Maybe My Math is Off

May 19 21:00 2004 Gary Shirley Print This Article

I belong to a vibrant, growing parish. We are blessed with over 3,000 ... ... with an ebb and flow of ... 30 families per month. ... abound. The parish school has a waiti

I belong to a vibrant,Guest Posting growing parish. We are blessed with over 3,000 registered families, with an ebb and flow of approximately 30 families per month. Ministries abound. The parish school has a waiting list. New buildings are under construction to meet the burgeoning need. By all the usual indicators, we are perceived as a strong Catholic community.

After receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation one Saturday, I paused to reflect on why, in such a robust parish, the line outside the confessional was so short. I decided to crunch a few numbers. Suppose that our 3,000 registered families have four members each - husband, wife and two children. Further suppose that only one of the two children in each family is over the age of reason, which means they have received their First Communion. Given this demographic, there are then three people in each household whom (we hope) routinely receive the Eucharist. These same people would incur a commensurate obligation to receive Reconciliation, so they are in a state of grace to receive Holy Communion. This yields a total of 9,000 Catholics in need of sacramental absolution. Minimum.

Reconciliation is typically administered on every Saturday of the year except Holy Saturday, which means 51 Saturdays are available for the Sacrament. Again being conservative, let’s assume these parishioners desire to partake of Reconciliation only twice a year. This means a minimum of 18,000 confessions to be administered annually. Simple arithmetic reveals that on each of these Saturdays our dedicated priests would have to hear the confessions of 353 souls.

Maybe my math is off, but it’s rare to see more than a handful of people in line. Thanks to the Blessed Mother’s promise, First Saturday each month usually has the most activity. On many other occasions, however, I arrive at church with not a single person waiting to enter the confessional in front of me. There sits a priest patiently waiting for even a few of his flock to appear. Grace and mercy for the asking with no one to ask. Gifts for the taking and no takers.

Even factoring in the few hundred people that attend the Penance Services held each Lent and Advent, the numbers fall far short of our registered families, let alone the vast ocean of non-registered souls who worship in stealth. So, where is everyone? Why the staggering shortfall? Why the willingness to forgo the boundless mercy of a loving God? My math must be really far off. Or, maybe, some other force is at work.

Perhaps the answer lies in a telling passage in the Catechism. It states, "Without the knowledge Revelation gives of God we cannot recognize sin clearly and are tempted to explain it as merely a developmental flaw, a psychological weakness, a mistake, or the necessary consequence of an inadequate social structure, etc. Only in the knowledge of God’s plan for man can we grasp that sin is an abuse of the freedom that God gives to created persons so that they are capable of loving him and loving one another." (CCC 387)

In essence, the passage warns that our failure to seek God means that we lose our sense of sin. Is there a more apt description of modern America? Would anyone argue that the word "sin" has altogether been stricken from our vocabulary, relegated to the yellowed pages of the Baltimore Catechism? We have deemed it an offensive term. Its use is considered highly judgmental and intolerant. No one sins anymore.

In its place is enlightened modern thought. In our society, morality is a relative concept - an action or thought is moral if we deem it so. Feelings matter above all. God is molded in the image that we consider appropriate, always full of mercy but devoid of justice. Our new philosophy is backed up by countless talk shows, books and movies wherein the newest "groundbreaking" behavior is sanctioned and applauded, but never condemned.

We watch in fascination as people parade their intimacies on national television and are praised for doing so. We laud dissent from timeless moral norms, masking wrong behavior by fanciful euphemisms. Actions are blamed on everyone but ourselves. Even the most heinous crimes are society’s fault, rather than that of the perpetrator. The insanity defense rules the courtrooms. Our children learn early that "white" lies are acceptable and "tolerance" is sacred doctrine. As Catholics immersed in such a culture, many of us have decided that going to Reconciliation is simply unnecessary. Since we do not sin, we do not need to inconvenience ourselves on Saturday. No need to feel any guilt. No need for repentance.

Oh, really? Truth must once again illuminate the darkness. None less than St. John reminds us that, "If we say we are without sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing." (1 Jn 1: 8-10) Our society has been blinded to the raw power of temptation. We have forgotten our human inclination to give in to its allure. Doubt, feigned ignorance or simple hardness of heart still produce the same ages-old result: disobedience. Adam and Eve all over again.

Yes, sin does exist. One might even say it prospers. No one is immune from its attraction. Through Christ and His Church, however, objective truth and boundless mercy exist as well. A loving and just God is still in residence. Like the priest patiently waiting in the confessional for his flock, Our Lord stands ready to show us the way.

Vibrant Catholic life is not about new facilities, school enrollment or the highest level of financial contributions. It’s not about a full calendar of parish functions. It’s about boldly living the faith and committing to Christ each day. It’s about squarely facing the reality of sin and seeking shelter in Him and in His Church. It’s witnessing to the world by breaking from the culture. Waking up to this reality means that the confessional lines every Saturday will wind around the church building several times. When they do, the math will take care of itself.

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Gary Shirley
Gary Shirley

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