This handy prayer card sized "Act of Contrition" guide helps us to prepare for the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
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Do Not Tempt Them to Despair
By Chris Sparks (Jan 29, 2014)
EDITOR'S NOTE: On Jan. 1 we began a 10-week countdown to the beginning of Lent. Ten weeks? Ten Commandments? Yes. In preparation for Lent, together let's make an examination of conscience by means of this weekly series of reflections on each of the Ten Commandments. In this fifth entry, we reflect on God's intentions in declaring "You shall not kill" (Ex 20:13):
And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna. — Mt 10:28; see also Lk 12:4-5
During my undergraduate years, I walked downstairs into the basement of the campus student center, only to be greeted by my friend saying, "There you are! Come here and explain this to me! How could a priest say such a thing?" She held out a copy of the book Dead Man Walking by Sister Helen Prejean, C. S. J., which tells the story of Sr. Prejean's ministry to men on death row for murder. She served as a spiritual advisor to some of the worst of the worst — rapists, murderers, men guilty of truly despicable crimes — seeking to guide them back to repentance and a relationship with God before the end. At the beginning of her work, Sister Prejean is speaking with the chaplain of one of the prisons. He tries to give her a warning:
The chaplain says that "these people," I must remember, are the "scum of the earth," and I must be very, very careful because they are all con men and will try to take advantage of me every way they can. "You can't trust them," he says emphatically. "Your job is to help this fellow save his soul by receiving the sacraments of the Church before he dies," he says.
My friend found it inconceivable that the chaplain, a supposedly good Christian, could say such things.
"Scum of the earth? Really?"
I said, "Now, wait a minute. He might have been telling the truth."
She looked at me in shock. I hurried to explain.
"Consider for a minute. What if those men in that jail were every bit as bad as the chaplain said? What if they were the worst of criminals, guilty of horrific crimes?"
Her face began to alter from a look of annoyed confusion to one of disgust.
"Well, if they're all that bad, then why is she going in there in the first place?"
"Look, this is one element of Christianity most people fail to recognize. Jesus Christ didn't just get a papercut to redeem us from our sins. He died a bloody awful death, the worst that could be devised at the time. Why? We've become monstrous in sin. He didn't die for the forgivable sins. He died for the unforgivable sins. He died for us after we'd become monstrous."
It took her a little while, but then she began to appreciate the point.
Chesterton said it all much more elegantly, of course, in his short story The Chief Mourner of Marne:
"...We [priests] have to touch such men, not with a bargepole, but with a benediction," [Father Brown] said. "We have to say the word that will save them from hell. We alone are left to deliver them from despair when your human charity deserts them. Go on your own primrose path pardoning all your favorite vices and being generous to your fashionable crimes; and leave us in the darkness, vampires of the night, to console those who really need consolation; who do things really indefensible, things that neither the world nor they themselves can defend; and none but a priest will pardon. Leave us with the men who commit the mean and revolting and real crimes; mean as St. Peter when the cock crew, and yet the dawn came."
Now why do I start a meditation on the fifth commandment forbidding the taking of innocent human life by talking about God's forgiveness of such sins? Because the greatest crime of all is to take the eternal life of another human being, and eternal life is lost through despair perhaps more often and more completely than through any other means.
After all, God can forgive any sin save the sin against the Holy Spirit (Mk 3:29). Traditionally, that sin has been understood to be the refusal to believe that God can save, that God can forgive. If you do not believe and accept that God loves you, forgives you, and desires nothing more than to share eternal life with you, then He cannot touch you. In the power of your free will, you lock him out of your soul and death must follow.
This is why Jesus came to St. Faustina with the message of Divine Mercy: to break through the pervasive despair which clings to the hearts of humanity and bring the light of faith, hope, and love. This is why she records:
[Jesus said,] "The greater the sinner, the greater the right to My mercy" (Diary, 723).
God's mercy sometimes touches the sinner at the last moment in a wondrous and mysterious way. Outwardly, it seems as if everything were lost, but it is not so. The soul, illumined by a ray of God's powerful, final grace, turns to God in the last moment with such a power of love that, in an instant, it receives from God forgiveness of sins and punishment, while outwardly it shows no signs either of repentance or contrition, because souls [at that stage] no longer react to external things. Oh, how beyond comprehension is God's mercy! (Diary, 1698).
We can shut God out, but He will make every effort to enter back in to our lives, bringing with Him divine life and love to share with us.
This is perhaps why Jesus was so furious with the scribes and Pharisees, who tied up heavy loads and did not lift a finger to lighten them, unlike His own teaching, which He delivered, and then accomplished the Passion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension so that He could send us the Holy Spirit, the powerful Love of God, to be our strength and our guide in obeying the laws of God. Here is a teacher who lightens the load! Here is a Rabbi who bears the burden He sets for His students, a Rabbi who is present and helping His students throughout all the ages until the judgment day. Here is a Rabbi who sets His shoulder to the plow and never looks back, even as He requires the rest of us to also carry our cross as we follow Him.
You shall not kill — you shall not cause despair in your fellow human beings. You shall speak of God's mercy, and make it manifest in your own life through doing the works of mercy. You shall not kill.
To learn more about the fifth commandment, see the Catechism of the Catholic Church articles 2258-2330.
1. I, the Lord, am your God. You shall not have other gods besides Me.
2. You shall not take the name of the Lord God in vain.
3. Remember to keep holy the Lord's Day.
4. Honor your father and your mother.
5. You shall not kill.
6. You shall not commit adultery.
7. You shall not steal.
8. You shall not bear false witness.
9. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife.
10. You shall not covet your neighbor's goods.