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New Approach to Confession?
Q. I would very much like to take a new look at how I go to Confession — to renew myself in this sacrament. Can you recommend a book for me?
I go regularly to Confession. I want to change how I express my sins, but the priest who hears my confession is not open to this. He seems to require a list of sins, and I guess I’m finding this somewhat difficult. To go to another confessor, however, is not feasible for me, due to distance.
N.N, via email
A. Here’s a reply from TCA columnist Father Francis Hoffman, J.C.D.:
The Sacrament of Reconciliation, by which we confess our sins and receive the grace of absolution through the ministry of a priest, is a magnificent help for spiritual growth. The Church indicates that we are obliged to confess “grave sins at least once a year” (cf. canon 988), but those who are seriously interested in pursuing holiness discover that frequent, devotional confession is a necessary weapon in the spiritual struggle.
Let me recommend Benedict Baur’s classic, “Frequent Confession,” available from Scepter Publishers. You may also want to consider “How to Make a Good Confession” by Rev. Kris Stubna, S.T.D. (Our Sunday Visitor, 2003).
I am not sure what you mean when you write: “I want to change how I express my sins.” I sense you want to avoid routine in your regular confession and go deeper to get at the root of the sins. Bravo! Take courage and attack your defects with a battle axe!
An experienced confessor/spiritual director can help you to face up to yourself and identify your predominant fault, but reliable spiritual reading can help as well. I suggest the classic, “The Three Ages of the Interior Life” (TAN, 1999, 2 vols.), penned by Rev. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, the doctoral thesis director of John Paul II. You will find a wealth of insight in this book.
Remember that the “acts of the penitent” necessary for a valid confession are the admission of personal sins and contrition, but the most important disposition for personal spiritual growth is contrition. In order to incite more profound and sincere sentiments of sorrow for your sins, you may find it helpful to meditate on the passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ while kneeling in front of a Crucifix.
This meditation will enhance the fruitfulness of your act of contrition, and in turn enrich your sacramental experience of confession. Far from leading you to a morose sense of guilt, true contrition brings you to the merciful heart of Jesus with consequent joy and peace for your soul.
Paying for Ex-Husband’s Sins?
Q. I have been told that a person who was married in the Catholic Church cannot receive Communion when divorced. I have remarried and at one church I am allowed to receive communion, but at the parish where I am a member, the priest told me I should not.
I applied for annulment from the Church and was told that I was not eligible for that. I was in an abusive relationship, and I felt my life was at stake. Now I find that I am living in sin since I remarried someone else through the court.
I have tried to remarry in the Church but can’t. How is this fair? I feel abandoned, and it’s as if I’m paying for my ex-husband’s sins.
N.N., via email
A. First, let me say that I am sorry to hear of your predicament. You have a difficult cross to bear, and I will pray for you.
Next, we should note that the Church does not deny the Eucharist to all who are divorced, but rather to those who have attempted to remarry without first obtaining an annulment — that is, the Church’s authoritative judgment and public recognition that the first attempt at marriage was in fact invalid. What keeps you from Communion is not that you obtained a civil divorce from an abusive husband (which is regrettable but understandable), but rather that you attempted to marry again.
Why does that choice present a barrier to receiving Communion? Because the Church must affirm, at Jesus’ instruction, that a true marriage can be ended only by the death of one of the spouses. A civil divorce may provide safety, emotional relief and other benefits in situations such as yours, but if the marriage was valid in the first place, it remains a reality, until one of you dies.
If you applied for an annulment and the Church refused to grant one, then the authorities competent to judge the matter concluded that your original marriage is in fact valid. Since you can’t be validly married to two men at once, this means that your present relationship, though recognized as a “marriage” in the eyes of the secular authorities, is not truly a valid marriage.
If you are living as husband and wife (that is, having sexual relations), but are not in fact husband and wife, that is a matter of grave sin. And those who are living in grave sin (of this or any other kind) should not receive Communion; it’s a desecration of the Lord’s Body and Blood.
Given the situation, it’s possible to begin receiving Communion again, after sacramental confession of your sins, if you and your present partner agree to live (and in fact begin living) as “brother and sister”; that is, without sexual relations. If you think that you could live together in such an arrangement, I would suggest talking it over with the pastor of the parish where you are registered.
Again, I fully recognize the difficulty of the situation, and I grieve for you. But the Church cannot simply disobey the clear teaching of her Lord, nor ignore the realities He has shown us about the nature of marriage. This is why Catholics need, now more than ever, straightforward preaching and personal counseling about what makes a valid marriage and about the futility of attempting to contract a second marriage if the original one has been judged by the Church as valid.
As for the unfairness of the situation: It’s true that in many situations in life, the innocent pay for the sins of the guilty. But as we have seen, the unfairness is not on the part of the Church, who has no option to disobey Christ. The unfairness stems from your abusive husband’s behavior.
At the same time, you must also admit that after your divorce, you yourself were responsible to obey the Church’s teaching that an annulment must be sought before attempting marriage again. If you had not made the choice to seek a consequent civil marriage, you would not be facing your present dilemma.
Perhaps you acted contrary to the Church’s teaching in ignorance of it. But was it an ignorance you could have overcome with the simple effort of consulting a priest about your intentions? Only you can answer that question.
Uncertainty About the Deceased
Q. I am asking this question after reading your reply entitled “Prayer for the Devil” (click here.) [Q & A for 04-07-09] You inform us that praying for the devil’s conversion is pointless, as is praying for anyone who died rejecting God. How do I apply this information when praying for the dearly departed, when I do not know of their religion, or whether they might have committed suicide (and whether they were in their right mind)?
A. Though our prayers cannot help someone who has died rejecting God, only God himself knows who has died rejecting Him. So even though it makes no sense to pray for the devil (because we know for sure that he is eternally damned), we can always pray hopefully for the departed, because their final destiny is still hidden from us.
If in the end it turns out that someone we prayed for did in fact die rejecting God, our prayers will not be wasted. Those prayers will have had good effects on us, and I suspect that God may well allow our petitions to bear fruit for the salvation and purification of other souls being purged on their way to heaven.
Q. When, who and how was the first saint named? Who were some of those who followed in order? Where does the term “saint” come from? I know this is complicated by many factors, but what is the consensus?
J.W., Charlotte, N.C.
A. The English word saint comes from the Latin term sanctus, which literally means “holy.” The New Testament Greek equivalent, sometimes translated as “saint” and sometimes as “holy,” is hagios (feminine, hagia).
From earliest times, Our Lady, the Apostles, and many other well-known Christians were referred to with the title “Holy”: “Holy Mary,” “Holy Paul,” “Holy Peter,” and so on, in the Greek and Latin languages. In this sense, they were popularly designated as “saints” (holy ones”), but the Church had no formal canonization process at that time.
Eventually, not only the faithful departed appearing in Scripture, but also the martyrs and others of extraordinary holiness came to be popularly considered as “holy ones,” with a confidence that they were now in heaven, were worthy of veneration and could intercede for those on earth. Such confidence was rewarded whenever petitions for the help of these faithful departed were answered.
For some centuries the public veneration of these “holy ones” was regulated by local bishops and councils. But the cults of the most popular saints spread far beyond the limits of their own diocese or country, and some abuses eventually arose that called for papal intervention in the matter.
The first historically attested formal canonization by Rome was that of Ulrich of Augsburg, by Pope John XV in 993. In the thirteenth century, the requirement of papal approval for canonization finally became canon law.
The use of the same Latin and Greek terms to mean either “holy” or “saint” explains why, for example, the archangel Michael is called in English “Saint” Michael, even though he is an angel rather than a (human) saint. In his case, the title “saint” simply means “holy.”
Wasn’t the Adulterer Guilty, Too?
Q. In John 8:1–11, Jesus forgives the adulterous woman. What was the punishment, if any, for the man with whom she committed adultery? Jesus forgave the woman but said nothing about the man. Was the law of the time such that a man was not guilty of adultery also?
A.F., Warrenton, Mo.
A. Here’s a reply from TCA columnist Father Ray Ryland, Ph.D., J.D.:
The Old Testament prescribes the same punishment — capital punishment — for both adulterers. “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death” (Lv 20:10). “If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman; so you shall purge the evil from Israel” (Dt 22:22).
Remember, now, that the scribes and Pharisees were enemies of Jesus, intent on trying to create some charge to bring against Him. Here they thought they had posed a dilemma for him.
If He upheld the Old Testament law and agreed the adulteress should be executed, they would accuse Him of sedition; since A.D. 30 the Roman conquerors had forbidden Jews to carry out capital punishment. On the other hand, if Jesus said the woman should not be punished, they would accuse Him of breaking the Old Testament law.
You rightly ask, What about the woman’s partner in crime? Why did Jesus’ enemies not bring the guilty man along with the woman? That fact shows their motivation was not simply doing justice under the Jewish law. They were conspiring against Jesus. They evidently were using the woman in an attempt to trap Jesus in either sedition or heresy.
It is possible that they had sent someone (one of their own number?) to entice the woman into adultery and arranged to break in on the adulterous act. This, incidentally, would make them accessories to the crime of adultery and therefore guilty also. Is this what Jesus had in mind when he said, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her”? (John 8:7).
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