Although we focus more on joy and peace on earth at this time of year, the students have been filled with a bunch of “what if” questions regarding the topic of sin. It’s easy to teach what actions are considered sinful and what a mortal sin is vs. a venial sin. The issues that the students are having trouble with surround whether they can judge others based on their sins. Here is an example of one conversation:
Student A: “Ms. Linehan, let’s say that I kill Student B and then die in a car accident on the way home, would I go to Hell?”
Ms. Linehan: “Well, let’s break it down: the action of murdering someone is a mortal sin but there are circumstances that go beyond what our knowledge is. So is murder a mortal sin, yes but can we judge that person based on their action…. NO!!!! Do we know if they are in Hell? We do not. This is where it gets complicated. Since we can never understand fully a person’s intentions or mental health at any given situation, the only person who can truly judge someone is God and God alone.”
Student A: “Why am I not in Hell for committing a mortal sin?”
Ms. Linehan: “Maybe you said an Act of Contrition right after you committed the murder. Maybe you had no choice and it was self-defense. Maybe when you were in front of God you were filled with sorrow and regret for having taken a life. Maybe you did not know what you were doing was wrong. These are things that only God can answer. God knows the state of your soul at the time of your death. Let’s look at it another way: the Church does not have any proof of any person, besides Satan himself, being in Hell. Since none of us are perfect we have to believe that God is not only a just God but also one full of mercy and Love.”
Student !: “But then can we say what they did was wrong?”
Ms. Linehan: “Yes, we can judge an action but never the person who commits that action. God alone is the only judge. We can only be in control of our own actions and know that when we do mess up we are blessed with the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It is up to us to use it.”
The main point that I try to convey is one that our society has forgotten about Catholicism, it is simple: “Hate the sin, Love the sinner”. We are all sinners, every single one of us, we all make mistakes. God alone is the judge and we are called by Him to Love no matter what. True love, the love that God is calling each of us too, is not easy and can be painful. But that is a topic for another post J
To begin I just want to say that there are books written on this one question going over the theology in depth and covering a lot more of the reasons behind it. Below you will read the three reasons that over the past three years have had the most impact with the students in the 3 to 5 minutes that I have their attention. This answer is just of the tip of the iceberg to help them begin to understand this teaching of our faith. If you have any questions regarding this question, please comment and I will help lead you to some great resources.
The first is that the priest, especially when they are on the altar at Mass, are a representative of Christ. During the prayer of Consecration the priest says “This is MY body given up for you” and “This is MY blood poured out for you”. He does not say “this is Jesus body” and “this is Jesus blood”, he is in that moment what we call In persona Christi which is Latin for in the person of Christ. The priest is a physical representation of Christ for us and as history tells us Jesus was a man. Thus a priest is a man.
The second reason and one that sticks most for me personally is that the best female candidate to be a priest would have been Mary. Mary was born like Jesus without sin, she was there for all of Jesus miracles, she was there when he died on the cross and was present at Pentecost. Mary is our example of a perfect disciple and the MOTHER of God Himself, if she was not chosen to be a priest than no other woman created would ever be worthy to have that ministry.
The third is simple: Jesus chose men, He had other women followers but He chose 12 men to take His place. What gives us the authority to change what God Himself put in place? Now some people might say that Jesus chose men because of the time that Jesus lived, women were not treated the same as men. However we need to look no further than the Bible to see that Jesus did not care about that. Jesus broke through the cultural barriers when it came to women: look at the Samaritan woman at the well- culturally men were not allowed to speak to women outside their own family-Did that stop Jesus… No. Look at the story of Martha and Mary- women were not being educated- yet Jesus taught Martha and even rebuked Mary for not stopping to learn and listen. Who was the first person to see what is known as the greatest event in human history- Jesus’ Resurrection… none other than Mary Magdalene- a WOMAN! Those are just a few stories, there are many more stories in the Gospels that show Jesus did not care about what the law or culture said about women and men but rather regarded them with the same respect as both being created in God’s image and likeness. God’s plan was to have men follow in Christ’s example in the priesthood and women to take on different roles, each complimenting their unique gifts.
Most people when they think of Hell see fire and brimstone; a place inhabited by the devil with horns. People envision a place, maybe even within the Earth, that people go to if they are evil in this life. Now there is evidence in the Bible of hell being referenced with fire but it is in those references that we need to understand what God is trying to tell us. He does not refer to a specific place that can be located on a map or by Siri. Rather, Hell is complete separation from God. Hell is a state of being one that does not include God which to our souls is like being put in a place of extreme torture and suffering.
Each time that we sin we choose our will over God’s; we choose to separate ourselves from God. St. John Paul II in one of his Wednesday audiences explained how “man, called to respond to Him freely, can unfortunately choose to reject His love and forgiveness once and for all, thus separating himself forever from joyful communion with Him.” In the plan of salvation God wants, desires, our participation in it. That is why He gave us free will so that we can choose to love Him. It is only in dying in a state of mortal sin, separated completely from God, that Hell becomes a reality. It is through the reception of the sacrament of Reconciliation and asking for God’s forgiveness and accepting His mercy and love, that we are able to reconnect with God.
So the quick answer to “what is Hell?” lies in our state of being= are we with God in His mercy and love (Heaven)? Or are we separated from God, who is the only solution to our longings and desires (Hell)? The choice is ultimately ours.
Originally these blogs were intended to address the questions posed by the students within our Faith Formation classrooms. However, with this blog, I am going to address more of a general topic. As you know from my Christmas newsletter I was blessed to take a pilgrimage to Medjugorje over winter break. A quick background on Medjugorje: it is a small village in Bosnia and Herzegovina where in 1981 Mary appeared to six children. To this day, Mary continues to appear each day to three of those visionaries. For my pilgrimage, I was blessed enough to be able to have stayed with Ivan, one of the visionaries. A visionary is a person who receives visions/apparitions as part of private revelation. This means that one is not obligated by the Church to believe in visionaries or apparitions as they are not public revelation.
Now for a little bit about my trip and the point of this blog. While I was in Medjugorje, I experienced intense prayer (Rosary), challenges (climbed two mountains), Masses, Adoration (in a packed Church with people of all languages) but most of all I was able to receive the Sacrament of Confession. Unbeknownst to me, Medjugorje is known as the Confessional of the World. There were over 50 confessionals for people of all languages to receive the Sacrament. If there were more than 50 priests available they sat on benches outside of the Church to make sure that the pilgrims’ confessions could be heard. During the peak months (April through September), some people have to wait in lines for over 2 hours to have their confession heard. Since it was the “off season” during my trip I only had to wait a little over an hour since there were only two English speaking priests. While in line I meet this Italian man who shared his incredible story: About six years ago his mother sent him to Medjugorje during New Years to give him some perspective as his life was not where it should be. He explained himself as “barely human, a beast”. It was only after receiving the graces of the Sacrament that he felt whole again. He has come back to Medjugorje every New Years for the past 6 years to confess his sins. His quote about being “barely human, a beast” struck me. So many people in the world are consumed or drowning in their sins that they do not see a way out, the light that can bring them back into humanity. We as Catholics are so lucky that Christ gave us a way back, He gave us a light- we see it each time we enter our Churches and a priest is waiting in the Confessional.
As part of the Year of Mercy and our Faith Formation calendar the students will be receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation during their class time. The specific dates can be found on their syllabus and the website. I wanted to take the time to personally invite you as the parents to come to the Lenten Reconciliation Service on Palm Sunday (March 20th) since we are all sinners and in need of God’s mercy and forgiveness. I hope that you can learn something from the Italian stranger I met in line for confession and come back to the light and “become whole again”… through the Confessional. As our Second Graders can share with you: “THERE IS NOTHING TO FEAR BECAUSE GOD ALREADY KNOWS”.
No matter how hard we try as Catholics to keep this blessed season focused on preparing our hearts for Christ and His birth on Christmas we are bombarded by secular culture. The Faith Formation classrooms are no different. I have to mentally and spiritually prepare myself for this time of year to keep the sanctity of Christmas while explaining the origins of most secular traditions. There are a variety of different ways to answer the question that I pose in this blog. I am merely sharing my quick answer and why I answer the way I do. As I grow both spiritually and in the knowledge of the different traditions that families have here at St. Mary’s my answer will most likely change.
The question this blog is focused on Santa. Nowadays there are so many movies, stories and theories out there of how Santa does what he does, how he became Santa etc. That is difficult to know what theory each family goes by and not let the cat out of the bag so to speak. One of my biggest fears this time of year is that a student will learn the “truth” about Santa in one of my classrooms.
The students pose the Santa question in two ways:
Do you believe in Santa? – I love when this one is asked because I am able to say “Of course, don’t you!” without a shadow of doubt. The meaning and sentiments of what Santa stand for: pure love, selfless giving, compassion, joy, believing in something one cannot see and community is evident in our world especially during the holidays. We are able to take those attributes that expand the conversation to learn about God and His love for us all. The Spirit of the Christmas season is something that I believe in because I believe in Jesus Christ whose Love is shared in the context of Santa. The Christmas season allows us to take a step back from the crazy world we live in and see God’s hand in each human being, each kind word and action, every smile and wrapped gift we find under the tree.
Is Santa real? – It took me a while to wrangle with this one because of my theological brain and my rational (scientific) nature. Some background- The legend of Santa is derived from the life of Saint Nicholas who lived in the third century. He lived a life that obtained him sainthood and eternal life with God in heaven. Therefore Saint Nicholas (Santa Claus) was alive on earth and now is alive with God in heaven interceding for us whenever we call upon him. Therefore, yes Santa is real theologically speaking. Another way to look at it is that St. Nicholas is alive in every action of love, generosity and compassion that is made in his name.
There is a great deal of controversy regarding this topic as I mentioned in the beginning when it comes to Santa. The message I want to get across is that when your child is my classrooms I do everything in my power to refocus Christmas to its actually meaning (birth of our Savior), prevent the outing of Santa Claus and pass along the love and ideals that the life of St. Nicholas showed to allow the students to stay children a little while longer as the world keeps pushing them to grow up too fast.
Explaining that Jesus was a real man that existed in history is as easy as explaining the ABC’s.
- Apostles. Through the lives of the Apostles, well really their deaths, we can see that Jesus and His message of salvation are true. A good percentage of the Apostles died horrific deaths, either crucifixion (like Christ or upside down), tied to a cross and left to die, stoned, beheaded, and skinned to death just to name a few ways. There was only ONE apostle that died a peaceful death of old age. That begs the question if Jesus was not truly the Messiah and he did not rise from the dead, why would these 11 men allow themselves to die such horrific deaths? Wouldn’t it have been easier to just deny Jesus as the Christ and go on with their lives?
- Bible and books. The Bible has historical records that can be checked. Just look to the first chapter of the Gospels Matthew, where it lists Jesus’ genealogy giving context to the time in which Jesus was born. Not to mention the battles in the Old Testament that provides us with historical data and context. We also have other, non-Christian books and authors that talk about a guy named Jesus around the same time period that Jesus is said to live. These nonbeliever authors also mention his miracles and the crowds that followed him.
- The pure existence of the Church is proof that Jesus existed and is God. The Church has existed for over 2000 years, the most of any organization. That is not saying that those 2000 years were without blame or stain. One can see that it is only through the Truth of Jesus Christ and the power of God that the Church survived 2000 years. I always like to suggest to both the students and teachers alike is that if you want to make your faith stronger in God and His Church study Church History. When you actually learn and see all the challenges, twists and turns, hardships and victories the Church has endured and how many times it could have been wiped off the face of the earth you come to realize that the Catholic Church is the only Church that could have been established by God Himself. Without God’s direction and grace it would not have lasted this long!
Really this is a three for one deal but as these questions are usually asked right after each other so it is easier to answer them together.
Creation and Evolution—Which is true? The answer is BOTH! That probably surprises some of you as people are so outspoken on either side about how they could never fit together. But when one reads the Creation story and truly studies it they begin to wonder about the relationship between time and God. Does God have 24 hours in a day or did the writers of the Bible give us the concept of “days” as a way to understand that creation took place over a period of time? The Truth is God exists outside of time, therefore one day to God could be 1 million years or 1 millisecond, we simply do not know. With this mindset, one can see how the timetable of Evolution can easily fit into the creation story in the Bible.
Another way to look at it is from an Evolution standpoint. You can trace evolution back all the way until you have one atom that’s existence cannot be explained. It didn’t evolve from anything and it wasn’t a product of a bang in the universe. The only explanation is that God created it.
So why do we have the creation story anyway? The story of creation gives us a way to understand two main principles about God: He alone is the one true God and secondly God created everything. Therefore the only way to completely understand how creation happened is to combine each of the stories.
Adam and Eve- Where do they fit? When one puts the creation and evolution theories together to understand how the world was really created the story of Adam and Eve does not seem to fit. So why would they be in the Bible?? This is where we need to remember that the Bible is a library of different types of books ranging from history to myths and everything in-between. The Creation story falls into the myth category: stories that are given to us in order to teach a lesson. So just like we should not take the creation story as a scientific plan for creation, we should not read Adam and Eve as a history story but rather look for the lesson in the story.
Where did the stories originate if they are not to be read as historical facts or scientific? The writers of the Bible got the story of Adam and Eve and creation from when they were in exile in a country that believed in multiple gods. The story was taken from that religion but used and edited by the writers of the Bible to teach that God alone is the creator and how sin entered the world.
Quick Response= Did creation happen in 7 days? Probably not. Could Adam and Eve have existed? Maybe. The key to these stories are not what they tell us scientifically or historically but rather what they tell us about the Fundamental Truths of our Faith.