Good vs. holy

In nearly 30 years as a journalist, one of the most interesting phenomena I’ve seen occurs in courtrooms, when a person found guilty stands before a judge and says, “I’m a good person.”

It is not uncommon. Ask a prosecutor. It does not matter if the convicted person stole a car, plotted a bank heist, committed voter fraud or broke into a house and throttled some old lady before grabbing her jewelry and cash. When the judge asks if the guilty person has anything to say before the sentence is imposed, “I’m a good person” is typical.

It is true outside of courtrooms, too. Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, who was caught on tape making racist and other vulgar statements, told an interviewer, “I’m a good person.” Aldon Smith, the troubled young linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers, told the press in May, “I’m a good person, and the people who know me know I’m a good person.”

That he was stabbed at a party he hosted, made false bomb threats at Los Angeles International Airport, has been charged with driving under the influence and has become a liability for his employer seems beside the point.

Frequently, I have heard Catholics invoke the “good person” defense when it comes to the Faith. Something like this: “I feel that I’m a good person. Why do I need to go to church?”

I tell them they need church for the same reason they need medical checkups even though they feel fine.

Thinking of oneself as “good” is a common conceit. This is because radical individualism indulges emotion and overlooks objective truth.

But as Catholics, we are not called to be “good” people, largely defined as being nice to our family, friends and pets. We are called to be holy. This is why it is difficult to be Christian, especially among secularists who believe being good means you can engage in all kinds of bad stuff.

Holy does not mean holier-than-thou, the irritating act of pious hypocrisy. A holy life is a life in which every act is to honor and glorify the Creator. Holy is humble. It must be, otherwise it is fraud.

We Catholics have a great blessing if we wish to leap toward holiness: confession. The sacrament of reconciliation is the first step on the path to a holy life. Pope Francis speaks of the sacrament frequently.

In February, he told an audience in St. Peter’s Square, “Be courageous, and go to confession. ... Someone can say, ‘I confess my sins only to God.’ Yes, you can say to God, ‘forgive me,’ and say your sins. But our sins are also against our brothers, against the Church. This is why it is necessary to ask forgiveness of the Church and of our brothers, in the person of the priest. While the celebration of the sacrament is personal, it is rooted in the universality of the Church,” which “accompanies us on the path of conversion.”

Conversion from living a “good” life, defined subjectively, to living a holy life, defined by God. The Holy Father said he goes to confession every two weeks. But a 2008 survey conducted by Georgetown University shows 45 percent of Catholics never receive the sacrament, and most of the rest infrequently. Only 2 percent go to confession once a month or more.

This is sad, because the spiritual resurrection granted by the sacrament is wondrous. Ask any priest. As the words of absolution are spoken, they literally see the great burden of sin lifted.

Alas, Saturday confession is the loneliest hour of the week for a pastor, who sits awaiting the handful — or none — who come.

And yet, the lines for Sunday Communion are never so short.

All good people, no doubt.

J.D. Mullane writes from Pennsylvania.