We priests get used to people using all sorts of excuses for not coming to Mass! One of the most common is “Oh I’m far too bad to be seen at Mass Father” and to that they often add “And it’s no good suggesting that I make my Confession, because it would take all day!” Well I bet you know my response already! “No-one is too bad to come to Mass, we’re all imperfect in one way or another.”, and “I’m happy to give you as much time as you like for your Confession. Just book a time to meet me!” Sadly few people respond to that challenge. It is almost always just an excuse!
What I don’t say, but I will say now, is that I’m always shocked by this ignorance about what being a Catholic is all about. Maybe it’s we priests who are at fault – banging on about the importance of being kind and good and loving our enemies – and going on about sin. I was delighted to read a talk by Pope Benedict a few weeks ago, where 3 times, he said to a large group of men training for the priesthood in Rome. “Christianity is NOT moralism” He obviously feels like I do that somehow we are not getting the message across! Three times! Christianity is not moralism! The point he was making was that the Catholic faith is basically about one thing, and one thing only, about entering into a loving relationship with God.
Now Jesus makes this point again and again as he confronts the moralism of the Jews of his time, and most of all today in our Gospel, (John 8:1-11) where they want to stone the woman caught having sex with someone other than her husband. Be very aware that we follow Jesus. If you meet Christians who are endlessly condemning others then they are not being true to the faith and you should tell them so. We may strive to promote goodness and love but are not, never, in the business of condemning people. That was the old way. Now all we aim for is to be one with God, and it is on that love that God has for us and that we try to return as best we can, that our whole life is based. As St Paul says in our 2nd reading. (Phil 3:8-14) “I believe nothing can happen that will outweigh the supreme advantage of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” And that is why he can say, “I forget the past.”
But there’s another reason why I am shocked at those who think the faith is all about morals. And that is because when we come to the very heart of the Mass, the words we use as we prepare to receive Jesus in Holy Communion are all about mercy. We don’t say “Lamb of God, I will try to be a good person.” We say, “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world” We don’t say, “Lord I will try to be worthy to receive you.” We say “Lord I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed” Like the woman who is expecting to be stoned we all find ourselves… I must repeat that, we all, all of us, find ourselves, standing in front of Jesus like that woman, and through his love are rescued from condemnation and death.
Sometimes people apologise to me for weeping during Mass, and I always tell them not to apologise, for this is the place and the time above all others where we can share our sadness, or our pain, or our feelings of guilt, with the God who surrounds us and holds us in his love. This is what the heart of the Mass is all about. It is why we are taught to look at Jesus on the cross as we approach to receive Holy Communion, or make our own spiritual Communion from our seat. Think of the words of the thief hanging beside him. He said “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom” and Jesus said “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”
By the way, do you notice the double standards of the world? One moment they are being all liberal and saying how we must tolerate each other, and accept each other whatever we are like. And the next moment they are searching for people to blame.. to condemn… politicians.. social workers…doctors… police … and of course priests and bishops! And when the press get their knife in, they love to inflame this attitude by going into all the gory details and searching for more and more people to stone! Of course all these people fail, and sometimes have failed very badly at one time or another, and the press have a duty to reveal public failings and to demand that things are put right. But we should say to them, as Jesus did “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”
Jesus gives us a totally different way of living our life just as he gave to that woman – a life knowing that God loves us and wants us to share love rather than foster hatred and fear.