Sin is a rupture in our relationship with Christ, who is the source of our eternal beatitude. God offers us a relationship with him as a freely given gift. That is why this relationship is called grace. It is also why sin is the principal obstacle to grace and beatitude, as it distances us from relationships key to our happiness.
Recent popes have identified another obstacle to grace: “The greatest sin today is that men have lost the sense of sin.” Pope Pius XII said this in the wake of the horrors of World War II and John Paul II, Benedict and Francis have all repeated it. It express what is now common to think: “How can something be a sin if doesn’t hurt anybody?” Or: “How can it be a sin if it is done in the privacy of my own bedroom?” Or: “Everybody is doing it.”
So, instead of admitting our sins—that have damaged or killed our relationship with God and others—and then confessing them and reconciling ourselves with God, people now-a-days go to therapy instead. A therapist can be good to help heal emotional wounds and reactions—especially those produced by trauma, such as uncontrollable anger, fear of commitment, etc.—but we can also use this as a therapeutic crutch to escape the personal responsibility for our actions.
We may also look to science to excuse our behavior: if there is any evidence of a genetic component to alcoholism, homosexuality, or even violent crime, then a person wouldn’t be responsible for decisions he makes that are detrimental to his family or to others… so they think: How can there be any sin where biology has predetermined our fate?
These ways of thinking change our way of speaking about sin. Instead of talking admitting to having an adulterous affair, we learned to say that s/he is no longer “in love” with her/his spouse and is now “in love” with someone else: how can s/he be responsible for the pain and hurt inflicted on her/his spouse and children (and extended family)—as well as for breaking his covenant commitment with God!—if morality is only about “chemistry” in one’s relationships? Concupinage is now just called “living together” and homosexual activity is now called “an alternative lifestyle”; neither are considered sinful because “we are not hurting anybody” or because “we were born that way” or because “everybody is doing it.”
Sin is real. Choices we make do impact our relationships. If you make a lifetime commitment to another person before God then you are committed to avoid any situations—“occasions of sin”—contrary to that commitment, whether or not you still feel “in love.” Infidelity to this commitment is a sin and “kills” our relationship with God and with others.
Likewise, we may have a genetic predisposition to alcoholism. But that does not excuse our personal responsibility to avoid situations with alcohol if they would lead to drunkenness and physical or verbal abuse of a spouse, children, or others. We make a choice when we walk down that street with the bar on the corner although the ability to choose disappears when we walked in the door. Our choices impact our relationships and thus have moral implications.
So, just because all one’s peers are having sex, doing drugs, using birth control, or have had an abortion doesn’t mean that these things are OK and not sins. Such thoughts may ease feelings of guilt but they don’t take away our moral responsibility for the choices we have made. We will have to answer to God for them. Our consciences need to recover the “sense of sin” so that we can take responsibility for our moral decisions, seeking God’s mercy now in the confessional rather than having to face his justice before the Judgment Seat.
Fr. John R. Waiss
As we were considering, Christian morality consists in positively cultivating our relationship with God in Jesus Christ; this relationship is grace. Our relationship with God will naturally flow into building good relationships with others too, because everything we do to others, whom God loves as his children, we do to God (cf. Matthew 25:40,45).
Any thing that hurts or interferes with our relationship with God is called sin. Sin is often described as disobeying God’s rules or Commandments. This makes God appear to be a tyrant who just wants to control our lives with rules that limit our freedom or our fun. No! Sin is really slavery, which arises from any action that offends God and hurts relationship with him.
How is sin disobedience? If obedience (ob + audience = to be near + hearing) means to get close to someone so as to hear, disobedience is to distance ourselves from the other person in order not to hear, not to respond to his/her needs or wishes. A child often does this with his/her parent, not listening to mom or dad by focusing on a TV show or on an electronic devise, perhaps when asked to do homework or some chore. This hurts the relationship between them because the child’s not listening says to the parent: “What you are saying is not important, because you are not important to me.” Ouch!
Parents can do the same with each other and with their children by ignoring them and their needs. Perhaps a child asks a parent for some help or needs some attention while the parent is absorbed in a phone conversation or on Facebook. The child feels hurt because his/her parent’s action tells the child: “What you are saying to me is not important, because you are not important.” Perhaps one spouse does this with the other, using TV to distance him-/herself from the other who wants and needs to talk.
Sin does this with God. It disobeys by not listening to God, aversio a Deo et conversio ad creaturas—a turning toward creatures so as to turn away from God (St. Thomas Aquinas). Instead we need to get close to God so as to hear his Word—all that he reveals to us in Sacred Scripture and Tradition, not just the Commandments. When we don’t listen or when we don’t follow one of the Commandments, it is an indicator that we don’t care what God says, that we don’t love him, that our relationship with him is not important.
Consider this: a newlywed bride goes to her best friend to tell her how happy being married makes her and how much she loves her bridegroom. Then she asks a friend: “How far can I go with my boss before it would be infidelity? Can I let him invite me out to lunch alone? Can I let him hold my hand? Kiss me? How far is going too far… what are the rules of fidelity?” What would you think of such a bride? Would she really be in love? No, of course not! A person in love doesn’t think about the rules and how far you can go before hurting another; she doesn’t need rules. A person in love is focused on how to express her love in positive deeds; the rules exist just to point out when one has lost the correct focus of love.
Fulfilling the “letter of the law” doesn’t imply love—it is not enough. Yet true love does imply obedience, getting close to God to hear him. As Mary, the sister of Martha, shows us:
[Mary] sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving; and she went to him and said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her’” (Luke 10:39-42).
Let us learn true obedience, by listening to Jesus Christ and obeying his word who obeyed the Word of his Father, usque ad mortem, even to “death on the cross” (Philippians 2:8). Then our relationship with God will be true and fulfilling.
Fr. John R. Waiss
Often our society portrays Christian morality as something negative, a series of don’ts: Don’t kill… don’t miss Mass on Sunday… don’t lie or steal… Certainly, don’t have any fun… When morality is perceived as a list of arbitrary rules that only serve to restrict and control our lives then it is not very attractive… in fact, it is quite repulsive.
In reality, Christian morality is a positive affirmation of love. It is the map that guides us to our goal, which is to know, love, and serve God in this life, and to enjoy a deep, happy, intimate relationship with Him forever in heaven.
Eternal Beatitude (Happiness)
Morality is about achieving eternal happiness with God, but how do we attain it? The Compendium to the Catechism of the Catholic Church answers that question:
“We attain beatitude by virtue of the grace of Christ which makes us participants in the divine life. Christ in the Gospel points out to his followers the way that leads to eternal happiness: the beatitudes. The grace of Christ also is operative in every person who, following a correct conscience, seeks and loves the true and the good and avoids evil” (CCCC 359).
The Beatitudes that Christ gave us in the Sermon of the Mount are guide posts that help us fulfill the Ten Commandments and achieve true beatitude, true happiness. Happiness—especially the eternal happiness of heaven—is the motive behind Christian morality. We strive to understand it and live it so we can have the true happiness that awaits those who keep God’s word: “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. He who does not love me does not keep my words; and the word which you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me” (John 14:23-24).
What truly makes us happy is to know that we are loved and in loving others. We know God the Father loves us: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17). Some perceive God as a tyrant trying to find reasons to condemn us, but He isn’t! He is a loving Father who wants us to be happy and who is willing to sacrifice what is dearest to Himself: his only begotten Son: you and I are worth all the blood of Jesus Christ.
Also knowing that Jesus loves us makes us happy: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants… but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:13-15).
Children naturally imitate their parents and of older brothers and sisters; and they are happy when they do. Jesus also gives us a good example: “For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15) and “learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29).
So, like good children of God, let us imitate Christ in fulfilling the Father’s will: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:10-11). This is the goal of Christian morality; it is what will make us truly and eternally happy.
Fr. John R. Waiss
Receiving Holy Communion Properly
In the Catholic Church there are various options for receiving Holy Communion: on the tongue or in the hand, kneeling or standing. However we choose, let us receive our Lord properly and reverently.
Standing or Kneeling
The U.S. bishops have established that standing is the ordinary posture for receiving Holy Communion, yet nobody should be discouraged from receiving Communion on their knees if the person so wishes. If you do kneel for Communion, perhaps kneel a bit to the side so that you don’t interfere with the person behind you as you rise.
If you choose to receive standing, make an act of reverence while the person in front of you is receiving the Host. This act of reverence may be a genuflection or a profound bow. After the person in front of your has received and turns to return to his pew, step forward. The priest will hold up the Host and say, “The Body of Christ.” We respond: “Amen,” an Aramaic word affirming our belief in Christ’s Real Presence in the Host and affirming our covenant commitment to live according to all that Christ teaches through his Church.
Kneeling is an act of reverence; no other bowing of the head is necessary. Some churches—like St. Mary of the Angels—also use the Communion rail for Holy Communion. This makes it easier for those who wish to receive on their knees.
Receiving on the Tongue
One is always free to receive Holy Communion on the tongue, because it is the ordinary and universal way to receive our Lord. The Holy See has granted bishops of some countries (the United States, Canada) special permission (an indult) to allow Communion in the hand. Yet a bishop could still decide for his diocese to follow the universal custom of only receiving Communion on the tongue instead.
To receive our Lord properly on the tongue—after saying “AMEN”—keep your hands together, open your mouth, and stick your tongue out at least a bit so that it covers your bottom teeth. Don’t clench your teeth. When the priest places the Host on your tongue, close your mouth slowly, not like a snapping turtle that catches the priest’s fingers.
Receiving in the Hand
If you are receiving Holy Communion in the hand, the first requirement is that both hands are clean and free. If you are carrying a child in your arms or are holding his hand, then receive our Lord on the tongue.
After you say “AMEN,” put both hands out, left hand over right (if you are left-handed, it is the other way around). The priest will put the Host in the palm of your hand, then step aside and use the other hand to take the Host from the palm and place it in your mouth. Then return back to the pew and spend some time in thanksgiving.
Here are some don’ts: Don’t bless yourself with the Host, because receiving our Lord is the greatest blessing we can receive. You may make the Sign of the Cross with your hand after you have placed our Lord in your mouth. Don’t take the Host from the priest’s hand. Don’t walk away with the Host in your hand or consume our Lord “on the run.” You may step aside so that the next person can receive, but stay in front of the priest. If someone cannot walk up to receive, ask the usher or the priest and the priest will bring Holy Communion to that person.
Fr. John R. Waiss
As we consider how to benefit from receiving the Sacrament of God’s Love for us—Eucharist—look at how to prepare ourselves to receive Him well.
Fostering the Right Motive
According to St. Thomas Aquinas, a wrong motive can turn a good act—such as receiving Holy Communion—into something evil. For example, if a politician goes to church and receives Holy Communion to get people to think that he is a good and upright man, then he would be receiving our Lord for the wrong reason—it would be gravely offensive to “use” Jesus Christ in this way.
Instead we should prepare our hearts to receive Jesus in the Eucharist with a wholesome motive, with faith in the real presence of our Lord in the Eucharist and with desires to please Him. You may wish to use the spiritual communion that St. Josemaría taught: “I wish, Lord, to receive You with the purity, humility and devotion with which Your most holy Mother received You, with the spirit and fervor of the saints.”
Attention and devotion during Holy Mass also helps. Pray the Mass! Some use a hand missal or the missalette to follow along more closely. Also important is to have a forgiving heart, as our Lord says:
“So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift… lest your accuser hand you over to the judge… and you be put in prison; truly, I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny” (Matthew 5:23-26).
This is why we ask to extend a sign of peace right before Holy Communion. If we are not disposed to do that with anyone—present at church or not—then it would be better to wait until we are ready to receive our Lord.
What should I do if I cannot receive?
None of us are worthy to receive this great gift that Jesus makes of himself in the Eucharist. Jesus did say to his apostles, “Take, eat; this is my body” (Matthew 26:26), even though all but one would abandon him. We don’t receive Holy Communion because we are worthy, but to fulfill our Lord’s request.
Yet if we lack the conditions to benefit from Holy Communion—due to not having a chance to go to Confession before hand, for example—then the U.S. Catholic bishops recommend: “FOR THOSE NOT RECEIVING HOLY COMMUNION: [You] are encouraged to express in their hearts a prayerful desire for unity with the Lord Jesus and with one another.”
Take advantage of the time when others do receive to pray and to deepen your love for Jesus Christ. Make a spiritual communion, manifest your faith in God, and pray for peace and unity among Christians and in the whole human family. In this way you will benefit from your presence at Holy Mass and benefit the rest of us as well.
If one is non-Catholic Christian (a Protestant or Orthodox Christian), then one does not fully believe all that the Catholic Church teaches and thus s/he is not ready to express that Communion of Faith by receiving Holy Communion. That is why the United States Catholic bishops say:
“FOR OUR FELLOW CHRISTIANS: We welcome [you] to this celebration of the Eucharist as our brothers and sisters. We pray that our common baptism and the action of the Holy Spirit in this Eucharist will draw us closer to one another and begin to dispel the sad divisions which separate us. We pray that these will lessen and finally disappear, in keeping with Christ’s prayer for us ‘that they may all be one’ (John 17:21). Because Catholics believe that the celebration of the Eucharist is a sign of the reality of the oneness of faith, life, and worship, members of those churches with whom we are not yet fully united are ordinarily not admitted to Holy Communion…”
Eucharistic Communion means communion with Christ and his Body, the Church. If you are baptized and think you are ready to profess belief in all that the Catholic Church professes, then contact your local parish priest to make a profession of faith and be received into full communion with the Church. Then you can receive Holy Communion too!
Fr. John R. Waiss