Two Cheers for Catholic Guilt

(Homily for Ash Wednesday)

Bottom line: As we begin Lent, the Bible readings invite us to acknowledge our personal wrong doing - our guilt.

Today is Ash Wednesday - the beginning of the holy season of Lent. The readings for Ash Wednesday bring us face to face with an unpopular reality: guilt. Sometimes we hear jokes about "Catholic guilt" or "Irish guilt." But the fact is, every person who has reached the age of reason, experiences guilt. Those who have no faith - those who do not believe in God - often experience a form of guilt much worse than anything we can imagine.

Take for example, the famous Princeton professor, Peter Singer. Singer does believe in God or Judeo-Christian morality. Instead, he follows the Benthamite philosophy that each conscious individual counts as one – and therefore our duties are the same to strangers as to family members. With this philosophy, he feels he should not show more concern for his mother than for any other human being - or even a higher animal, like an ape or dolphin. Yet, when his mother was dying with Alzheimer's, he devoted thousands of dollars to her care. Later on, he felt guilty about it. He said that he could have better devoted those resources to helping the poor.

Whatever you think of Peter Singer, his philosophy causes him a terrible form of guilt - an unappeasable guilt. He actually feels guilty about helping his mother. I don't know about you, but: Compared to that kind of guilt, I'll take "Catholic guilt" any day. We do not ask you to feel guilty about every human being. Or every animal. We do not ask you to feel guilty about the planet.* We ask you to feel guilty about your sins - those knowing and deliberate violations of God's law.**

I won't go into specifics now, but this Sunday I will give more detail about what things are sinful. Today, as we begin Lent, the Bible readings invite us to acknowledge our personal wrong doing - our guilt. The prophet Joel tells us to weep, fast and mourn - to return to God. To be grateful that God is "slow to anger, rich in kindness and relenting in punishment."

In his mercy God has given us a second chance. Don't miss this opportunity. Lent 2010 may be the final one for you or me - maybe for all of us. St. Paul says, "Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation." The apostle pleads with us "not to receive the grace of God in vain."

The first step of Lent is to face personal guilt. To acknowledge one's sins, I know no better prayer than the Psalm we heard today.

Thoroughly wash me from my guilt
and of my sin cleanse me.
For I acknowledge my offense,
and my sin is always before me...
Give me back the joy of your salvation,
and willing spirit sustain in me.

I once prayed that Psalm with a girl who had an abortion. Even though in some way she felt she had "no choice," afterwards she recognized how terrible to take the life of her own developing child. The Psalm, acknowledging guilt, brought her great consolation - and she said she would pray it often.

Once we have acknowedged guilt, Jesus then asks us to do something positive: to pray, to fast, to give the poor. As Pope Benedict said, those are our three "tasks" for lent: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. In the bulletin, I explain more what those practices mean.

Before receiving the blessed ashes on our foreheads, please consider what you will do during these forty days of Lent. The lenten practices will give you great peace. You may not help every person and every innocent animal. You may not save the the planet - but you will do your part. Acknowledge your genuine guilt, place it before the Lord and then do something practical: pray, fast and give alms. your Father, who knows the secrets of your heart, he will reward you.


*Now: Whatever a person makes of "global warming" or "climate change," every Christian should embrace a modest lifestyle - a lifestyle that results in the least possible waste and pollution. Nevertheless, we also have to recognize the trap of making environmentalism into a religion. It can be a convenient way to avoid facing a worse pollution in one's heart - and one's relationships.

**I titled this homily "Two Cheers" because (both as a confessor and as a sinner) I know how easy one can slide into false guilt: What St. Paul calls 'worldly sadness which produces death.' (1 Cor 7:10) The Catholic Church has always striven to distinguish between true guilt which leads to repentance and salvation and the 'false guilt' which leads to misery and despair.

Spanish Version

From Archives (Ash Wednesday Homilies):

First Things
New Mind and Heart
Go to Your Inner Room
Return to Me
The Purpose of Lent
Two Cheers for Catholic Guilt
Don't Waste This Crisis
When You Give Alms
Back to the Basics
Dealing With Guilt
Exercise of Holy Desire

Homilies for First Sunday of Lent ("Temptation Sunday"):

2016: First Things: Prayer
2015: New Mind and Heart Week 1
2014: Prayer and Spiritual Combat Week 1
2013: Do Not Talk to the Devil
2012: The Convenant with Noah Today
2011: The Purpose of Temptation
2010: Who Is Like God?
2009: Knee Mail
2008: The Devil is a Logician
2007: More Powerful than Satan
2006: Sir, Go on the Other Side
2005: The Temptation of Sloth
2004: Temptation of Spirituality
2003: Lent with C.S. Lewis
2002: First Signs of Spring
2001: How Satan Operates
2000: The Rabbit's Foot
1999: Original Sin & Temptation
1998: Hidden Sin of Gluttony
1997: Jesus' Temptation & Ours

Other Homilies

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)

My bulletin column

St. Mary of the Valley Album

my bulletin column

SMV Bulletin (be patient - sometimes we have problems uploading)

Parish Picture Album

Separated at birth?

40 Days for Life (Everett, WA)

From Fr. Frank Pavone:

The recent revelations about Planned Parenthood’s willingness to cover up sexual exploitation build on revelations uncovered many years ago. Life Dynamics called hundreds of Planned Parenthood facilities nationwide. The caller, posing as a minor made pregnant by statutory rape, was consistently taught how to lie so that the abortion clinic would not have to report the incident.

As I always say, you can’t practice vice virtuously. Planned Parenthood carries out, justifies, defends, and even celebrates the horrifying dismemberment of children in the womb. After doing that, they are hardly going to have much of a conscience left in regard to any other kind of right and wrong. If one devalues the child in the womb, one will devalue the child outside the womb.

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