Sacraments of Initiation
Part 2 History

Chapter i20 Summary History of  Christian Initiation







The Reconciliation of Penitents
Part Two:  Story Telling

Chapter r8 Grace and Sin

Preliminary Questions


Pastoral Reflection

Metaphor: Sin ' A Crime

Metaphor: Sin ' Ingratitude

Metaphor: Sin ' Dishonesty

Metaphor: Sin ' Irresponsibility

Metaphor: Sin ' Missing the Mark

Metaphor: Sin ' The Arrogance of Power

Metaphor: Sin ' The Failure to Grow

Metaphor: Sin ' Harm to the Body of Christ

The Ten Commandments

Contemporary Developments

The Reality of Sin and Grace

Suggested Questions for Discussion

To Think About

Preliminary Questions

Identifying sin is a necessary step before there can be authenticity in the sacrament of reconciliation. For this reason, sin must appear on anyone's agenda of issues for renewing reconciliation in the life of the Church. (Richard M. Gula, Sin: The Arrogance of Power in Kennedy, Robert J., Editor. Reconciliation: The Continuing Agenda. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1987, p 63.)

What are the most significant relationships in your life? How do you live responsibly within those relationships? How would you recognize responsible behavior? Selfish behavior? What is sin for you? What kind of confession are you accustomed to making? [from Gula p 89]

Did you preach last Sunday? Did you preach on sin? What is sin? How is Jesus the new law?

What has contributed to your present understanding of sin? How does your understanding of sin shape your approach to confession? How would you answer the question, Whatever happened to sin? What do you think is the root cause of sin in our lives? What do you need in order to break from the power of sin. [from Gula p 89]

Review what you have learned about sin in your study of moral theology.  What of this material would be most helpful to your future parish members? When you preach on sin what are you going to say? Why?

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Gula, Richard. To Walk Together Again.  Chapter 4. Sins to Confess.

Gula, Richard. Sin: The Arrogance of Power in Kennedy, Robert J., Editor. Reconciliation: The Continuing Agenda. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1987, p 63-83.

Hellwig, Monika. Sign of Reconciliation and Conversion. Chapter 1, Sin, Repentance and Conversion, Collegeville: Liturgical Press, A Michael Glazier Book, 1984.

John Paul II. The Splendor of Truth (Veritatis Splendor), Encyclical Letter of August 6, 1993. [various editions, e.g.] Boston: St. Paul Books & Media, 1993. ISBN 0-8198-6964-3. 154 pp. $2.25.

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Pastoral Reflection

Jesus Is the Starting Point.  To understand the Christian meaning of sin we must start with Jesus.  The light of God's face shines in all its beauty on the countenance of Jesus Christ.

One of the key things I learned while preparing to write my doctoral dissertation was the truth: The way in which we ask a question already determines the answer. When we ask What is sin? or What sins have I committed, the sense of sin which emerges from an examination of conscience in the light of the Scriptures is very different from that which emerges from an examination of conscience based on a list of possible sins.

The word of God, while it is called good news, is not always pleasant to hear! From the testimony of the prophets to the parables of Jesus, the word of God has caused many listeners go away uncomfortable, confused, and even angry. Who wants to hear that the laborers coming to work in the vineyard at the last hour will get as much pay as we who have labored through the day's heat? Was it easy for the lawyer to admit to Jesus that the hated Samaritan rather than the priest and the Levite was neighbor to the man who fell prey to robbers while going down from Jerusalem to Jericho? Jesus' parables force us to look at reality in a whole new light: the light of God's plan for the world. It is this new light that convicts us of our sin. This new light often reveals areas of darkness within us that we were not even aware of before, areas that we had not considered sinful, or perhaps not considered at all. Sometimes whole new areas of responsibility open up to us.

 When conscience is examined in the light of the great commandment of love of God and love of neighbor, our responsibility is seen not only in the light of laws and individual acts, but in terms of relationships: our relationship of love to God, to our fellow human beings, and indeed, our responsibility for the earth.

The Gospel is a call is to growth: Jesus came that we might have abundant life. Failure to grow and progress in that life is a key symptom of our sin. Sin is being today just like we were yesterday. Sin is hearing the word and not responding to it. Early Church writers compare the act of hearing the word and not responding to it to taking the sacred body of our Lord in Holy Communion and negligently letting it slip from our hands.

In 1966 I was helping prepare the Archdiocesan Synod in Cincinnati Ohio. Survey: Why do Catholics not got to confession as frequently as they used to. Most frequent answer: Their idea of sin has changed.

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Metaphor: Sin ' A Crime

1. Sin is breaking the law ' a crime.

2. Sin has become individualized.

3. Hellwig: When we first learn about confession and sin in the first grade, and First Penance is simply part of our initiatory rite of passage, sin was breaking the rules set down by lawfully constituted authority. pp 2-3.

4. When I was a full time high school religion teacher (1966-1971), one day I was discussing sin with the sophomores at St. Francis High School. The situation I presented was this: Tom is a Catholic. Jerry is not. Other things being equal, Tom is more likely to commit more mortal sins than Jerry will commit. True or False? Going through my notes for this class I found several of the sophomore's responses (from 1967):

Student A: True. Because after Tom has done something wrong, the devil will start bothering him and telling him it's a mortal sin. Then Tom will start to think back on the religion he has learned and think that this was a moral sin. And if you think you committed a mortal sin, then the sin becomes mortal. Once you think you've committed a mortal sin, you've committed a mortal sin. Jerry is not a Catholic and wouldn't have anything to think back on and he probably wouldn't worry about it at all or at least not like Tom will. And you can't sin if you didn't know it was a sin.

Student B: True. I think Tom would have more responsibility than Jerry because he is Catholic. Jerry can not make as good a judgment on serious sins as Tom can. Sure they can both commit the same sin; but since Tom has this responsibility, more would be expected of him, and therefore Jerry would have that little bit of leeway. Tom doesn't, especially on the point of where it is serious or not.

Student C: True. For one thing, Jerry probably never even heard of mortal sin. He probably knows what he did is wrong, but not seriously wrong. We must remember that it take three things to make a mortal sin: full consent, serious matter, full knowledge. Being a catholic, Tom was probably taught these three things where Jerry wasn't. If one of the three things is missing there is no mortal sin.

Student D: True. The reason for my answer is that Tom has more laws to observe than Jerry does; consequently, the possibilities for Tom's sinning more are higher than Jerry's. So if everything else is the same, as stated, Tom will probably sin more than Jerry.

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Metaphor: Sin ' Ingratitude

1. Our sense of sin depends on our sense of having been loved (' graced).

2. Theological sin is only realized in proportion to love. The more we love another person, the more we have insight into what that person wants and desires. [As Bonhoffer said: How persons change, once we begin to love them.]

3. The more aware we become of the love of God, the more aware we are of the inadequacy of our response to that love and the more conscious we are of our sinfulness. This explains why it is that the saints are the ones who are most aware of their sin. St. Francis of Assisi readily and sincerely acknowledged that he was the greatest of sinners.

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Metaphor: Sin ' Dishonesty

1. Honesty in relationships -- e.g. sisters and the Jewish Children in the orphanage

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Metaphor: Sin ' Irresponsibility

1. Genesis vision of three-fold harmony.

2. Sin is irresponsibly ' not working for that harmony -- RELATE TO THREE LAYER GENESIS VISION / KINGDOM.

3. PERSONAL GUILT / FREE WILL. We are becoming more and more conscious of hereditary and environmental factors that shape our decisions.

4. E.g. my work at Branchville and talks with Social Worker in St. Louis.

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Metaphor: Sin ' Missing the Mark

1. Hebrew: shuv - again, return, retrace one's steps.

2. Sin appears as the condition or state of being focused on goals other than God, finding meaning in life without ultimate reference to God.

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Metaphor: Sin ' The Arrogance of Power

1. This is the definition of sin: the misuse of powers given us by God for doing good, a use contrary to God's commandments. On the other hand, the virtue that God asks of us is the use of the same powers based on a good conscience in accordance with God's command. [From the Detailed Rules for Monks by St. Basil the Great, bishop, Liturgy of the Hours.]

2. Rollo May distinguishes five kinds of power which can be in all of us at different times. The moral issue becomes the proportion of each kind of power we exercise.

  •  Exploitive and manipulative power are destructive.
  •  Competitive power can act destructively against another or it can act constructively to bring vitality to a relationship.
  •  Nurturing power acts for the sake of another by giving care.
  •  Integrative power acts with another to draw out the best in him or her.

3. The arrogance of power in the misdirected heart seeks a greater proportion of exploitive, manipulative and competitive power over nurturing and integrative power. (Richard M. Gula, Sin: The Arrogance of Power in Kennedy, Robert J., Editor. Reconciliation: The Continuing Agenda. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1987, pp 76-77.)

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Metaphor: Sin ' The Failure to Grow

1. Can't stay in 8th grade forever.

2. Sin: Being today as you were yesterday.

3. I came that you may have life and have it more abundantly.

4. Maturity: (Freud)

Ability to do without psychological dodges of reality;
Ability to love and be loved; and
Ability to do productive work.

5. Sin

Avoiding reality;
Irresponsible relationships;
Neglect of Image of God (Creator of the earth).

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Metaphor: Sin ' Harm to the Body of Christ

1. Movement from Individual sin to communal sin.

2. Every sin harms the Church, humanity, the earth.

3. The Church as a role to play in reconciliation.

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The Ten Commandments

Catholics will sometimes confess ...and I am sorry for all my sins against the sixth commandment. The person will expect you to know what is meant. To this end, you should be familiar with the terminology used in the catechisms.

In Share The Word (March/April 1991, p 5) Fr. Laurence Brett, commenting on Exodus 20:1-17 states: The commonly accepted list of Ten Commandments is taken from the list found in Deuteronomy 5:6-21.  There, the command no to covet another's wife is set apart from the command concerning another's house and property; our present passage places house before wife.  In Lutheran and Catholic usage, verse 17 of our passage for Sunday is taken as two commands, in the light of the list in Deuteronomy. The Greek Orthodox, Anglican and Reformed traditions divide our passages' opening command (vv. 1-6) into two, making the prohibition against idols the second commandment.)

Exodus 19 & 20




There, the command not to covet another's wife is set apart from the command concerning another's house and property; our present passage places house before wife. In Lutheran and Catholic usage, verse 17 of our passage for Sunday is taken as two commands, in the light of the list in Deuteronomy. the Greek Orthodox, Anglican and Reformed traditions divide our passage's opening command (vv. 1-6) into two, making the prohibition against idols the second commandment.)

      G1 1 1 I am the Lord your God. [ONE]

      G2 2 You shall have no strange images before me. [IMAGE-LESS]

      G3 2 3 You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain. [SACRED NAME]

      G4 3 4 Remember, keep holy the Sabbath day. [EARTH IS GOD'S]

      G5 4 5 Honor your father and mother and you shall have long life. [LIFE IS GOD'S]

      N1 5 6 You shall not kill (exodus 20:13) [LIFE]

      N2 6 7 You shall not commit adultery (14) [MARRIAGE AND FAMILY]

      N3 7 8 You shall not steal (SLAVES) (15) [FREEDOM]

      N4 8 9 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. (16) [GOOD NAME AND REPUTATION]

      N5 9 10 You shall not covet your neighbor's house;

      10 you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor's. (Exodus 20:17) [POSSESSIONS AND PROPERTY]

Fr. Luke Grollenberg

1. LORD I am the Lord -- only God, no other Gods

2. IMAGELESS No false Gods - no images or idles (e.g. images on the coins in today's Gospel)

3. NAME Name of the Lord -- e.g. Hebrew class not pronounced.

4. SABBATH Keep holy the Sabbath (not Friday, etc). memory of the Lord who rested on the Sabbath.

5. LIFE SOURCE Source of all life - honor father and mother because it is the reflection of God's relationship. Nomads but do not put sick or elderly parents left behind to die.

6. LIFE Murder -- right to life -- vengeance belongs to God

7. FAMILY Adultery

8. FREEDOM Steal ' putting in slavery another Israelite.

9. REPUTATION No false witness

10. GOODS Wives, slaves, oxen and other cattle, other possessions

 --  -- put two hands together -- 5 for God and 5 for earth



1. Sin can be a serious crime or a lesser crime (mortal or venial) (serious or less serious)

2. St. Thomas only considers Mortal Sin to be sin; venial sin is sin by analogy.

3. In 1215 the Fourth Lateran Council made annual confession obligatory for those who had committed mortal sin.

4. Three traditional requirements: SERIOUS MATTER, FULL KNOWLEDGE, FULL CONSENT. (see: Gula, page 107: serious matter, sufficient reflection, and full consent of the will.)

5. But: problems concerning SERIOUS MATTER

          in context. Story: Härring and the $49.00 typewriter.

          sins of not knowing. Driver's license implies responsibility to look out the window.

6. But: problems concerning FULL CONSENT

          Developmental growth. Full consent is serious, adult business.

          What nation has capital punishment for children or adolescents?

7. This distinction is abandoned in the Ritual.

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Contemporary Developments

1. Perhaps the two greatest advances we have in our contemporary understanding of sin come from what we have learned from 1) Alcoholics Anonymous and 2) Family Systems Theory.

2. Alcoholics Anonymous

          Conversion is a process.

          Conversion takes place in community.

          Grace is experienced through others.

          Satisfaction is an essential component of conversion.

3. Family Systems Theory

          Many Theologians today feel that Systems Theory is the richest avenue for a renewed understanding of sin. Just as an individuals problems can not be solved or understood in isolation from his or her family system and relationships. So individual acts con not be considered grace filled or sinful apart from the relationships and systems in which they occur.

          The roots of sin are understood only by seeing the relationship with others.

          Guilt is a strange combination of factors resulting from our family relationships and our personal responsibility.

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The Reality of Sin and Grace

Thomas Richstatter,  "Discipleship and the Moral Life: The Reality of Sin and Grace," Catechist, February 2, 2003 (36:5) pp 50-54.  This article has been sold to Catechist Magazine.  It may not be copied or reprinted without the permission of The Catechist.

If you are a catechist B and I presume that is why you are reading this article B you don't need me to convince you that sin and grace are real.  We experience these realities day by day, moment by moment!   But how do I learn about grace and sin?  What do I teach about grace and sin?   I am a liturgist by trade, not a moral theologian.  In this article I do not intend to give a comprehensive or systematic theology of grace and sin.  I have merely reflected on my own teaching and tried to pick out ten ideas which I hope will help you think (and teach) about these realities.

1.  The Eucharist Is the Best Textbook.  We learn about grace and sin from many sources:  parents, friends, teachers, books, movies, TV, experience.  But first of all we should look to “how we pray” to see “what we believe” about grace and sin.  Dear to the heart of any liturgist is the ancient axiom Lex orandi legem credendi constituit.  (Literally: The law of prayer constitutes the law of belief.)

How do we pray about grace and sin?   The summit and source of all Christian prayer is the Eucharist and at each Eucharist we hear of God's eternal plan of gratuitous love to save us through the Son.  This is what I understand by the word “grace”:  God's eternal self-offering to us in love.  The liturgical remembrance of God's gift of grace brings us into contact with the mystery and we are taken up into it by our sharing in the sacred meal and enter into communion with God and one another.  “Grace” is the way we describe our being absorbed into God's love.

At Eucharist we hear again the narrative of God's love for us in the life, sufferings, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  And we, through the priest, petition God to send the Holy Spirit to “gather all who share this one bread and one cup into the one body of Christ” (Eucharistic Prayer IV).  This petition for unity and communion is present at each Eucharist.  We become one body in Christ as we eat and drink Christ's body and blood which become real for us through the power of the Holy Spirit.  “Father, may this Holy Spirit sanctify these offerings. / Let them become the body and blood of Jesus Christ our Lord / as we celebrate the great mystery / which he left us as an everlasting covenant” (Eucharistic Prayer IV).  We are taken up by the Holy Spirit into that covenant love of Jesus on the cross in response to the Father's self-offering of his divine life and love in his Son.  This coming together in unity by the Holy Spirit is the ultimate expression of grace.  This Sacred Banquet is our primary “text” for understanding grace.

2.  The Basics I Learned from My Parents.  The Eucharist is not the only sacrament that speaks to us of grace and sin.  Each sacrament is a window through which we glimpse the divine life.  Each sacrament is a door to the sacred.  Each sacrament tells us something of “who God is.”

While the Eucharist is the first sacrament in order of importance, the first sacrament that I actually experienced was the sacrament of marriage.  Even before I was baptized or received my First Communion, I experienced a sacramental sign of “who God is” and “how God loves” in the sacramental marriage of my mother and father.   The love of my parents for one another and for me was my first contact with grace.  It is because of their love, that I can understand Love.

Conceived, born, and living in the sacramental love of my parents, at about the age of two or so I learned to how to say Ano” and sin entered my world.  I began to experiment with rejecting love.  I began to see what it would be like to say Ano” to my parents.  Of course, I wasn't really capable of a very big “no” at age two.  It takes a while, another ten years or so, before I have sufficient self-generated identity to act with any kind of independence.  But gradually I learned to say “no” to love.

 As a small child I expressed my love for my parents by obeying their commands: “Don't spill the milk.”  “Don't play in the street.”  “Don't hit the cat.”  But as I got older the expression of love for my parents changed from simply not disobeying their “Thou shalt not's” to accepting the responsibility to grow and live and act according to the vision and values they gave me in their loving.  Similarly, as I grow in God's grace, there comes a time when my response to God's love must change from simply not disobeying God's “Thou shalt not's” to accepting the responsibility to grow and live and act according to the vision and values sacramentalized in Christ Jesus.  I have to live as he lived; I have to “do this in memory of me.”

3.   Sin Is the Failure to Grow.  I have found that the best way to talk about sin is by way of metaphor.  And one of the metaphors for sin that I find especially useful is “the failure to grow.”   In John's gospel we read that Jesus came that we might have life and have it abundantly (See: John 10:10).  Grace calls us to growth and the fullness life.  To fail to respond to that call is sin.  Sin is the failure to grow.  Sin is being today like you were yesterday.

For example, there's nothing wrong with being in the eighth grade.  In fact, there a lot of good things about being in the eighth grade.  I knew more in the eighth grade than I did in first grade; I was bigger and stronger than the first graders; I had arrived at the top of the heap.  But what if, at the end of the eighth grade, I came home from school and told my parents, “I like the eighth grade.  Rather than move on to high school and be a freshman and start all over at the bottom again, I think I'll just hang around in the eighth grade for a few more years.”  I can imagine what my mother would have said to that!  And just as loving parents want us to grow and move on, God's grace calls us to growth. 

4.  Grace Is More Original Than Sin.  Love comes first; grace is prior to sin.   Disobeying my parents would have no context if I had not first experienced their love for me.  Yet in out thinking and teaching we often start with sin.  Even the title of this article is “sin and grace” rather than “grace and sin.”  Why is it so tempting to start with sin?  Is one of the effects of sin the fact that we find sin more interesting than grace?   When I lived in France and stood before the scenes of Last Judgment carved in stone over the portals of the great medieval cathedrals, what was happening to the damned always seemed much more interesting that what the blessed were doing!  Ask your students to name various sins and then ask them to name graces.  I bet the first list will be longer.  But just as health is prior to illness, grace is prior to sin.  We teach high school students how to drive safely, not simply how to avoid accidents.

God started with grace.  My Franciscan tradition teaches me that the first thing in the creative mind of God was Christ Jesus.   If you asked God on the first day of creation “what are you making?”  God would have answered “Jesus Christ.”   Jesus is “the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Rev. 22:13).   God's great plan of love and grace does not start with Adam and Eve, or the apple, or the snake, but with Jesus.   Grace came before sin.  Don't let the term “original sin” give the idea that sin is more original than grace.

5.  Grace Is More Real than Sin.  When I was in high school I had a brilliant and gifted physics teacher, Fr.  Brian.  I can still remember the day he explained the vacuum.  In the physics laboratory he had set up a bell jar with a valve in the top.  The jar sat air tight on a platform connected to a pump.  Pumping the air out of the jar, he made a vacuum and then demonstrated how “nature abhors a vacuum” by allowing smoke and colored gases into the jar through the valve on top.  He explained how this principle functions in ordinary things around the house, for example how a vacuum cleaner sucks up dirt by establishing a partial vacuum.  After a while I found myself talking about what a vacuum would do and thinking about the properties of a vacuum as though a vacuum were a thing in itself when it is really the absence of something.

Sin is best understood as the absence of something.   Grace is the reality.  The theology of Original Sin was developed as a way to speak about our need for salvation in Christ Jesus.  Like the vacuum, sin can best be understood by looking at what it is the absence of.  Evil can only be understood in the light of grace.  Grace before sin.  Christ before Adam.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:  “We must therefore approach the question of the origin of evil by fixing the eyes of our faith on him who alone is its conqueror” (CCC, 385).  “We must know Christ as the source of grace in order to know Adam as the source of sin”  (CCC, 388).

6.  Catechesis Is about Making Lovers, Not Lawyers.   To understand grace and sin we must know Jesus.  But knowing Jesus is different from merely knowing about Jesus.  To really understand grace and sin we must enter into a love relationship with God.  Grace and sin are best understood (and taught) as relationships. 

When I first learned about grace and sin they were presented as objects; they came in different kinds and amounts. Today when I teach, I try to convey an understanding of grace as a dynamic interpersonal relationship.   When students hear the word “grace” I want them to associate that concept with the love God has for them, the love God has for us.  To be “in grace” is being “in love.” 

I have not always been successful at teaching this.    Some years ago when I was teaching religion to high school sophomores, I presented the following situation on a test:  “Tom is a Catholic; Jerry is not.  Other things being equal, Tom is will commit more mortal sins than Jerry will.  True or false and explain your answer.” 

One student replied:  “True.  The reason for my answer is that Tom is a Catholic and has more laws to observe than Jerry does; consequently, the possibilities for Tom's sinning more are greater than Jerry's.  So if everything else is the same, as stated in the question, Tom will probably sin more than Jerry.”  Another student replied:  “True.  For one thing, Jerry probably never even heard of mortal sin.  He doesn't know that it takes three things to make a mortal sin:  full consent, serious matter, full knowledge.  Tom would have learned these things in school.  If one of the three things is missing there is no mortal sin.  You can't commit a mortal sin unless you know it is mortal.  Jerry hasn't been taught these things and Tom has.  So, Tom will commit more mortal sins.” 

I now realize that I was teaching them to be good lawyers rather than teaching them to be good lovers.  While I was happy that they knew about the three things necessary for a sin to be moral, I wish I had taught them to think of grace first.   Tom not only has more laws, he has more help:  the example of parish and Christian community; the support of the sacramental system and the Church; the loving embrace of the Christian family.   He has grace in Christ Jesus.

7.  I Don't See as Well as I Used To.   While I was teaching the students to know the three things necessary to commit grave sin (serious matter, full knowledge, full consent) I also want to help them see what constituted serious matter.

Now I realize that serious matter is a lot easier to recognize when somebody else does it!   (I bet I would hear a lot more sins in confession if people could confess their neighbor's sins, or their husband's or wife's sins rather than their own!)  When we look at our own actions, we don't see so well.  Sometimes it is only years later when I see the consequences of my actions that their sinfulness becomes apparent to me.   Sometimes when husbands or wives are seeking spiritual direction they tell me about behavior that seems to me to be clearly destructive to the marriage yet they seem unaware that these “little things” are sinful.  And while a million venial sins do not add up to a mortal sin, I have learned that in a love relationship (human or divine) little things can compound and have serious consequences.  Marriage and divorce (and grace and sin) are more a “process” than an isolated “act.”

Some sins I don't see at all.  I can sin not only by the things that I do, but by things that I neglect.   For example, imagine that you are riding with me while I am driving my car.  I become so interested in our conversation that don't notice that I have driven up on the sidewalk and run over three children playing.  When the policeman stops me and asks me, “do you know what you just did?” And I tell him “No, officer, I was busy talking,” do you think he'll say, “Oh, that's fine then.  If you didn't know, it's alright.”  Of course he won't say that!  The fact that I didn't see or didn't know is not an excuse.  By the very fact that I am driving the car, I have a responsibility to see, to notice, to drive safely.  In Luke's gospel (6:19-31) Jesus tells the story of the rich man dining sumptuously and poor, sore-covered Lazarus lying at his door.  When the rich man dies and goes to the place of torment, it is not because he did anything particularly hateful to poor Lazarus.  It was simply that he never noticed him.  He didn't see what he should have seen.

8.  It's More about Us than about Me.  Collectively we don't see very well either.  What responsibilities do I have simply because I am a citizen of the United States?  While I am no world traveler  I have lived in Asia and Africa long enough to know that we sure have more things here in the USA than they have there B even things that we take for granted:  clean water, fresh air, electricity, health care, and air conditioning!   Living overseas can be a great “examination of conscience.”  When I think of the airplanes that crashed into the World Trade Center, I know that it is not simply a case of bad people hurting good people.  My patriotism is no longer that innocent.  Why do so many people hate us as a nation?  What in our lifestyle, our consumption of resources, in our efforts to stay rich by keeping them poor contributed to this tragedy?  

These are complex and very difficult questions.  Yet they must be asked.  At Mass we acknowledge that we have sinned in what we have done, and in what we have failed to do.  Does the fact that “those people” live far away and we don't see them excuse us?  When we stand before the throne of judgment, will we have to say “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?” (Matthew 25:44)

At the same time that we are one in evil, we are also one in grace.  I believe in the Communion of Saints.  “Since all the faithful form one body, the good of each is communicated to the others. ... The riches of Christ are communicated to all the members, through the sacraments.”  (CCC 947)

9.  I Am Not as Free as I Thought I Was.   I have always taught that grave sin requires “full consent of the will.”  When I began ministering to Catholics in prison I was made aware of how the roots of grace and sin cannot be understood apart from their context.  I believe we have free will; but I am not as free as I once thought I was. 

Two tremendous helps in understanding grace and sin are Alcoholics Anonymous and Family Systems Theory.  From Alcoholics Anonymous I learn that conversion is a process, it doesn't take place all at once.  It takes place best in community; it takes a community to help me understand sin.  Grace is experienced through others.  Satisfaction is an essential component of conversion. 

Family Systems Theory teaches me that just as an individual's problems can not be solved or understood in isolation from his or her family of origin and the relationships within that family, so individual acts cannot be considered grace filled or sinful apart from their relationships and the systems in which they occur.  It is impossible to judge another's “sins” unless you are aware of the context of relationships in which the person lives.   There is that old story about walking a mile in the other person's shoes... 

10.  Developing a Sense of Sin.   How do we develop a sense of sin?  How do we become aware of those things we don't see?   When teaching catechists how to prepare parish celebrations of Reconciliation, this is how I describe the inner dynamic of the sacrament.  First of all we want to create a space where we can remember.  We recall the story of God's love for us.  In the Scriptures, the homily, the prayers, and hymns we hear of God's great plan to save us through Christ Jesus.  As we remember we are led to sentiments of gratitude, a thankful appreciation for God's grace.

Love given calls for love to be returned.  As we become aware of the magnitude of God's love for us, we also become aware of how little we have loved back.  This awareness of the difference between how much we have been loved and how little we have loved in return is the conviction of sin, the “sense of sin”.  Conversion is a free gift of God's grace.  It cannot be forced by accusations, by harangues, or by browbeating people with lists of sins, or by ponderous accusations of guilt and unworthiness.  Only love has the power to draw us to conversion.

This sense of our ingratitude moves us to accept God's love even in the face of our own sinfulness. This acceptance is the Holy Spirit dwelling in us, assuring us of forgiveness.  We then announce God's love for the sinner and God's forgiveness.  Those who are planning the rite do not need to focus on how to cause God to forgive the sinner; God is always ready to forgive.  Rather concentrate on finding ways to enable the sinner to accept and to experience God's forgiveness.  The problem is not with the “giving” but with the “receiving” absolution.

Forgiveness is recognized by the gifts of peace and freedom. Our word of sorrow meets God's word of forgiveness and explodes into shalom, wholeness.  And we celebrate the gifts of peace and freedom.   Realizing that we are forgiven and made whole, we are strengthened go forth as ambassadors of reconciliation. 

Grace and sin are religious categories.  It takes a great saint to really know sin.  When I first read about Saint Francis of Assisi claiming he was the greatest of sinners, I thought that was just one of those pious things that saints say.  But now I see that he was so aware of the immensity of God's love that he could not comprehend why he did not love God more in return!  May we be so insightful!

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Suggested Questions for Discussion

1. Review what you have studied about the nature of sin in your moral theology courses. Integrate that material with what you have read and discussed in this class. What conclusions and insights have you achieved?

2. What social, cultural, psychological and theological factors lie at the root of people's confusion about the nature of sin.

3. Of the definitions and metaphors for sin that you have read and discussed, which do you think would be most helpful to preach in today's parish? Why?

4. If you were to give a Sunday homily on sin, what do you think would be the things the parish most needs to hear?

5. Know by heart The Ten Commandments as most traditional Catholics would know them. When someone confesses sins against the ninth (or third, or fifth, etc) commandment, what are they talking about?

6. Where in scripture (book, chapter, verse) can you find the story of the Prodigal Son? The Lost Sheep?

7. How would you respond to the confession Gula gives on pages 131-132?

8. Several years ago the archbishop of the diocese where I was working stated in his Lenten Message to the Priests of the Archdiocese: If Lent is to be a rich period of spiritual renewal for ourselves and our faithful, advance planning is necessary. I urge that our gift to our people be a new sense of sin. If you were a priest of this archdiocese, how would you give your parishioners this new sense of sin?

9. Do you think the way in which most Catholics experience Confession treats sin in a way consistent with what you studied in this chapter of Gula? Why or why not?

10. If someone were to ask you What is sin? how would you respond? What has helped you formulate this definition of sin?

11. Do you find a list of sins helpful when examining your conscience? Why or why not?

12. Once, during Advent, I heard a pastor the tell congregation: At the parish celebration of reconciliation next week, I want to hear only ‘Advent sins'. Don't bring me any ‘Lenten sins' or ‘Ordinary Time sins'. What do you think he was telling the congregation to do?

13. Can we commit sin without knowing it?

14. Is sin a private act or the concern of the parish?

15. Only an alcoholic can fully understand another alcoholic. Only a sinner can fully understand another sinner. Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not?

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To Think About

Some random comments from former participants:

  •   I was surprised to learn how very different it is to speak of a regular confessor and to speak of a regular spiritual director.

  •   The concept super ego clarified a lot of things for me.

  •   Confessions seem to depend on the naming of sin

  •   I wonder if we celebrate something different in confession than in Eucharist?

  •   I relearned that living in a religious community gives a person plenty of opportunity to learn about how relationships can be harmed by sin. Small matters can be terribly important.

  •   I find that when I say confession I am talking me and sin and when I say reconciliation I am talking God and gift. I realized that we spent a lot of time on what sins to confess as though the sacrament depended on the sins.

  •   I wonder if some acts are intrinsically serious matter?

  •   I realized that the confessional is not really the place to educate the people on the theology of reconciliation.

  •   It would be a more positive approach to appreciate the beauty of a Christian life rather than examine what went wrong or what not to do. We try to teach people how to drive a car, not how to report accidents.

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Copyright: Tom Richstatter.  All Rights Reserved.  This page was created by Fr. Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M.  Every effort has been, and is being made to acknowledge sources when the ideas are not my own.  Any failure to comply with the United States Copyright Act (Title 17, United States Code) will be corrected immediately should I become aware of it.  This site was updated on 02/07/11.  Your comments on this site are welcome at