Q. My son, who is 20 years old, has left the Catholic religion for a Bible-based faith. We have had many lively discussions which we both enjoy, and it has actually helped to reinvigorate my own Catholic beliefs. There is one of his questions, though, which I’m not sure how to answer. He wants to know if the death of Jesus paid in full for the sins of all believers past, present and future, why would God punish someone if they fail to go to confession? (Chesapeake, Va.)
A. I was caught short by your first sentence. You seem to concede that your own Catholic religion is not a “Bible-based faith.” There’s no need to do that. Instead, explain to your son that Catholicism is built on twin pillars (called technically, “sources of revelation”), namely Scripture and tradition.
A Catholic does believe in the Bible and is guided by the teachings of Jesus found therein. But Catholics also believe that authentic teaching from God did not end with the death of Jesus; it continued through the apostles and even now through their successors, in whom the Spirit works to preserve, expound upon and spread the message of Christ.
As to your specific question about confession, Catholics believe, in reliance on John’s Gospel (20:22-23), that on the first Easter Sunday evening, the risen Jesus appeared to the apostles and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them; whose sins you retain are retained.” That is the biblical foundation for the confession of sins to a priest, a practice that took root early in the history of the church.
So, while it is true that the pardon for our sins is based on the merits of Christ’s death and resurrection, that pardon is transmitted to individual Catholics through the sacrament of penance, or reconciliation.
The church holds that one must seek absolution from a priest for any mortal sins (i.e., grievous actions or omissions done with knowledge and full consent) and encourages us to go to confession for lesser offenses also, as a means of making steady progress on the way to holiness.
For a non-Catholic who does not have the sacrament of penance available, I would be quite certain that God has figured out a way to forgive that person, too, presuming the proper dispositions of sorrow and purpose of amendment.
But I sure think that it’s a real plus to be a Catholic and to have the comfort of hearing the priest say on behalf of Christ, “It’s OK, you’re forgiven. That’s all behind you, and now you can start over.”
Q. When I was growing up on the South Side of Chicago in the 1940s, my mother would take us to six or seven different churches on Holy Thursday evening to say some prayers. The Blessed Sacrament was often displayed on the altar all night. I’ve lived several different places since then and people seem to be unfamiliar with this custom. Was it just a “Chicago thing” or did it take place elsewhere? (Poynette, Wis.)
A. In churches throughout the Catholic world, Mass is celebrated on Holy Thursday evening to commemorate Christ’s institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. Following the Mass, the altar is stripped of its sacred linens, the Eucharist is removed from the tabernacle and placed on an “altar of repose” where parishioners can kneel in adoration.
Many parishes now end this period at about 10 p.m. with night prayer, after which the church is locked. It is during this period of adoration that a considerable number of Catholics still do visit neighboring churches. (I know it’s not just a “Chicago thing” because I did it with my parents in upstate New York when my sisters and I were little.)
The custom of visiting seven churches on Holy Thursday evening seems to have developed in Rome during the 16th century and is often credited to St. Philip Neri, who was the pastor of a Rome city parish. People would visit the seven basilicas in Rome, saying prayers and watching in some moments of adoration at each one.
Gradually the custom spread throughout the Catholic world, and it has been particularly strong in Italy, Poland, Mexico and the Philippines.
Questions to Father Doyle may be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 40 Hopewell St., Albany, NY 12208.