father teach him the faith?
“Well, my father would go to the Divine Liturgy in the city on Sundays,” he began “but he never took me for some reason. There was a boy in our neighborhood who I knew, and I would go to his Episcopalian…what would you call it…Sunday school to, you know, learn the basics. It wasn’t until I turned twelve that we had a Ukrainian Catholic chapel in Roxborough. So after that I started going there with my dad and a priest there would give lessons.”
I knew my grandfather died right before my dad graduated college at age twenty-one, and that always left a hole in his heart that was never really filled. My grandmother–who was Russian Orthodox–struggled with depression and my father was an only child, so I had to assume that he stopped going to church around that time. Like my grandfather and grandmother, my parents’ marriage was one of mixed-faith: my mother was a life-long cultural Episcopalian, my father a baptized-but-uncatechized Eastern-rite Catholic. You can’t give what you don’t have, and so it was no surprise that my brothers and I were left to our own devices when it came to religion: we had no CCD, some sporadic Sunday school and baptism in the Episcopal church as infants…and knew nothing really about the person of Christ of Christian doctrine. Nor were we forced to go to church…and so we usually didn’t. It was only at the age of eighteen, after years of living as a secularist that gave way to a dramatic conversion at the hand of grace, that I came to know Jesus and came into the Catholic Church of my own volition.
I was piecing together the fragments of my father’s religious childhood formation, and things were starting to make a little more sense in the current context of our text exchange. I decided that rather than shoot the breeze and talk about what was more comfortable (the weather, the stock market, car maintenance, etc), I’d cut to the chase and talk about the only thing that really matters. I asked him if we could say a quick prayer together, to which he obliged, and begged the Holy Spirit to give us the grace to guide our conversation, confident in Christ’s promise that “where two or more are gathered in my Name, there I am in their midst.”
I could see, at 73 years old, that he was essentially an infant when it came to faith formation. “I was always taught,” he said with a far-off look in his eyes, “that good people go to Heaven, and that bad people go to Hell.” I winced a little. It wasn’t uncommon—I know lots of people of my father’s generation who hold the same erroneous thinking. He went on to say that he was taught (presumably, by the priest as a child), that mortal sin was “heinous, serious”—but never anything more than that. I think what followed is that mortal sin was equated with bank robbers and murderers, and that since my father wasn’t either of those two things, he was in the clear. Things like neglecting to attend Mass, and other sins of commission and omission were never even on the radar.
“You know, dad, it says in the bible that ‘there is no one who is good, not one.’ I don’t know how to say this, but what you were taught is…it’s not right. At least not completely.” For the next two hours, as my father sat quietly listening, I explained the basics of justification: that we are born into sin, washed clean in baptism, and saved by grace through Christ’s redemptive work on the Cross. That it is not in faith alone that we are saved (as sola fide Protestants maintain), that we need works to accompany that faith (for faith without works is dead, as St. James writes), and how mortal sin severs friendship with God and the life of grace within us and is easier to commit than one may think.
At one point he got a concerned look on his face. “I mean, how can one get to Heaven when there are so many sins one could commit? No one is perfect.” I gently told him about the great mercy extended to us in the Sacrament of Penance, that mortal sin severs that friendship with God and must be restored through Confession and that as long as we have breath in us we can always turn to God in repentance. He fingered an Examination of Conscience pamphlet I had given him a few months ago. “See,” I pointed, “if you are unsure what may be grave matter, this will help you examine your conscience and serve as a guide.” We went through the Baltimore Catechism together, or at least one section of it (on sin).
“Ok, then what is purgatory?” he asked. Purgatory, I told him, is purification after death, and it hurts like hell but is not forever; that it is also a great mercy of God extended to us sinners so that “none are lost.” “All this is a lot to take in,” he said somberly, his voice a little unsteady. “I’m seventy-three years old, and it’s not easy to change, especially when you’ve been thinking and believing a certain way all your life.”
“Dad,” I said to him softly, “I want you to be saved. I want you to be with us in Heaven. God can supply the grace to change. He gives to all who ask. Look at the Good Thief on the cross. He was able to join Jesus in Paradise, given the grace of final penitence. As long as you’re still alive, there is still time. But once you’re dead…that’s it. Game over. No re-dos. There is a Heaven and there is a Hell, and we get to choose, through our free will, what path we want to walk. It’s impossible for us, but all things are possible with God. And Hell isn’t just for the Hitlers and Salins.”
I pulled the Miraculous Medal I wear around my neck out of my shirt. “This is called a sacramental. The Church gives us these various sacramentals as a conduit of grace to help us do the impossible by faith.” I recounted to him how my wife and I were converted away from the mortal sin of using contraception by way of the Miraculous Medal, and how the Mother of God poured out graces from her Son to help us change course. “I have some extras in the dining room…I’ll give you one before you leave. It may be just the help you need.”
I knew it was a lot to take in all at once—that the Church in the 1960’s through now had kind of dropped the catechetical ball and left men like my father in a sea of subjective theological heterodoxy and catechetical ambiguity; I reassured my dad that he was not alone or unique, but that many people of his generation simply weren’t taught the faith well, that bad teaching and fluffy filler got mixed into the mortar to weaken the foundation. “But it’s never too late to learn, dad.” He nodded thoughtfully.
When my five year old came in to tug on grandpa’s sleeve so that he would watch him ride his bike, that was our signal that I had to get back to work and my dad had to get back to, well, whatever retired people do with their days. “One more thing, dad.” He turned. “Just like you can’t have a healthy marriage with mom without talking and listening and spending time with her, you can’t have a relationship with God without prayer. Can you commit to taking an hour out of your busy schedule some time in the next couple weeks to spend before the Lord in Adoration? You don’t have to do anything or say anything…just give God the hour. Can you do that?”
“I can do that.”
Great, I said. The church down the street from you has it on Wednesdays from 8:30am-8pm.
“What’s today?” he asked. He never knew what day it was.
“Today is Tuesday,” I noted. “How about I join you tomorrow, say eleven o’clock? The church is right down the street from my office. I can go there on my lunch break.”
“Okay,” he responded. “Eleven o’clock.”
“Great. It’s a date.”
As I walked my dad to the door, he told me a story of praying to St. Jude when he was twenty-one years old and completely despondent after graduating college at unable to find a teaching job, despite sending out applications everywhere. He took out a taped and folded prayer card of the saint to show me. “I had prayed that prayer in the car when I was out, and when I returned home my mother told me someone had called wanting to bring me in for an interview. I was so…happy. I couldn’t believe it.”
“That’s awesome,” I said smiling, adding, “Dad, if God can answer prayers like that for your material well-being, think how much more He can do for your spiritual well-being, which matters even more? Ask and you shall receive; knock and the door will be opened for you. It’s the only thing that really matters in the end.”
“Okay, then” he nodded as we got to his car in the driveway. “I guess I’ll see you tomorrow then. Eleven o’clock. See you there.” I hugged him, and he hugged me back tightly.
I’ll see you there, dad.