Did you ever sit around a table with parishoners to write a mission statement for the parish? As I recall we were instructed to state who we are and then state what we are about.
When it was my turn around the table I suggested we state who we are in three words: “We are sinners.” Nobody else liked that idea. I think we ended up with “we are a family,” or “we are a community” or “a Church” or “we are believers.”
What we are about is easy to agree on: all the things we are doing. Then we printed our mission statement on the front of the bulletin.
I always look at mission statements on the front of parish bulletins to see who they think they are. I’ve never yet found a parish that claimed to be sinners. Maybe that’s why we disagree in so many ways. Maybe that’s why we find it hard to find a common ground to begin the dialog to increase our love for God and for one another.
Our Eucharist begins with the Penitential Rite immediately following the Greeting. The wise church puts the ritual words in our mouths: “We are sinners. Lord have mercy.” Only then do we start the Liturgy of the Word.
Jesus teaches us the parable of the Pharisee and the publican. Who goes home justified? The Pharisee who tells God all the good things he is doing or the publican who knows who he is: a sinner?
I don’t think we are ready to hear the word of God (Old or New Testament) until we can identify ourselves as sinners. If we are not sinners, we don’t need a Messiah, we don’t need a Savior, we don’t need Jesus. We certainly can’t pray the Psalms if we don’t realize our sinful state. I know I couldn’t accept the Psalms until I was blessed with the knowledge and awareness of my sinful state and my sins as a person and as a part of a sinful society and culture hungry for healing. It made it easier to seek out the healing of the Sacrament of Reconciliation also.
For years I only went to confession on my annual retreat. The daily penitential rite in the English Mass which came in the sixties was good enough to wipe out my daily venial sins. For years I examined my conscience by asking what commandments or rules I had broken. Or how I had failed to love. Then I read a small book suggesting finding sin with this question: “Where does it hurt?” Maybe the hurting relationship is my fault. How am I getting along with God, with myself, with the important people in my life? I was always hurting somewhere and maybe it was my fault. I felt the need for healing of my hurting relationships. I went to the Sacrament of Reconciliation confessing where it hurt and that I was sorry that it was my fault. And it always worked—the hurt was healed. I now frequently seek that healing power in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
God is the Doctor who wants to heal us. God asks, “Where does it hurt?” God does not expect us to diagnose our spiritual illness. We don’t have to name our sins. We only have to tell the Divine Doctor where it hurts. We have to ask what relationship is hurting. The one with another person? Are we still angry at God for what God allowed to happen to us years ago? Are we still angry with ourselves for what we did years ago? Have we forgiven God or ourselves?
During my lifetime the Sacrament has been called:
- a confession, and we focused on the species of our sins and their number;
- the Sacrament of Penance, and we focused on how we had to make up for our sins;
- the Sacrament of Reconciliation—this is what we call it today—and we focus now on the social affects of the Sacrament.
- Someday, if we call it the Sacrament of Healing,
then people will line up again to be healed.
Cardinal Bernardin wanted to begin a dialog among people with different ideas and feelings. If we could accept a common ground of our sins as hurts that need healing we might be able to begin the dialog. If Scripture and Tradition are the sources for common ground, let us read what they tell us about ourselves—we are sinners. We are hurting. If Scripture and Tradition tell us anything, it is of our sinfulness.
What ground rules should we use for the dialog? The ground rules we taught our married brothers and sisters on Marriage Encounters really helped them to grow in their love for one another. First of all we tried to identify and share our feelings, not our ideas. We tried to write down our feelings in a notebook and then read each other’s notebooks and see what happened. The most important ground rule is “feelings are not right or wrong.” You may not say, “You shouldn’t feel that way.” Lovers accept one another’s feelings; they don’t judge them. And love grows; sometimes even over the weekend.
Everyone knows you can’t love another until you love yourself. Loving yourself or ego-building is a lifelong task. Also you can’t know another until you know yourself. So, you can’t know Jesus our Savior until you know yourself as a sinner who needs the healing power of God.
Also remember one of the rules for mission statements is to reevaluate and rewrite them every few years. We change through the years. We grow. Maybe we will want to restate who we are now. Perhaps now we are ready to start our mission statement with: “We are sinners.”