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Confession Helps in Many Ways

Image: Wikimedia
Image: Wikimedia

‘I Feel So Uncomfortable’

Q: Confession has been a really sore spot for me but, having been raised a Catholic, I do love the Church and all the other sacraments. I am sure there are priests I could go to for confession, but I feel so uncomfortable and always feel that God already knows my sins and what I am sorry for. Will I go to hell for feeling this way? Will God forgive me if I am truly sorry?

A: You will not go to hell for feeling that way—only if you commit some mortal sin for which you refuse to repent. Will God forgive you if you are truly sorry? Yes.

You may, however, be seeing repentance and forgiveness too narrowly. Sin cuts us off not only from God but also from other people. Repentance is not simply about straightening things out with an angry God who, in human terms, is actually more disappointed than angry.

Repentance is also about admitting that our sins affect how we treat other people.

The Roman Catholic faith is an incarnational one, a sacramental one, a faith which sees God acting through physical objects (water, oil, bread, wine) and by means of human instruments, including a priest hearing confessions.

Why not participate in a Lenten penance service in your parish? Common prayers and Scripture readings are followed by a chance for private confession in the open or in a confessional.

In almost 25 years of hearing confessions, I have always been humbled and edified as people face their sinfulness, accepting God’s love and forgiveness. Remember, confessors go to confession, too!

Wasn’t Jesus Jewish?

Q: If Jesus was Jewish, why don’t Catholics follow Jewish teachings?

A: In fact, Catholics do follow many Jewish teachings, such as the Ten Commandments. Catholic Sunday Masses almost always include a reading from the Hebrew Scriptures and a Psalm response. The Mass prayer, “Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation. Through your goodness we have this bread [wine] to offer…,” comes from Judaism.

When a second-century Roman priest said that the God of the Hebrew Scriptures was not the same as the God of the New Testament, the Catholic Church described such teaching as heresy. Jesus was born Jewish and cannot be understood apart from Judaism.

Jesus also preached about a Kingdom of God which is open to Jews and non-Jews (gentiles). The Letter to the Ephesians says that Christ broke down the wall between Jews and gentiles, reconciling both with God (2:11-17).

Some Jewish people accepted that teaching while others did not. Those who did so became Christians, willing to call Jesus the Son of God. Not surprisingly, other Jews felt such a title undermined the absolute bedrock of Judaism, their belief in one God.

For the first 40 years after Jesus’ death, many people thought of Christianity as a group within Judaism. As the Good News spread, so many gentiles were baptized that eventually they became the majority.

Can Ashes Be Scattered?

Q: I understand the Church’s regulations on cremation. In view of the events of last summer, what are the Church’s regulations on the final disposition of the deceased person’s ashes? May they be cast to the winds at sea?

A: Last summer’s funeral of John F. Kennedy, Jr., Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and Lauren Bessette led to some initial, inaccurate reports. Reporters on ships at a distance incorrectly assumed that the ashes had been scattered. In fact, containers holding the ashes were dropped overboard.

The Church expects entombment of the ashes in a conventional grave, a mausoleum or a columbarium(cemetery niche for the container). The Order of Christian Funerals approved for the dioceses of the United States by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Holy See contains an alternate prayer for cremated remains.

That prayer says, “My friends, as we prepare to bury (entomb) the ashes of our brother (sister)….” Later it continues, “Comfort us today with the words of your promise as we return the ashes of our brother (sister) to the earth.”

The Guidelines for Christian Burial in the Catholic Church, prepared by the Liturgy Advisory Committee of the National Catholic Cemetery Conference, state, “Unless otherwise directed by the diocesan bishop, the cremated remains should never be scattered or disposed of in any manner other than a dignified interment or entombment.”

Burial at sea is permitted for a body or a person’s ashes. Federal law prohibits such burials less than three nautical miles from land. Regulations of the Environmental Protection Agency specify that “cremated remains shall be buried in or on ocean waters.”

What About Reincarnation?

Q: One of my close friends believes in reincarnation. My Catholic education and faith leave me with no reason to believe in multiple lives. Among other things, my friend claims that all mention of reincarnation was removed from the Bible in the early centuries of the Church.

Please provide me with some background on reincarnation, its presence in the Bible at any time in history and the Catholic Church’s position on it.

A: In A Concise Dictionary of Theology (Paulist, 1991), Jesuits Gerald O’Collins and Edward Farrugia describe reincarnation as “the belief, also calledmetempsychosis (Greek ‘animate afterward’), that souls inhabit a series of bodies and can live many lives on this earth before being completely purified and so released from the need to migrate to another body.

“According to this belief, the soul preexists its embodiment, and after death exists in a disembodied state before animating [inhabiting] once again a body of the same or a different species. In various forms, reincarnation has been accepted by Buddhists, Hindus, Neoplatonists and others.

“Belief in resurrection and official rejection of the preexistence of souls…rule out reincarnation. By maintaining an indefinite series of chances, the doctrine of reincarnation reduces the seriousness of God’s grace and human liberty exercised in one life that is terminated by a once-and-for-all death.”

In 1991 the Holy See’s International Theological Commission published Certain Aspects of Eschatology, which says: “Christianity defends duality, reincarnation defends a dualism in which the body is simply an instrument of the soul and is laid aside, existence by successive existence, as an altogether different body is assumed each time.

“As far as eschatology is concerned, the doctrine of reincarnation denies both the possibility of eternal damnation and the idea of the resurrection of the body. But the fundamental error is in the rejection of the Christian doctrine of salvation. For the reincarnationist the soul is its own savior by its own efforts” (Section 9.3).

Reincarnation denies the need to convert, about which Jesus spoke often. If souls keep recycling, won’t they all end up in the same place eventually? If so, why are our decisions today important?

Arguing that some major doctrine was originally in the Bible but was later removed strikes me as too easy a solution.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “When ‘the single course of our earthly life’ is completed, we shall not return to other earthly lives: ‘It is appointed for men to die once’ [Hebrews 9:27]. There is no ‘reincarnation’ after death” (#1013).

Was Luther Right All Along?

Q: It’s my understanding that the result of all the Catholic-Lutheran dialogues confirms that Martin Luther was right all along: Works play no part in salvation and we are saved by faith alone.

It seems that the only concession on the Lutheran side was that salvation could still be lost after it’s been received. Has the Catholic Church once again “developed” a doctrine to the point of reversing it?

A: I think you may have misunderstood the recent Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration on Justification, with its Common Statement and Annex. These were signed on October 31, 1999, in Augsburg, Germany, by Bishop Christian Krause (Lutheran World Federation) and Cardinal Edward Cassidy (Holy See’s Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity).

We are saved by Jesus’ death and resurrection. Faith, however, is more than an activity of the mind; it must express itself outwardly. In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus tells a parable about the final judgment, saying that some people are saved because of their actions and other people are condemned for failing to act.

Those who are saved do not “earn” their salvation by good works. Their works of mercy simply reflect a cooperation with God’s sovereign, saving grace. Those who are condemned presumably failed to cooperate with that same grace.

The Joint Declaration does not mean that either side “won.” Both parties instead admitted that on this issue they had not listened to one another carefully enough almost 500 years ago. Saying that, both sides win!