Arts and Culture

Recognizing Our Sinfulness

Third in a series

Re-reading Pope Francis’ “The Name of God Is Mercy: A Conversation with Andrea Tornielli” (New York: Random House. Translated from the Italian by Oonagh Stransky, 2016, pp. 176), I think I have been reminded or perhaps seen in a deeper way the mystery that surrounds the sacrament of reconciliation.

Though it was more than 50 years ago, I remember the first time I heard confessions. I was nervous, but I think my predominant reaction was a kind of awe or wonder. I have a similar awe and wonder as I re-read Pope Francis’ insights into God’s mercy.

One image of mercy that the pope offers is the wives and mothers who line up in front of the jails on Saturdays and Sundays bringing food and presents to their husbands and sons.

Noting that they do not disown their husbands and sons, Pope Francis suggests that they show their love for them by undergoing the humiliation of being searched so that they can visit them. The Holy Father identifies it as a gesture of mercy. Though this may seem to us a small gesture, the Holy Father believes it is not a small action to God.

False Justification

The pontiff also devotes a few pages to what he calls corruption. He claims that corruption is a sin that, rather than being identified as such, is elevated to a system and mental habit, actually a way of living. The corrupt person no longer feels the need for mercy, but rather feels that he or she is justified and does not need forgiveness. The corrupt person does not repent. Pope Francis writes the following:

“Sin, especially if repeated, can lead to corruption, not quantitatively – in the sense that a certain number of sins makes a person corrupt – but rather qualitatively: habits are formed that limit one’s capacity for love and create a false sense of self-sufficiency. The corrupt man tires of asking for forgiveness and ends up believing that he doesn’t need to ask for it anymore. We don’t become corrupt people overnight, it is a long, slippery slope that cannot be identified simply as a series of sins … The corrupt man hides what he considers his true treasure, but which really makes him a slave and masks his vice with good manners, always managing to keep up appearances. …

“Corruption is not an act but a condition, a personal and social state in which we become accustomed to living. The corrupt man is so closed off and contented in the complacency of his self-sufficiency that he doesn’t allow himself to be called into question by anything or anyone.” (pp. 82-83)

I hope I know myself well enough to be speaking the truth when I say that I am not a corrupt man. However, I hope I am humble enough to admit that I find aspects of myself in the description that Pope Francis offers of the corrupt man. I am thinking of the Holy Father’s insight that habits can be confirmed that limit one’s capacity to love.

Every sin is a sin against loving, but a habit of sins can make loving extremely difficult. Every sin is a movement toward selfishness and self-centredness and that does not make loving more easy. Every choice of self over God, makes the next choice of self over God more easy.

In my classes at St. John’s University, I frequently pose this question: Can a person, who repeatedly commits serious sins that break that person’s relationship with God, still love his or her spouse?

If a person has cut off a relationship with God, can that person still have an unselfish loving relationship with a human being?

For example, let us imagine a head of the mafia who freely chooses to have people killed. Can such a person have a loving relationship with anyone? If he can, does this save him?

Of course I don’t know the answer to those questions, but the Holy Father’s comments on the corrupt man has set me thinking about the effects of serious sin not only on a person’s relationship with God, but also on the person’s relationship with other persons.

Less Loving

It is not just serious sin or mortal sin that influences our capacity to love. All sin can make us less loving. What I think I must reflect on is the Holy Father’s statement that we must avoid being content in our self-sufficiency. Eventually, life shows us that we are not self-sufficient, but entering into a deeper love relationship with God must involve our freedom.

In the last sentence, Pope Francis refers to St. John of the Cross and so ends his book with a perfect quotation. He writes:

“Let us always remember the words of St. John of the Cross: ‘In the evening of our life, we will be judged on love alone.’” (p. 99)

Father Robert Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, and author of “Pope Francis’ Spirituality and Our Story” (Resurrection Press).

Elia Kazan’s “Gentleman’s Agreement,” is the next film to be shown in Father Robert Lauder’s 51st Friday Film Festival at the Immaculate Conception Center, Douglaston, April 1 at 7:30 p.m. Suggested donation: $6 at the door.