The Spirituality of the Believing Sinner

By Chris Sparks

[Jesus said,] “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ I did not come to call the righteous but sinners” (Lk 5:32).

The first step in being a good Catholic is to know and profess that you are a bad Catholic.

That sounds weird, I know — but it’s right there in our worship at Mass, with the Penitential Rite coming at the very beginning. We begin our participation in heavenly worship by acknowledging that we have sinned.

This paradox is present in our private prayers and devotions, in the Our Father, where we ask God to forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us. It’s in the Hail Mary, where we ask our mother to pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.

And it’s present in one of the most hopeful passages of the entire Gospel — at least, I find it hopeful.

[Jesus said,] "Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, 'O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity — greedy, dishonest, adulterous — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.' But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, 'O God, be merciful to me a sinner.' I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted" (Lk 18:10-14).

The path to justification, to salvation, to forgiveness isn’t to hide one’s sin, to try to keep it secret, to hope that nobody notices. God is omniscient, in part because He’s omnipresent. There is nowhere He is not, at least as Creator and Sustainer. He is everywhere, at every time, and so He sees all. To attempt to hide our sins from Him is to guarantee they will be brought into the light; to confess our sins to Him, on the other hand, is in some fashion to guarantee that a veil will be drawn across them, that they will be forgotten, that they will never be spoken of again in the courts of Heaven or in the Last Judgment.

Further, Confession allows the light of grace into the darkest corners of our lives. Sunlight itself has a cleansing, healing effect — how much more do the rays streaming from Christ’s pierced side cleanse us and heal us, restoring us to a share in the divine life and love?

So the spirituality of Christianity is one of repentance and mercy, not of keeping up appearances. We are given gifts and responsibilities, yes — and we are fallen, concupiscent sinners. “Holiness does not consist in never having erred or sinned,” said Pope Benedict XVI at a general audience on Jan. 31, 2007. “Holiness increases the capacity for conversion, for repentance, for willingness to start again and, especially, for reconciliation and forgiveness.”

Earlier in his career, before he was pope, the theologian Joseph Ratzinger wrote:

The unrealistic demand that everything the Church teaches be lived completely and in all its fullness fails to take into account humanity as it actually is. There exists in every man a certain tension between that which the Church recognizes as what the Christian ought to be and do and that which the average Christian normally achieves. That is why penance and pardon are fundamental constants in the life of a Christian. In fact, the strength of the Church, the possibility of making her teachings more widely known to mankind, lies not so much in the extensive sphere of mass influence, but rather in the fact that she encounters people personally in the small communities in which they live (Co-Workers of the Truth, p. 102).

This is why Catholics don’t agree with the Protestant doctrine of “once saved, always saved.” We all must work out our salvation with fear and trembling (see Phil 2:12); we all must accept that there will be fasts as well as feasts, and penances as well as absolution. We live life as pilgrims on the way home to Heaven, to Jesus. That road is the Way of the Cross, but past dying to self, there’s resurrection and life.

Saint Faustina gives us a dramatic description of what that looks like:

One day, I saw two roads. One was broad, covered with sand and flowers, full of joy, music and all sorts of pleasures. People walked along it, dancing and enjoying themselves. They reached the end without realizing it. And at the end of the road there was a horrible precipice; that is, the abyss of hell. The souls fell blindly into it; as they walked, so they fell. And their number was so great that it was impossible to count them. And I saw the other road, or rather, a path, for it was narrow and strewn with thorns and rocks; and the people who walked along it had tears in their eyes, and all kinds of suffering befell them. Some fell down upon the rocks, but stood up immediately and went on. At the end of the road there was a magnificent garden filled with all sorts of happiness, and all these souls entered there. At the very first instant they forgot all their sufferings (Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, 153).

So the spirituality of Christianity is the spirituality of Divine Mercy. That is, we follow Jesus, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, knowing that we are weak and He is strong; that we are fallen, and He is unfallen; that we are not God, and He is God. We are not perfect people walking perfectly here below, and God is all right with that, so long as we are repentant; so long as we humble ourselves; so long as we remember who we really are: prodigal children, all.

So let us remember God’s merciful love for us. Let us take a serious account of our sins, and go to Confession when we can, abiding by the Church’s law that we confess our sins at least once a year. Listen to the wise counsel of saints who recommend more frequent Confession, as well; once a month or once a week, even, can be a helpful spiritual practice, especially if we are afflicted with addictions (such as to drugs, alcohol, or pornography) or habitual sins (such as losing our temper, masturbation, or gossip). Let us not despair of our salvation, but rather trust in God’s merciful love. Remember the wisdom of Pope Benedict: The path to sanctity for the ordinary Christian is one of penance and pardon, not of never sinning. So let us rejoice in the mercy of God, and repent of our sins. Let us turn again to Jesus and be saved.

Pray for me, that I may practice what I preach. I’ll pray for you.

Chris Sparks serves as senior book editor for the Marian Fathers. He is the author of the Marian Press book How Can You Still Be Catholic? 50 Answers to a Good Question.


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