What harm is a little sin?

What Harm Is Little Sin

Catholics give sin a lot of thought. When God created the world He created a paradise free of sin. In that world, God placed Adam, then Eve. He gave them free will and clear instructions. Life was good. Good until Satan succeeded in tempting Eve. That changed everything.

God could have just given up at that point. Yet, as undeserving as we are, He didn’t. Instead God sent us an instruction manual for life in the commandments. He loves us so much that he even sent His son to directly teach it to us. If that were not already enough, Jesus freely suffered a horrible death as punishment for our sins. Jesus died so that we do not have to.

Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever keeps my word will never see death.

This is the greatest gift we could ever get. In return, we are only asked to love the Lord and each other. We sometimes fail and that is sin.

Sin does not hurt God. He is disappointed but His love is infinite. Sin hurts us. When we give in to the devil’s temptations, we may think we benefit in some way but we do not. What we are doing is distancing ourselves from God or even breaking our relationship with Him. Catholics call these venial and mortal sins respectively. Mortal sins are grave sins, that we know are sins and deliberately commit anyway. They are mortal because they are a spiritual death by our separation from God.

We can sin in several different ways. It can be overt by what we say or do. It can be less obvious to others (not to yourself or God), but equally damaging, by what we think or fail to do. All sins put a heavy weight on us. They are a burden to our soul.

I know that much of this is familiar to all Christians. Some, like my friends Nick and Mike, take it to heart, avoid temptation and are truly sorry for their slips. That is good and will help them to live a Christian life and obtain salvation. On the other hand, some think they are saved by simply proclaiming their belief in Jesus (without the inconvenient necessity of living as He taught). Yet others believe a general corporate confession as part of their Sunday service will cover it without having to face the uncomfortable specifics.

Catholics believe you must clearly understand what are sins, face yours head-on and repair your relationship with God. There is no easy out or glossing over the shameful facts! You not only maintain a state of grace by doing this, but over time strengthen your defenses to temptation. This might be “uncomfortable” but is spiritually very healthy and required if you hope to actually live as a Christian.

Venial sins – a damaged but unbroken relationship with God – may be forgiven in several ways, including saying an act of contrition, the use of a sacramental (such as praying the Rosary or blessing oneself with holy water) or other acts of sincere repentance. They may also be repaired by receiving Communion – which Catholics do at least every Sunday at Mass (unless they have committed mortal sin and are thus not in a state of grace). The catechism says:

Communion with the Body and Blood of Christ increases the communicant’s union with the Lord, forgives his venial sins, and preserves him from grave sins. Since receiving this sacrament strengthens the bonds of charity between the communicant and Christ, it also reinforces the unity of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ.

CCC 1416

Mortal sins – a broken relationship with God – must generally be repaired through the absolution received in the Sacrament of Reconciliation (confession). This is the subject for my next post (update, see: Confession, getting out of deep trouble).

People often say Catholics have too many rules. In truth, these rules only push you to live the Christian faith you profess. As a Christian you must live as Jesus taught anyway, and the Catholic Church helps you to do that. This makes it easier, not harder, for me.

Being a “convert”

Being Convert

Labels are funny things. They can mean different things to different people. They influence how people view you. They influence how you view yourself.

In a broad context, Catholics are informally labeled into 2 groups: cradle Catholics and converts. Cradle Catholics were typically baptized and raised as Catholics. The rest of us are converts.

When I first began RCIA I was sometimes introduced along the lines of “this is George, he is converting” or “George, this is Jane and she is a convert too.” Something about the word just did not fit how I saw myself.

Maybe it was because it might somehow imply I was “wrong” before, thus bruising my pride. It might be that I still wanted to keep my options open in case this whole Catholic thing did not work out. I know that some have felt the word implied they were converting to Christianity (although that is sometimes the case). For that matter, it might just be saying “this is George, beware – an outsider.”

Fortunately, it doesn’t take long to figure out the true subtext, and it is all good!

It may surprise many non-Catholics to learn there are a lot of us converts in the Catholic Church. We are not a rarity at all. Meeting a new person starting RCIA for some is a happy, fond memory of starting their own journey.

I spoke of this earlier, but cradle or convert, you will also find that people are genuinely happy for you and that you are here.

Then there is the topic of knowledge. The Church has a long history and deep tradition. There is a lot to learn and probably a lot that may never be learned. The RCIA process together with the zeal to learn of many new adult converts actually places them not on some lower tier but on a higher one in some eyes.

Finally, there is a sort of special blessing in being a convert. We are led here, away from our status quo and accepted the call to be Catholic. We didn’t have to. We could have decided not to make the effort, to beat back that nagging feeling something was missing, to ignore the errant paths of our churches and to just learn to “live with” how things were.

I am happy to call myself a convert. Now if I could only figure out what took me so long!

The journey

Journey

The general path for non-Catholics to become Catholic is through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA). The details vary some from parish to parish, but it is a process in which you learn about the Catholic faith and way of life. The class meets once per week for about 2 hours over a period of 5 or 6 months. For many but not all people.

When I started 4 months ago I was told that I needed a sponsor. Hmmm, that sounds like I might be joining a country club and need someone to vouch for me! It briefly brought to mind Groucho Marx’s paradox:

I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member.

Your sponsor can be any Catholic in good standing, 16 or older. Generally it should not be a spouse or close family member. The sponsor helps the candidate (someone who is already baptized) or catechumen (someone who is not) during the process. They help answer your questions, attend Mass with you, RCIA classes, various Church activities, etc. Your sponsor helps “show you the ropes.” My good friend Rigsby is my sponsor, which meant he had 2 of us for a few months, myself and Eric. Eric’s RCIA class overlapped ours. Fortunately for Rigsby, the classes are combined during those periods! Don’t worry if you need a sponsor, there are many volunteers.

RCIA is described as a journey. When I first heard that, a part of me thought “yea, sure.” Classes have a starting point, a syllabus, a schedule, an end date and some sort of graduation / certification – right? A class is a “journey” only in as much as you hopefully “travel” from less knowledge to more.

My classes are interesting, taught so far by Deacons John and Ron and lay folks – Daniel, Derek, Ed, Marianna, Mike, Skip, Tom, Trish, and Vince. The pace is not hurried, and questions are always welcome. The 2 hour classes fly by. What started out as another scheduled activity soon became something I eagerly look forward to.

The classes are serious but fun too. Deacon John taught the class on the Sacrament of Reconciliation (a/k/a confession). One of the questions he was asked is if he hears confessions. A big smile came to his face and a twinkle in his eye when he replied that he would love to hear our confessions any time! Pause. Pause. Then he noted however that he would not be granting any of us absolution! Only a priest can do that.

I have found that RCIA is not just for learning about Catholicism. It is a gentle process that deepens your Christian faith and slowly opens your mind and heart to living it better. It is also a spark that ignites a passion to learn more.

So, when exactly do you become Catholic? I don’t think it happens at a single point in time. The Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation are very important and are milestones but insufficient by themselves. It happens when you are Catholic in your heart. That is the journey – one that continues long after RCIA.

I know that conversion of heart is not always reached by everyone in a class. Sometimes people feel they are not yet ready and continue in the next session. For others it may not be the right time. This is something each individual must discern.

Joining an RCIA course is a wonderful journey. If you know practicing Catholics at a local parish, ask them. If not, call the parish office and ask for the RCIA coordinator’s contact info.

If you have been away from the Church, your parish will have RCIA or other classes as appropriate to help. Welcome home.

This is my Conversion Story, part 4 of 4. Please also see:

Sign me up!

Sign Me Up

It was time to put my toe into the water. Time to figure out more about the Catholic Church. Time to figure out exactly how they pitch their faith to sincere, interested prospects.

I was blessed having several friends who attended a local parish. I had visited several times before – a friend’s funeral, special events at my friend Marcie’s invitation and for Mass. I first attended their Friday morning men’s group at my friend Jack’s invitation. In short, I was familiar with the place and knew a few people there. That was before I ever thought, in my wildest dreams, that I would one day be interested in joining.

(Perhaps you don’t know anybody at your local Parish. That’s OK too. You probably won’t be alone in that regard. Maybe you will meet a few other folks that only know 1 person. No big deal. Just call the Parish office and ask for the RCIA coordinator’s contact info.)

It was different now. I was led to the Catholic Church and wanted to seriously consider it. I didn’t know much about how one does that. Might there be some sort of brief introductory class followed by a ceremony some Sunday where you join? Lots of churches are like that.

Well, not exactly. The Church really, really wants you – but they also know how important it is that you first understand the core beliefs of the faith and make an informed decision. They call this inquiry, and it is an informal, interactive class held over several weeks. The next step is to dig deeper through classes called RCIA (the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults). In this phase you are on the path to joining but are free to jump off or continue in RCIA until you feel ready. There is no test, no one pressures you in the slightest way…   you alone make the call.

There can be complications getting started. The Catholic Church recognizes your Christian baptism, so long as it was made in the Trinitarian formula (“I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”). If you were baptized in any other way it can not be considered valid and you will need to be baptized properly. If you have no record of your baptism then perhaps family members witnessed it. If it just can’t be determined if you were baptized properly or not, a conditional baptism may be necessary (conditional because you can only have one real baptism).

Another complication may be marriage. If you were married, divorced and remarried — that can be an issue. Marriage is a vocation and sacred covenant. It can not be “undone” through a civil or any other process. However, there may be extenuating circumstances that render an earlier marriage attempt invalid and subject to annulment.

Baptism and marriage status are very important. If your situation is complicated then speak to a Priest, Deacon or RCIA coordinator for guidance. They are compassionate and want to help.

These were not complications in my case. My close friend Rigsby invited me back to the mens group where I met Deacon John, and he asked why I was interested. I explained the best I could without going into a really long explanation (which as you can see, I am perfectly capable of!). That Sunday after Mass I met Vince, our local RCIA coordinator. It wasn’t just any Sunday, it was the day those who were entering RCIA had their Rite of Welcome – a truly beautiful ceremony.

My timing was excellent [heavy sarcasm] as always. For my specific background the inquiry classes would probably not be too helpful. Starting with RCIA seemed the most appropriate approach…   but I missed it by one week. Vince discussed my situation with Deacon John, and he agreed it would be OK for me to jump right in.

I guess the bottom line is everyone’s circumstance is different. The process of joining – or potentially joining – the Catholic Church is not rigid. It is focused on you personally. Speak with a Priest, Deacon or RCIA coordinator. You are not a number to them and they care about you individually.

So, I have taken that first big step. What was it like? Nothing I was expecting.

The Catholic Church is incredibly welcoming. People you meet as well as people you have long known are so happy you are there. Not because it bumps up their membership. Not because you validate their faith. They are genuinely happy for you. You are immediately embraced as a potential new parish brother or sister at the start of your journey. The joy is deeply sincere.

Details of RCIA programs vary slightly by parish. In my parish, we meet on Sunday morning and are able to attend the first half of Mass. Those interested in joining, the Catechumenate (not baptized) and candidates (baptized), are called together and dismissed as a group. This is a wonderful, ancient practice and happens after the Liturgy of the Word (readings and homily) but prior to the Liturgy of the Eucharist (which we are not yet ready to receive). One thing I will always treasure is the dismissal hymn by Christopher Walker sung for us as we leave for class each week. “May the word of God strengthen you; May the word of God nourish you; May the word of God comfort you…   all your life.” There are a lot of people at Mass making this prayer for us, and it is sincere every time.

This is my Conversion Story, part 3 of 4. Please also see:

How in the world did I end up here?

How In World Did I End Up Here

I was not leaving my lifelong church tradition. That was already gone. I was leaving what it became and where it was going. I had not resigned, quit, made some sort of protest statement, stamped my feet, or pounded my fist on a table – but in my heart I was no longer there.

It is still sad, but leaving and being unconnected can also be empowering. To remove the chains of self-identity we place on ourselves gives us the opportunity to make adult, reasoned and informed decisions. A chance to take stock and ask hard questions, even uncomfortable questions, with eyes wide open. Questions like “who am I?”, “what do I believe?” and “what have I been missing?.”

I made lists…   what I want in a church…   what my options were…   how close of a match to my beliefs. If churches were engaged in internal liberal vs. conservative schisms, which side was in my area. That sort of analysis.

It didn’t take long to come up with a short list. One-by-one I eliminated candidates for one reason or another. Some had theologies too foreign to my faith. Some were zooming down the same liberal road my church was on. Some were just not in my area. Not all great reasons but that was my flawed process. It left me with one viable “candidate” – the Catholic Church.

I say candidate because I was by no means sure. Compared to many converts, my flavor of Protestantism was comparably close theologically. I probably knew more about Catholicism than most Protestants. Many friends and others very close to me are Catholic. I respected them and their evangelism by example.

That said, I was not Catholic and had no intention of ever becoming Catholic. Ever. There are many things I considered to be issues, such as an infallible Pope and a rigid hierarchy. Priests not allowed to marry. 2,000 years of history and not all of it something to brag about. Prayers I didn’t know and changes to those I did. Strangeness like statues, a preference for a crucifix vs. the empty cross of our risen Lord, an obsessive focus on Mary, genuflecting and making the sign of the cross. Those people even have additional books in their Bibles! Really, I could go on and on (and probably will in future posts).

As improbable and surprising as it was to me, the Holy Spirit led me here anyway. I prayed for an open mind and an open heart. That prayer was answered and my Protestant prejudices were put aside. I spent hundreds of hours (probably more) “researching,” finding out what Catholics really believe, addressing every “issue” one-by-one.

Wow. Really, wow! I had no idea just how mistaken I was. Some things I thought were issues were just misconceptions. Some are in reality huge strengths. The more I dug, the more I learned, the more impressed I became. There will probably always be items on my “to be explored” list, but a funny thing happens. After a while, after reading the catechism, after researching and studying topic after topic, after seeing how logical and faithful the Church is, after changing your long-held position on this and that – you begin to give the Church the benefit of any doubt. This is a part of what Catholics call “conversion” – not a label, not what you proclaim, but of heart.

There are not a hundred people in America who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions of people who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church — which is, of course, quite a different thing.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen, 1938

Reflecting back now I see my whole approach was wrong. I was shopping for a church that fit my beliefs. Fairly arrogant, is it not? I should have started at the source and followed where His teaching led. It’s really pretty obvious.

This blog is about one Journey and what was learned and continues to be learned along the way. For those looking for the bottom line: the Catholic Church is not another Christian denomination. It is the Church Jesus founded. It teaches the deposit of faith He taught. Its organization was planned by Jesus and has a mission to preserve and teach that faith – not evolve it to fit society’s ever changing frailties. The Catholic Church has an amazing depth and fullness of tradition developed over 2,000 years yet is an unchanged faith as taught directly by our Lord. This is His Church; it is the truth and the way.

Intrigued? Want to know more right now? Have 5 minutes? View the video at CatholicsComeHome.org.

This is my Conversion Story, part 2 of 4. Please also see:

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