How do you preach mercy to those who cannot see their sin?

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When the American colonies declared their independence, Catholics made up less than 2 percent of the population. Until the nation came to encompass what had been Spanish and French territories, the spread of Christianity in these United States was not primarily the work of Catholics. And it was not accomplished by the descendants of the pilgrims, who had settled in New England. Puritanism was more about exclusion than evangelization, keeping apart from those who practiced impure versions of the faith. So, who evangelized the New World? Who took Christianity across the Alleghenies, beyond the territory of the 13 original seaside colonies?

The spread of Christianity in these United States was not primarily the work of Catholics.

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It was men like William Winans, a cobbler’s son from western Pennsylvania, who preached in Mississippi. And Hope Hull, who left his carpenter’s apprenticeship in Baltimore to preach in western Georgia and eastern Alabama. Shadrach Bostwick of Maryland set aside his medical studies to become a circuit-riding minister is upstate New York, western Massachusetts and in what is now Ohio. William Stevenson, an ancestor of the presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, was the first to preach in Texas and Oklahoma.

All of these men were Methodist circuit riders. In The Origins of American Religious Nationalism, Sam Haselby likens them to a Protestant religious order. They were ascetics. Very few of them were married, and they earned very little. One itinerant traveled over 1,000 miles to preach and returned with the same 50 cents with which he had set out. Typically, they lacked education, erudition or style, though they were described as “fine looking men, strong, bold, with bodies of athletes.”

Advent begins where our liturgical year just ended. It ponders the coming manifestation of Christ and the close of history.

What made them so successful? Methodism had no truck with the Calvinist notion that only a few would be saved. Instead, they thought that if you got your act together and put in some old fashioned effort, God would do the rest. “Methodist hymns recognized free will, the power of individual discipline, and the possibility that change lay within reach.”

Come, ye sinners, poor and needy
Weak and wounded, sick and sore,
Jesus stands ready to save you
Full of pity, love and pow’r.

These wandering men of God struggled with their own demons. Contemporary churchgoers would be appalled by the hatred they poured onto lust, though early American congregations were fascinated by their rather vivid description of the sins to be avoided. The historian Lillian Smith says that people listened to them because they preached on the “sins that tough frontier men committed: drinking, fighting to kill, fornication, self-abuse, gambling, and stealing.”

Christian, or post-Christian, America has begun its Christmas season. The Catholic Church will not do that for another two weeks. Instead, Advent begins where our liturgical year just ended. It ponders the coming manifestation of Christ and the close of history.

This first Sunday of Advent we hear of longing, a longing that God would bring an end to the suffering that sin has brought upon us.

Yet the Christmas lights that cover our communities are not completely removed from the Advent wreaths in our churches. This is a wintry season, one that plays upon the contrast of darkness and light, cold and warmth. Even before Europe was evangelized, the season of Yule was about light shining in darkness.

This first Sunday of Advent we hear of longing and of sin, a longing that God would bring an end to the suffering that sin has brought upon us.

Why do you let us wander, O LORD, from your ways,
and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
with the mountains quaking before you,
while you wrought awesome deeds we could not hope for,
such as they had not heard of from of old (Is 63: 17 & 19b).

Yet here is the trouble—if I can use a preliminary term—with the church’s message this first Sunday of Advent. It is the same problem previously faced by Pope Francis’ Year of Mercy, the Divine Mercy movement and, for that matter, the poor guy on the urban street corner, waving the repentance placard. How do you preach mercy to those who do not perceive a need for it? Of course, not knowing of a need does not mean there is none. Every hour people enter emergency rooms because of physical needs that a few hours earlier they were unaware of. Still, if we moderns do not think of ourselves as sinners, how does the church shine a light into that sort of darkness?

How do you preach mercy to those who do not perceive a need for it?

The church does understand the challenge. She has always insisted that sin blinds us. It is like a lethal drug that lulls us into a lethargy, from which we must struggle to emerge if we are to survive. Contemporary preaching, however, departs from the accusatory approach of those early Methodist circuit riders. They preached to frontier folk, who knew that life was harsh and who understood that much of this was their own fault, the result of their own moral failings.

Today, however, we preach to those who are, thoroughly and comfortably, blinded by sin. This applies as well to those of us preaching. Because we moderns cannot recognize sin, we have to do more than urge people to reject it. We must help them recognize sin. We have to speak of the emptiness of a life lived under its sway. We have to show people why they are lonely, depressed and without hope for the future.

Can each of us, in some quiet hour, sit down and ask ourselves how we might be deceiving ourselves?

Advent asks us to begin again. Can each of us, in some quiet hour, sit down and ask ourselves how we might be deceiving ourselves? First, I suspect, we will become even more aware of the sins and shortcomings of others. Push beyond that. It is a smoke screen of the deceiver. We are seeking out sin in our own lives. Look especially at the parts of your life where you are unhappy. Sometimes unhappiness is foisted upon us. Often, we forge our own.

Maybe the thing we have never admitted to be our fault really is...our fault. Maybe what we call our natural desires and inalienable rights really are sins, things that keep us from being truly happy, truly free.

I will go home and ask these things of myself. You do the same. We cannot throw grace at another. Each of us must make some small opening in ourselves. And to do that, we have to find our own wounds.

Readings: Isaiah 63:16b-17, 19b; 64: 2-7 1 Corinthians 1:3-9 Mark 13:33-37

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Bruce Snowden
2 weeks 1 day ago

Briefly for a change, it's not that we "cannot" see our sins. Rather it's simply we "don't want" to see them. As a married man of over 50 years I believe the following quip - "If you don't or won't see your sins, ask you wife!" It works the other way too I guess!

Beth Cioffoletti
1 week 5 days ago

In 1634 English Catholics, along with a Jesuit priest, Fr. Andrew White SJ, arrived in the Maryland colony. For a few years, the Catholics were allowed to practice their faith and thrived. They were "granted" huge tracts of land. Then the Protestants became more powerful and the Catholics had to practice their faith in secret. They built chapels in their own homes. Yes, the matter of religion was tied up with politics and power, but faith was also part of the puzzle.

In 1785, just after the Revolutionary war, a group of Catholic families set out from Maryland to KY, to bring Catholicism to the Western regions of a newly forming country. Once again, this was a big land grab, but if you know the little Catholic churches, families, and communities in the part of KY where these pioneers settled, you know well how deeply the faith led these Catholic evangelists. It is in their blood and their land to this day. An identity.

I am descended from these early Maryland colonists as well as the Kentucky pioneers.

Recently I attended Mass at a little church in Washington D.C. that is the descended from the little chapel built by my 4th great grandfather, Marsham Queen in 1722. The congregation is probably 99% African American, descendants of the slaves of those early Catholic colonists. I have long wrestled with a certain abstract "guilt" that I felt riddled through my family history, an inability to come to terms with the racism that runs through our nation's story, both publicly and personally. However the joy with which that congregation reached out to me and welcomed me "home", healed something in me. Listening, and then joining, with their Gospel singing during communion my soul was touched in a way that I could have never reached by myself. This was forgiveness, that went back through the generations.

Lisa Weber
1 week 4 days ago

People become aware of their sins when those sins cause them pain. Emptiness, unhappiness, and fractured relationships are all effects of sin. Only when it becomes too painful to carry sin do people make an effort to repent of sin.

Michael Barberi
1 week 4 days ago

We need a new message, a message that touches touches the deepest levels of our minds, hearts and souls. The old message is a an over-emphasis on 'sin' and confession. You are Catholic if you are faithful to Church 'doctrine and the law'. If you violate the law or a moral norm then you are guilty of sin. It is a never-ending battle and focus on sin. No wonder many Catholics are riffled with guilt.

For many Catholics, the Church has become cold, abstract, distant, legalistic and unconnected to the people and their realities. It is no wonder that most Catholics don't go to Mass anymore. There are now a greater number of the 'nones' than the so-called faithful.

You get the distinct impression from the last two popes that we are in a war, a war between the Church (and many of its moral teachings), and the world and its secular culture. It is a explicit or implicit message that divides us. It does not unify us. If you don't agree with every moral teaching you unfaithful victims of individualism, relativism, consumerism and liberalism. You are ill advised and mis-informed and are distorting the truth if not deliberately then unintentionally. Catholics need a new mindset and a new message. While there is always some good and truth in the old message, it is not working. The Church is losing the battle for souls in particular the young.

Pope Francis is trying to implement his Theology of the People, a preference and focus on the poor. Pope Francis wants our message to be respectful and reflective of our culture, a message that meets the people where they live in the world and where they are their lives. Pope Francis's Theology of the People is not only a preference for the poor but an example where we can learn from the culture of the poor which is the culture most worldwide Catholics live in today. Rather than demean secular culture as some type of evil that pushing us into 'sin' and away from God, we need to work with culture and the people as Christ has taught us. The message can not be about the a rigid adherence to the absolute moral law and the abstract regardless of circumstances. The message of Pope Francis's Theology of the People is one that integrates "mercy with the law" and the "concrete with the abstract" because reality is not all black and white but filled with many gray areas.

While we should not over-emphasize sin, but realistically avoid it as best we can, the focus should be on feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving assistance to those depressed and the sick, and comfort to those struggling with heavy burdens. It is not about giving a few hours a month or money to the poor, but in understanding the poor, their burdens, how they think and act and about treating them as brothers and sisters.

This focus on 'sin' is a centuries-old orientation of our Church. We have been molding priests for centuries in the sam way, namely, on how to conduct confession, how to classify someone's actions as sinful and meting out penances. Our priests are taught the law, the catechism and many other things but they are rarely, if ever, taught about the profound disagreement and arguments that has been going on in theological circles on many moral teachings for the past 50+ years. You might say, there is nothing wrong with that. However, when many priests are confronted with the moral dilemma of a faithful and sincere Catholic, most priests simply echo the church's position. However, let's get real here. About 40% of U.S. priests have said that taking the pill to regulate fertility (contraception), among other so-called sins, is never or rarely a sin.

We still don't know to treat homosexuals with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Nor is there complete agreement on the interpretation of scripture used in support of many moral teachings.

Let's pray that we change our over-emphasis on 'sin' and that Pope Francis's vision for our Church is implemented as soon as reasonably possible in accordance with the love and mercy of Christ. When that happens, many Catholics that are lost to sin may have an epiphany.

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