Catholic schools: restoring a sense of sin

Catholic schools: restoring a sense of sin

Br John Moylan CFC

Br John Moylan is a Christian Brother Golden Jubilarian. He has a Master of Arts from the Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education at Fordham University, New York City, and a Master of Education in Religious Education from the ACU. He has had extensive teaching experience and many articles published in Australian and overseas journals.

In November 1998, at the wish of Pope John Paul II, a meeting was held between various Vatican Congregations, the Archbishops of the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference and Chairs and Secretaries of various Conference Committees. A document entitled Statement of Conclusions was released two months later.

The document set down the conclusions of this interdicasterial meeting, and contained "proposals and direction for the mission of the Church in Australia".

Certainly, it seems that those charged with the education of Australian Catholic children and youth should be steeped in these proposals and understand clearly the direction for the mission of the Church in Australia as seen by the Church's leaders. Also, as appropriate to their age and maturity, should their Catholic students.

Article 44 of this document speaks about a decline in the sense of sin. It stated: "Many bishops in Australia and elsewhere have noted a decline in the sense of sin, stemming from the deeper reality of a crisis of faith, and having grave repercussions for the Sacrament of Penance. The situation calls for a renewed and energetic catechesis on the very nature of sin as opposed to salvation, and thus for a focus in sacramental praxis not only on the consolation and encouragement of the faithful, but also on instilling a true sense of contrition, of authentic sorrow for their own sins."

Article 44, just quoted, is of such moment that its depths need to be plumbed much more deeply than possible in one essay. Here some attention is paid to two questions arising from Article 44, and concludes by providing some suggestions which Catholic schools may find helpful in responding to it. The questions are:

* Why is the development of a sense of sin important?

* Why has there been a decline in the sense of sin?

Sense of sin - why is it important?

Jesus came so that we may have life and have it more abundantly. This life comes through accepting God's call to return His love with the totality of our being, and by loving our neighbours as ourselves. This shared life with Christ helps free us from the slavery of selfishness which, in the case of venial sin, diminishes the basic orientation of our life in union with God, or, in the case of mortal sin, breaks that union.

As a result of Original Sin, we find, under the guise of good, influences which tempt us to wound or destroy our life in union with God. A sense of sin makes us aware of this reality, and of the reality that we need God's help to maintain, strengthen or restore this relationship.

Sin is a choice to reject God's love or, in the case of venial sin, to diminish it. Many attempts are used to convey the meaning of sin and its consequences to the sinner. They include concepts of rebellion, isolation, alienation and estrangement, all of which suggest ways of turning love on oneself. Mortal sin is a denial of the most essential core of one's being.

Personal sin is a part of the life of all human beings, and failure to acknowledge sin has consequences for the sinner. Scripture tells us:

"If we say, 'We are without sin,' we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not within us. If we acknowledge our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing. If we say, 'We have not sinned,' we make him a liar, and his word in not in us" (1 Jn: 8- 10).

The Parable of the Pharisee and Publican has instructed posterity on the contrast between a lack of sense of sin, which is accompanied with no sense of dependence on God's mercy, and a profound sense of sin coupled with a realisation of the need for God's forgiveness. A proper sense of sin, combined with trust in God's mercy, saves the human being from arrogance on one hand and despair on the other.

A very important point to grasp, but one that people often find difficult, is that our real loveableness, our authentic self-worth, our immense value and dignity are not grounded in talent, achievements, wit, charm or any other surrogate loves we create to secure worth in our own eyes. The four blessings and four woes found in the Sermon on the Plain (Lk 6:20-26) is just one scriptural reference which reveals that the rich, the filled, the happy and the praised often have no time in their lives for God. On the other hand the poor, hungry, weeping and rejected, like the sinner in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, those who depend on God's love, are the blessed.


Where there is a balanced sense of sin there is a sense of responsibility. This sense of responsibility affirms the dignity of the human person as one who can choose, with God's Help, to return God's Love. This is done by persevering in radical self-giving in union with Jesus Christ and His community.

Another extremely important point is this. A diminished sense of sin can lull a person into a sense of complacency regarding venial sin, and venial sin is an evil to be detested more than any other except mortal sin. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (No 1863) reminds the faithful that venial sin weakens charity, manifests a disordered affection for material goods, impedes the soul's progress in the practice of the virtues and the practice of the moral good, and merits temporal punishment. Moreover, it teaches that "deliberate and unrepentant venial sin disposes us little by little to commit mortal sin".

No wonder then that the Australian Bishops and the heads of various Vatican congregations call for a renewed and energetic catechesis on the very nature of sin and how it is opposed to our salvation. No wonder they call for a focus on sacramental praxis, which not only consoles and encourages the faithful in their struggles with sin, but which also focuses on instilling a true sense of contrition for sin. No wonder, also, there are several calls for God's mercy in every Mass, and such common prayers in the Catholic tradition as the Lord's Prayer and the Hail Mary give prominence to acknowledgement of our sinfulness and pray for forgiveness.

Without a sense of sin, it would be impossible to appreciate how Jesus, the Son of God and a member of the human race, by his death on Calvary redeemed us through His victory over death and sin. As evil is the sum of all sin, the redeeming love of Christ is infinitely greater.

A loss of a sense of sin leads to religious indifference; it undermines the whole of Christian life. The greater an individual has developed a sense of sin, combined with a sense of God's loving mercy, the more that individual is aware of his or her need for God and is in a position to appreciate God more fully.

Without a sense of sin it would be impossible to appreciate the Church's identity, and to cherish its indispensable mandate given by Jesus Christ to reconcile sinners. The wonderful gift of the Sacrament of Penance would not be appreciated. This remarkable sacrament is the "sole ordinary means by which one of the faithful who is conscious of grave sin is reconciled with God and with the Church" (Catechism, No 1484).

Decline in the sense of sin

Pope John Paul II in a post-synodal exhortation, Reconciliatio et Paenitentia (1984), claims that "secularism" is the principal influence contributing to a loss of a sense of sin. The meaning and relevance of Christian symbols, and religion itself, are brought into question by the secular spirit. One example is the widespread practice of reducing sin to a kind of psychological or social disorder.

However, it is not only a lack of Christian faith which has been behind the loss of a sense of sin. Among practices within the thinking and life of the Church, the Pope pointed to the following:

* the movement from seeing sin everywhere to seeing it nowhere;

* an emphasis on fear of eternal punishment giving way to preaching on the love of God that excludes punishment;

* the movement from correcting erroneous consciences to respecting consciences but excluding the duty to tell the truth;

* the plurality of opinions in the Church on questions of morality;

* deficiencies in the practice of penance.

To restore a healthy sense of sin, the Pope urged "a sound catechetics, illuminated by the biblical theology of the covenant, by an attentive listening and trustful openness to the Magisterium of the Church, which never ceases to enlighten consciences, and by an ever more careful practice of the Sacrament of Penance".

Catholic Schools

What does all this mean for Australian Catholic schools? As a crisis of faith and the pervasiveness of secularism appear to be the principal influences contributing towards a decline in the sense of sin, a prudent but aggressive challenge by Catholic educators to meet this problem seems to be in order.

The life, priorities and practices of the Catholic school must speak powerfully to the reality of the faith it holds to be true. Everything must speak to the reality of the new and eternal covenant that God's people have, as their collective and individual responsibility, to engage their whole lives with God as revealed by Jesus Christ. The students, under the guidance of their teachers, must learn they have a responsibility, with the help of prayer, to take possession of their own lives and to commit themselves completely to God.

The teachers are called to reflect Christ to their pupils. As one leading religious educator of youth has remarked, "Before there can be a ministry of teaching there must be a ministry of friendship, because without friendship there cannot be effective teaching." Through the example of their teachers, and the supporting staff of the school, the students learn more about leading the Christian life than they do from the matter of religious education classes, indispensable as the latter is.

The example of students' well-respected teachers cannot be underplayed. An incident in the life of the present Pope when he was the Archbishop of Cracow was cited by George Weigel in his biography of John Paul II.

Archbishop Wotjyla, not then Cardinal Wotjyla, had occasion to reprimand severely a young priest for a matter which the priest admitted was a "grave misdemeanour". After doing so, the archbishop invited the young priest to pray with him in his chapel. A somewhat lengthy quiet prayer session followed. Then the archbishop turned to the young priest and asked, "Would you please hear my confession?" The stunned young priest went to the confessional where the future Pope John Paul II made his confession.

Well-prepared teachers, who are at home with God, are honest with themselves, and at home with their pupils, are in a good position to attend to the way their students image God. Before students can have a proper sense of sin, and appreciate its evil, students need, through prayer, instruction and observation, to develop a sound, positive image of God as Creator and Loving Saviour. A Catholic school, which has the responsibility to aim for the complete Christian formation of its students, should be using every means possible to help them de velop and reinforce this image daily.

Much more could be written about the grave repercussions arising from the current perceived decline in a sense of sin, and more suggestions could be explored how the Catholic school might address this grave problem. These suggestions might include initiatives and practices concerned with inculcating a sense of responsibility, methods of conscience formation in accordance with the sound teachings of the Church's Magisterium, and strategies for challenging the students' behaviour collectively and individually in the light of the Covenant and their Baptismal and Confirmation commitments.

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