“Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.”
The last few months have been particularly trying and painful for Catholics around the world. There are numerous credible accusations of clergy sexual abuse and a cover up for other abusers. An influential American Cardinal, apparently well known among the hierarchy for his sordid history of sexually molesting young men and seminarians, is reduced to the lay state and banished to a monastery.
As this disgraceful saga continues in the Church, the Church is losing many of her faithful children. Even her staunch defenders are doubting what they have come to believe about the Church all their lives. The Church is also fast losing its ability to attract converts to the faith.
In the midst of this saga and its devastating impact on souls, one thing that we have never heard is a statement of personal responsibility for this mess. No one has had the honesty and courage to say even once, “What I did was wrong and I am responsible for that.” Even as bishops and cardinals resign and priests are taken out of active ministry on supposedly “health” grounds, there is little or no admittance of personal responsibility for wrongdoing.
Why is it very important to admit wrong that we do and take responsibility for it? Because this is the very first step in the journey back to God. In the words of John Paul the Great:
“To acknowledge one’s sin, indeed penetrating still more deeply into the consideration of one’s own personhood to recognize oneself as a sinner, capable of sins and inclined to commit sin, is the essential first step in returning to God.” (Reconciliation and Penance #13)
St. Luke’s Gospel gives us three parables in a row about the mercy of God. The first two parables about the lost sheep and the lost coin show us God’s love for every single one of us. In Jesus Christ, God is the one who “goes after the lost one until He finds it,” and who “brings the lost home rejoicing.” But in these two parables, there is no dimension of personal responsibility on the part of the lost and found sheep and coin.
But the parable of the Prodigal Son is different because the younger son first of all faces himself in his financial and moral brokenness and takes responsibility for his own sinful actions and its consequences, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.” He does not pretend, nor does he blame his older brother or father for his behavior. This humble acknowledgement is his very step in his journey back to the Father, “So he got up and went back to the Father.”
He humbly and publicly acknowledges his sin and personal responsibility before his father and his servants, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.” That is all his father needs to hear and he forgives him and restores to him all that he lost and more, “Quickly, bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.” The returning son comes to experience deeply the generous heart of the father like he never knew before.
St. Paul, writing to Timothy, does not put on airs about his personal sanctity, but he is brutally honest about his own sinful actions and his personal responsibility for them, “I was once a blasphemer and persecutor, and arrogant, but I have been mercifully treated because I acted out of ignorance in my unbelief.” This honest acknowledgement opens him to receive the merciful love of Jesus who “came into the world to save sinners.” Having been saved by the mercy of God, He is thus strengthened to live his life and ministry to the greater glory and honor of God.
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, let us never think that we are the ones who suddenly repent of our sins and return to God, begging for forgiveness. No, on the contrary, we return to God because God constantly seeks for us to bring us back to Him. He enlightens our conscience and moves us to take the first step in returning to Him. He thus relentlessly searches for us at every single moment because He “has prepared a place for us and He wants to take us to Himself.”(Jn 14:3) It is in our returning to Him at every moment, no matter our sins and their consequences, that we can really know the true heart of God. But the first step that we must take on this journey home is to acknowledge the gravity of our sins and to accept responsibility for it.
We speak so much about the mercy of God today without being ready to take this first step back to Him. We first of all pretend that what we are doing is not sinful and that we can even justify it sometimes. This pretense is manifested when we deny moral absolutes, acts that are always and everywhere sinful, no matter the circumstances or the intentions of the actor. We arrogantly pretend that we can determine when God’s unchanging commandments apply and when they do not.
Even when we admit the sinfulness of our actions, we readily blame others for our sins. Children blame their peers for their sinful actions, spouses blame each other for their failed marriages, priests and bishops are busy blaming each other for their sexual perversions, and some even blame God for the deviant sexual orientation and choices that they have come to embrace in life.
Ultimately, when we pretend, justify, or blame others for our own failings, the healing love and mercy cannot flow from the heart of Jesus into His Church and the Church and her members remain spiritually impotent. Remember,
“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.”(1Jn 1:5-10)
If God’s truth, the only thing that “sets us free,”(Jn 8:32) is not in us because of our persistent self-deceit, how then can we be free enough to give ourselves to God and to others in selfless service? How can we hope to be courageous witnesses to the Gospel when we lack this inner freedom?
Moses stood before God to beg for mercy for his rebellious compatriots after they made the golden calf. Moses did not try to pretend that what they did was right. Neither did he blame their pagan neighbors for their own idolatrous behavior. He appealed to the mercy of God and His promises to the patriarchs, “Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, and how you swore to them by your own self, saying, ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and all this land that I promised I will give their descendants as their perpetual heritage.’” He thus won divine mercy for His people.
All God’s promises in the Scriptures are fulfilled for us ultimately in Jesus Christ and His death on the cross for us sinners, “In this God proved His love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”(Rom 5:8) He has freely shed His blood for us and thus we belong to Him now more than sheep belong the shepherd or coins to a woman. Thus He will never stop searching for us until He finds us and brings us to Himself.
Jesus’ unrelenting search for us continues in this Eucharist where He renews His own sacrifice on this altar, to bring us closer to His own heart of love. He wants to heal and transform our broken world through us. His grace in this Eucharist is both light and strength to make that journey back to Him at every moment of our lives. Let us begin again and again our journey back to Him, always ready to take the very first step of acknowledging our sins and personal responsibility, and honestly saying, “Lord, I have sinned against you.”
Glory to Jesus!!! Honor to Mary!!!