LONG BEACH, CA (Catholic Online) - Last Saturday we heard the parable of the two sons (the "prodigal son" and his elder brother). Today we hear the parable of the two men who go to the temple to pray.
One was a Pharisee; the other a tax collector. The tax collector remained at a distance with his eyes downcast. He beat his breast repeatedly as he implored, "God, be merciful to me a sinner."
The Pharisee, in contrast, stood erect so he could be noticed and carried on a public monologue with himself. That's exactly how Jesus describes it: the Pharisee "stood and prayed ... with himself."
The Pharisee was proud because, as he says, he is not like the rest of sinful humanity or like that despicable tax collector lying low in a dark corner at the back of the temple.
A saint once said, "Humility is born of knowing God and knowing oneself" (The Forge, 184). Clearly, the self-righteous Pharisee knew neither God nor himself. His self-image was grossly inflated and his image of the majesty of God pathetically poor.
This parable can be summed up thus: two men went to the temple to pray. Both men received what they asked for. The tax collector received mercy and the Pharisee received nothing.
"God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble." (James 4:6).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "Since sin is universal, those who pretend not to need salvation are blind to themselves." (588). St. JohnÂ says: "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." (1 John 1:8)
In 1946, Pope Pius XII made this sobering observation: "The sin of the century is the loss of the sense of sin." When he spoke these words the atrocities of the Nazi holocaust were undoubtedly fresh in his mind.
At the war's end the soldiers who liberated the surviving prisoners of the death camps could scarcely believe their eyes as they beheld the horrors perpetrated there. How could human beings treat other human beings so cruelly and not feel any compunction?
Yet, as we know, one after another of the Nazi war criminals who stood trial at Nuremberg showed no signs of remorse for the roles, large and small, that each one played in the operation of Hitler's death machines. Instead, they were proud of their "service" to the FÃ¼hrer and to the Fatherland.Â
Since those times, the list of humanity's atrocities has multiplied and the number of victims magnified beyond belief. Take for example the American abortion holocaust.Â Forty years after Roe vs. Wade an estimated 55 million human beings have been exterminated in abortion centers throughout our land.
In our nation the killing of the innocent unborn continues unabated but very few are losing sleep over it. Our situation is not unlike that of the inhabitants of German towns and villages located near the death camps.Â In Dachau, for instance, the houses of the village extended right up to the outer wall of the camp. The foul stench of death was in the air day and night. Yet the townspeople went on with their lives, raising their children, going to entertainments and social events and even attending church on Sunday.
The modern abortion "death camps" dot our nation's landscape and yet they have become virtually invisible to us. Generally speaking, Americans are unfazed by their own ghastly holocaust which in terms of sheer numbers of victims far surpasses even that of the Nazi pogroms.
Eerily enough, as a nation we have made our peace with abortion. The abomination of legalized child killing has become acceptable. In the last two General Elections abortion extremist Barack Obama handily won the White House and not without the support of the majority of Catholics. How could this happen? Venerable Pius XII nailed it: we have lost the sense of sin!
Blessed John Paul II spoke of this loss of the sense of sin in his 1984 post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Reconciliation and Penance. In this document he addressed a problem that all these years later still afflicts the Church in many parts of the world, namely, an indifference to the Sacrament of Penance.
Most everywhere, at least here in the United States of America, the communion lines are long and the confession lines are short (if you can even find one). How do we explain this? John Paul II pointed to what he called an "eclipse of conscience," a "clouding" of the moral sense, a "numbness or deadening" of the conscience. He wrote: "When the conscience is weakened the sense of God is also obscured, and as a result, with the loss of this decisive inner point of reference, the sense of sin is lost." (18)
Twenty years later, John Paul II revisited this topic in an address he gave to the bishops of California, Nevada and Hawaii. He told those bishops: "Sin is an integral part of the truth about the human person. To recognize oneself as a sinner is the first and essential step in returning to the healing love of God."
In effect, the pope told those shepherds to return to their flocks and remind them of the reality of sin and of each one's personal responsibility for it and to seek forgiveness and healing in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Sadly, at least in my part of the world, I don't remember hearing of any homilies or pastoral letters that brought that message home.
However, it shouldn't take a lightening bolt from the sky to make us understand this. Bishops and priests must not shy away from preaching about sin. Deep down people don't want to hear cute stories from the pulpit; they want to be told the truth. With all charity and with the necessary discretion and prudence, we must with our preaching help souls to be convicted of their sins so that they may seek forgiveness in the Sacrament of Confession.
"Given this reality," John Paul said, "the bishop's duty to indicate the sad and destructive presence of sin, both in individuals and in communities, is in fact a service of hope."
"Far from being something negative, it strengthens believers to abandon evil and embrace the perfection of love and the fullness of Christian life."
He told the bishops, "Let us boldly announce that indeed we are not the sum total of our weaknesses and failures! We are the sum of the Father's love for us, and capable of becoming the image of his Son!"
"As pastors of your flock it is with this merciful love -- never a mere sense of favor -- that you too must reach down to every prodigal son, to every human misery, and above all to every form of moral misery, to sin," the pope said.
Bishops and priests need to preach about sin as well as the boundless mercy of God and then be willing to sit in the confessional for hours if need be.
During his apostolic visit to the United States, our beloved pope emeritus, Benedict XVI, made this incisive point:
"To a great extent, the renewal of the Church in America and throughout the world depends on the renewal of the practice of Penance and the growth in holiness which that sacrament both inspires and accomplishes."
It is, therefore, no exaggeration to say that the priest, both as confessor and sorrowful penitent (that is, as one who frequently avails himself of the Sacrament of Penance), is the linchpin in the renewal of the Church and society.
Pray for your bishops and priests that they will heed this urgent plea. May Our Blessed Lady, Mother of Priests and Refuge of Sinners, lead us all to a true conversion during this Year of Faith.
Fr. G. Peter Irving III is a priest of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and Pastor of Holy Innocents Church in Long Beach, California.
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