The first reading for the Mass on Monday, May 27, 2013 contains insights and answers to our shrinking churches and to the gradual decline of organized religion. A passage, from the book of Sirach, traces out the way back to God. Because it is the key to saving souls, it is likewise the answer for our hemorrhaging parishes. But what the bible mandates as the way back to God, many of today’s Catholic communities have made optional. And here I speak of repentance: the giving up and turning away from sin, especially mortal sin.
“To the penitent God provides a way back, he encourages those who are losing hope and has chosen for them the lot of truth. Return to him and give up sin, pray to the LORD and make your offenses few. Turn again to the Most High and away from your sin, hate intensely what he loathes, and know the justice and judgments of God, stand firm in the way set before you, in prayer to the Most High God...How great the mercy of the LORD, his forgiveness of those who return to him!” (Sirach 17:20-23, 24)
Not only Scripture, but nature gives us clues about the value of repentance. And quite often, our Lord draws upon the lessons agriculture affords us. For instance, every gardener and farmer knows that in order to reap a good harvest, weeds need to be uprooted. If weeds are allowed to remain when seeds are planted, the integrity of the crop is then compromised.
Moving from the natural to the spiritual, for the last fifty years we have been trying to make converts and form souls without insisting- like the Church has done for centuries –on repentance from sin. Keep in mind, conversion is a two-fold movement toward Christ and away from sin. Grace cannot take hold and do its work in the soul without a hatred and renunciation of sin. But many parishes have only focused on the need to embrace Christ without the corresponding duty to give up sexual sins such as cohabitation, contraception and adultery; just to name a few. As such, the seed of grace falls on rocky ground and souls easily fall away from grace.
Just as agricultural methods provide insights into the effective pastoral practices, Old Testament symbols prefigure New Testament realities. Circumcision, for instance, was a ritual applied to the male infant of eight days as a rite of initiation into the Old Covenant. But Christ inaugurated the Sacrament of Baptism to replace circumcision.
Another ritual in the Old Testament that traced out in symbolic fashion what was to be done in the New Testament, after the coming of Christ, is to separate the “unclean” from the “clean.” Any physical abnormality, blemish, deformity, blood, discharge of any kind and even contact with a human corpse was declared ritually “unclean.” But upon this declaration, a member of the religious community had to abstain from worship and fellowship for a certain period of time. While quarantined, the unclean member was to perform purification rites until the priest declared him or her “clean” again. For instance, in the book of Numbers and Leviticus it reads:
“The LORD said to Moses: ‘Order the Israelites to expel from camp every leper, and everyone suffering from a discharge, and everyone who has become unclean by contact with a corpse. Male and female alike, you shall compel them to go out of the camp; they are not to defile the camp in which I dwell.’" (Numbers 5:1-3) And a mother who had just given birth “shall not touch anything sacred nor enter the sanctuary till the days of her purification are fulfilled.” (Leviticus 12:4)
Now, this practice of religious exclusion possessed only symbolic value. In other words, that which was considered “unclean” was not actual sin. A physical deformity was not the cause of sin but neither did it have any spiritual effect upon the soul. And as for the purifications rites, it left the soul untouched. All of the Old Testament rituals did was forecast what was to come. But once Christ died for our sins and merited, for us, forgiveness from God, the rites became obsolete. This is exactly why the Letter to the Hebrews states the following:
“Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer offering for sin…[S]ince we have ‘a great priest over the house of God,’ let us approach with a sincere heart and in absolute trust, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed in pure water.” (Hebrews 10:18-22)
So what’s with all of the fuss in the Old Testament? Why have the Jewish people undergo rituals that had no effect upon the soul? Keep in mind that before Christ, the people of God and even the world to an extent, were on probation. Without the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, even the most loyal believers were mere servants of the Most High. They were not considered members of the household. But one very important service these Old Testament rituals performed was that they were a rehearsal for the good things to come.
In early Christianity and in the centuries to follow, the Catholic Church made repentance a prerequisite for receiving the Sacraments. The book of Sirach said, “Turn again to the Most High and away from your sin, hate intensely what he loathes…” The Church sustained this practice and perfected under the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Giving up sin and turning away from it was but first step in turning again towards the Lord. It is the condition upon which absolution by the priest is given. As Fulton Sheen would say, without a death to a lower level, we cannot arrive at a higher level of supernatural life. This was expected of every Catholic who wanted to following in the footsteps of Christ.
To be forgiven by God, contrition is necessary. But contrition is not just a movement of the heart, that is, a feeling of sorrow for one’s sins. No. Contrition must be followed with repentance in order for conversion to be genuine before the Lord. By mandating repentance, a clear distinction is made between holiness and sin. However, if repentance becomes optional- as it has in many parishes today –even the most serious of sins is perceived as being compatible with holiness. In other words, that which pleases God and that which offends God have existed side by side in the Church without the two being clearly separated. As such, what it means to be a good Catholic has never been less clear.
For centuries, the Church managed to separate- for all to see –the life of Christ from the life of sin. And when serious sin was committed by a Catholic, sin was left outside of the Church through repentance; sometimes public repentance. To forfeit serious sin was expected if one wanted to be a Catholic in good standing. And when obstinate sinners refused to repent, he or she was declared “unclean” and was “expelled from the camp.” This was so that the contagion sin would not be communicated to the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church. St. Augustine, in his Rule, puts it simply: “Should he refuse to perform his penance, and has not departed of his own accord, he must be cast out of your society. Nor is such treatment cruel, but merciful, for many must not be suffered to perish by the pestilent example of one.”
One may charge that expelling anyone from the Church- even if he refuses to repent- is unchristian and unloving. Quite the contrary! Our Lord, in no uncertain terms, laid down this pastoral mandate long before St. Augustine promulgated it in his Rule. Referring to obstinate sinners, he said, “If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.” (Mathew 18:17) That is, treat him as an "unclean." or as an outsider. This, no doubt, is reminiscent of what God told Moses in the book of Leviticus and the book of Numbers. But in this context, we are dealing with real moral and spiritual realities; not just ritualistic symbolism. “Unclean” members of the Church who refuse to be made “clean,” are to be made outsiders. If the Christians in Corinth suspected otherwise, St. Paul removed any doubts when he said: “I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people…But I now write to you not to associate with anyone named a brother, if he is immoral.” Then he adds: “Purge the evil person from your midst.” (I Corinthians 5: 9, 11, 13)
God has traced out a path that leads to him. He did this in the Old Testament for the express purpose that this same path would be traveled with the aid of the Spirit during the Christian era. For the longest time, that path was well trodden by the Catholic pastors. After all, our Lord Jesus, the Pastor of pastors, told his Church to take this path when confronted with serious sins and obstinate sinners. But recently, this path has been abandoned. The result is that Catholics have a hard time telling the difference between what is “unclean” and “clean.” Her local parishes shines less brightly because of it.