Facing sin to begin Lent

Jared Staudt

“Repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15). You may hear these words of Jesus on Ash Wednesday, which can be said when you receive ashes in place of “remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Either way, we begin Lent with a call to repent, knowing in humility that we need God’s mercy. When we repent, we express sorrow for our sins and the desire to make a change, turning from our selfishness to love of God and neighbor.

Sin places oneself and one’s desires before God. The Catechism tells us that “sin is an offense against God,” which “sets itself against God’s love for us and turns our hearts away from it” (CCC 1850). But the Catechism also calls it “an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity” (CCC 1849). What this means is that sin not only offends God, but it turns away from the right ordering of our nature and wounds our relationship with others.

Obedience to God is not something that takes away our freedom, but which strengthens our freedom and makes us happy. God is our Creator and he made us for happiness with him. His commandments set out the way to happiness by showing us how to rightly order our desires and actions. Lent calls us to penance so that we can get our priorities straight again. We should not only give up a particular thing we like, but focus on breaking our attachments that pull us away from higher things: our love for God and others.

A recent book digs deep into the philosophy and psychology of the human ordering to God and how sin turns us away from it. Steven Jensen’s Sin: A Thomistic Psychology (Catholic University of America Press, 2018) explains the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas and, using clear examples, defends it against modern misconceptions. Jensen seeks to explain how sin is a personal choice that entails a “voluntary rejection of God” (7). This rejection occurs because all of our actions must be ordered toward God as the final end or goal of our life. He explains that “Aquinas’s notion of sin includes the idea of the order of an action to an end. Good actions are ordered to the true ultimate end; evil actions are ordered to some false or apparent good as though it were an ultimate end” (15). Sin substitutes a created good in place of God.

Jensen helps us to get the root of sin and its causes — ignorance, passion, and an evil will — as well as to understand how our lives should be ordered to God. When we live by his grace, God enters into our action and shapes it so that it leads us to him (cf. 76). Even in a state of grace, we sin venially when we look for immediate consolation rather than the ultimate happiness found in the beatific vision of heaven. Mortal sin, however, turns away from God and makes another good to be one’s end. Ultimately, overcoming sin entails love: willing something greater than ourselves, a good which is absolute and which we share in communion with others. We must experience conversion by turning away from our isolated and selfish desires and “turning to God” (95).

Lent is a time to turn away from sin and back to God: “To choose for God or against God…. To choose life or choose death” (292). The reason we give things up or take on new practices is to restore our relationship with God and others. When we break sinful habits and do penance, we remove the obstacles that keep us from God, but we also must convert our hearts to him in a relationship of love. Sin keeps us from our true happiness in God and Lent gives us the opportunity, if we repent and believe, to rediscover our true goal and purpose in him.

COMING UP: AM[D]G           

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Last November 11, on the centenary of its relocation to a 93-acre campus in suburban Washington, D.C., Georgetown Preparatory School announced a $60 million capital campaign. In his message for the opening of the campaign, Georgetown Prep’s president, Father James Van Dyke, SJ, said that, in addition to improving the school’s residential facilities, the campaign intended to boost Prep’s endowment to meet increasing demands for financial aid. Like other high-end Catholic secondary schools, Georgetown Prep is rightly concerned about pricing itself out of reach of most families. So Prep’s determination to make itself more affordable through an enhanced endowment capable of funding scholarships and other forms of financial aid for less-than-wealthy students is all to the good.

What I find disturbing about the campaign is its “branding” slogan. I first became aware of it when, driving past the campus a few months ago, I noticed a billboard at the corner of Rockville Pike and Tuckerman Lane. In large, bold letters, it proclaimed, “FOR THE GREATER GLORY.” And I wondered, “…of what?” Then one day, when traffic allowed, I slowed down and espied the much smaller inscription in the bottom right corner: “Georgetown Prep’s Legacy Campaign.”

Ad maiorem Dei gloriam [For the greater glory of God], often reduced to the abbreviation, AMDG, was the Latin motto of St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus. Georgetown Prep is a Jesuit school. So what happened to the D-word? What happened to God? Why did AMDG become AM[D]G while being translated into fundraising English?

I made inquiries of Jesuit friends and learned that amputating the “D” in AMDG is not unique to Georgetown Prep; it’s a tactic used by other Jesuit institutions engaged in the heavy-lift fundraising of capital campaigns. That was not good news. Nor was I reassured by pondering Father Van Dyke’s campaign-opening message, in which the words “Jesus Christ” did not appear. Neither did Pope Francis’s call for the Church’s institutions to prepare missionary disciples as part of what the Pope has called a “Church permanently in mission.” And neither did the word “God,” save for a closing “Thanks, and God bless.”

Father Van Dyke did mention that “Ignatian values” were one of the “pillars” of Georgetown prep’s “reputation for excellence.” And he did conclude his message with a call for “men who will make a difference in a world that badly needs people who care, people who, in the words Ignatius wrote his best friend Francis Xavier as he sent him on the Society of Jesus’s first mission, will ‘set the world on fire’.” Fine. But ignition to what end?

Ignatius sent Francis Xavier to the Indies and on to East Asia to set the world on fire with love of the Lord Jesus Christ, by evangelizing those then known as “heathens” with the warmth of the Gospel and the enlivening flame of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic faith. St. Ignatius was a New Evangelization man half a millennium before Pope St. John Paul II used the term. St. Ignatius’s chief “Ignatian value” was gloria Dei, the glory of God.

Forming young men into spiritually incandescent, intellectually formidable and courageous Christian disciples, radically conformed to Jesus Christ and just as deeply committed to converting the world, was the originating purpose of Jesuit schools in post-Reformation Europe. Those schools were not content to prepare generic “men for others;” they were passionately devoted to forming Catholic men for converting others, the “others” being those who had abandoned Catholicism for Protestantism or secular rationalism. That was why the Jesuits were hated and feared by powerful leaders with other agendas, be they Protestant monarchs like Elizabeth I of England or rationalist politicians like Portugal’s 18th-century prime minister, the Marquis of Pombal.

Religious education in U.S. Catholic elementary schools has been improved in recent decades. And we live in something of a golden age of Catholic campus ministry at American colleges and universities. It’s Catholic secondary education in the U.S. that remains to be thoroughly reformed so that Catholic high schools prepare future leaders of the New Evangelization: leaders who will bring others to Christ, heal a deeply wounded culture, and become agents of a sane politics. Jesuit secondary education, beginning with prominent and academically excellent schools like Georgetown Prep, could and should be at the forefront of that reform.

Jesuit secondary education is unlikely to provide that leadership, however, if its self-presentation brackets God and announces itself as committed to “the greater glory” of…whatever.