My brothers and sisters, let us acknowledge our sins… I am writing a weekly commentary on the Mass and how it pertains to, shapes, our everyday life. So we have now gotten to the penitential rite.
Last week I talked about how in the ritual greeting we express our desire that the whole body of believers be gathered into a place of grace, love, and communion, and by extension the whole human race as well.
Now we acknowledge frankly and freely that we have failed to live this out very well since the last time we came to Mass. I confess… that I have greatly sinned… in my thought, words, what I have done, failed to do… through my fault… my very great fault… pray for me… Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy.
We all know the drill. Right at the outset of the sacred mysteries of the liturgy, we are asked by the Church to be humble and simple and admit that we’re not such hot stuff, not doing such a great job of it. This humility is then the right space to occupy so as to let God do what He is going to do in the action of the Mass.
It is worth noting that all of us do this together—the priest is praying the exact same prayers here as the laity. Sometimes people who don’t like the Church accuse us of using guilt and shame as tools of control, keeping people down by telling them what horrible sinners they are. This is pretty far removed from actual contemporary Catholic culture, although I suppose there may have been some of that in an earlier era, at least in some places.
But this ritual expression of sin and our need for mercy is not that, but is a simple reflection of reality. We are all capable of thinking and saying and doing what is wrong and not doing what is right, and not just capable of it but guilty of it to some degree. So why try to hide it?
Living out the penitential rite in our daily lives would transform the world. I am always reminded of GK Chesterton’s contribution to an essay contest one of the London newspapers was having entitled “What’s Wrong With the World?” People could submit whatever they liked on that topic. GKC’s contribution read as follows: “Dear Editors: In response to your question ‘What’s Wrong With the World’, I am. Sincerely…”
Well, that’s it. I am. We live in a world where finger pointing, shaming, the judgment and outrage machine is running 24/7. It’s the Republicans’ fault. It’s the Democrats’ fault. It’s the feminists’ fault. It’s the white man’s fault. On and on and on it goes. What’s wrong with the world? You! And you, and you, and you… and I’m just getting started here.
What’s wrong with the world? I am. I do not love as I should. I do not give as I should. I am not as wise and prudent, self-controlled and compassionate, just and brave as I should be. It’s my fault, folks! Lay the blame at the feet of Fr. Denis Lemieux – I am the problem.
This is actually a path to great freedom and joy and simplicity of heart. When I no longer feel the need to defend my every decision as being unimpeachable, when I no longer need to deflect the blame for the world’s sorry state onto someone else—anyone else!—when I no longer spend all my energy looking for big enough stones to throw at whoever the latest poor schmuck is who has been ‘caught in the act’ of whatever (cf. John 8), but instead just say, “You know, I’m not perfect, I’ve kind of messed up a lot, and I want to try to do better,” it is amazing how much more peaceful that is.
This is really where the Internet in particular fuels truly toxic spiritual attitudes. There is always someone, somewhere who has just been ‘caught in the act’ of doing or saying something wrong. Whether it’s some doofus scientist making a tasteless joke about women in the lab or some TV reporter being snooty to the person who towed her car or whatever the ‘outrage of the week’ is, there’s always someone. And once we’ve decided to forego our own personal penitential rite, we can spend all day and all night chasing after the latest victim, the scapegoat of the day, pelting them not with stones but with tweets and getting them fired or whatever.
There is no end to it. Or rather, the only end to it is to say that I am not perfect, and to live that out by not being so horribly judgmental and accusatory towards everyone else. That is what the Church is getting at by starting each Mass with the penitential rite—let’s all just get down on the same level, which happens to be reality, that we are all struggling sinners who do not get it right.
And from that we can rise with Jesus to the action of grace, the action of God pulling us up from our sins and helping us to live in such a way that we don’t sin any more. Live in the Spirit, live in His Heart, and so love with His Heart. But that won’t and cannot happen so long as we are denying our sins and furiously blaming everyone else for everything else.
What’s wrong with the world? I am. Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.