Facing the fear of guilt

Mary Beth Bonacci

First of all, I want to thank you all for the tremendous outpouring of support we have received in the wake of my mother’s death. It has been so touching to receive your condolences, prayer pledges and Mass cards. My family and I are so grateful. 

For any of you who may have missed last month’s column, my mother was found frozen to death in the back yard of her memory care facility. In the weeks since her death, friends have asked if I have struggled with guilt over what happened. After all, I’m the one who placed her there. Do I blame myself for her demise? Am I haunted by regrets?  Am I wracked with “Catholic guilt”? 

The question got me thinking about guilt, “Catholic” and otherwise, and our oft-dysfunctional relationship with that emotion. 

First of all, to answer the question: yes and no. When it first happened, of course, guilt was one of the many emotions swirling around in my head. I did place her there. Then she wanted to leave, and I didn’t move her. So yes, on a visceral level, I felt guilt. For a few nights, early on, I would lie in my bed sobbing and just repeating, over and over, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” 

But that was pure, irrational emotion. Then I began to think it through. Did I place her there to be neglected and frozen to death? Of course not. Quite the opposite, it was done specifically so that this would not happen. Was I careless in choosing the facility? Again, no. I did research on top of research. We paid extra for what seemed to be the “best” facility, specifically so that she would have the best care. Did I overlook any red flags? No, there were none. And yes, she wanted to leave. But I asked her constantly “Why do you want to leave? Is anybody mistreating you?” She always said that no, they weren’t. She had dementia, but she was still functioning highly enough to know that. When something DID happen that she didn’t like, she let me know. And it always came back that she had reported it accurately. 

No, she wanted to leave because she wanted to go “home.” Only she didn’t know where home was. 

I had no crystal ball to see what was going to happen. I prayed for guidance, I did my absolute best, and I did it out of love for her.  No reason to feel guilty.  

And so I let it go. 

I think guilt has received a bad rap in the past few generations. I speak in particular of the phenomenon of “Catholic Guilt.” People complain that their Catholic upbringing has caused them to feel guilty over anything and everything. I have never experienced this, and I have never understood it. To me, it seems simple. If you haven’t done anything wrong, there is no reason to feel guilty. And if you have, repent and quit doing it. Problem solved!  

The emotion of guilt, working as it should, is a good thing. It was given to us by God to alert us that something in our lives needs to change. Of course, emotions are not infallible, so we need to follow a process to engage the intellect and “guide” our guilt. 

I realized in hindsight that my experience followed that process pretty perfectly. 

When we first encounter guilt, it is pure emotion. It may be correct, it may not. In my case, it was not. So, the first step is always to examine our conscience, to see if we actually should feel guilty about the thing that’s making us feel guilty. So we pray to the Holy Spirit for enlightenment, and we look at the situation. Did I do anything wrong? Was it a sin? An error in judgment? Sometimes it’s clear cut. Sometimes it’s not. We may have to examine Scripture or Church teaching. We may have to take it to prayer repeat, to “work it out” with God. 

The goal here is to arrive at some certainty as to whether our guilt is based in reality. If it is — if we have been wrong or careless or sinful on any level — the solution is simply to repent, to confess if necessary, and then resolve to do better. And if we haven’t, we release the guilt. 

I think what happens in so-called “Catholic” guilt is a sort of short-circuiting of the process. The person, for whatever reason, doesn’t want to believe that they have done anything wrong. So, instead of taking a clear-eyed look at the situation, they turn and run. They become afraid of the very sensation of guilt. They avoid anything that reminds them of it.  They tell themselves they have done nothing wrong. But they never take a really good, objective look at it. They never invite God into it. And so, because the emotion is never resolved, it goes “underground.” It’s still active, but they continue to try to suppress it. 

And that isn’t healthy. 

I learned long ago that “the best way out of a feeling is through it.” The best way to deal with guilty feelings is to face them head on, with the God who loves us even in the midst of the deepest sin. There is surely nothing on the other side of that guilt that He hasn’t seen before or forgiven before. He loves us madly — all the time. 

It’s not the sin that will separate you from his love — it’s the refusal to acknowledge it, to go to him with it. He is always waiting with his love and mercy. 

I’m so thankful to everyone who was concerned I might be struggling with unhealthy guilt. I was not. But some of you, for whatever reason, may be.  

All I can say to you is that, with the God who loves you, guilty feelings are nothing to fear.  


Featured image by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

COMING UP: From rare books to online resources, archdiocesan library has long history of service to students

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National Library Week, observed this year from April 4 to April 10, is the perfect occasion to highlight the essential role of libraries and library staff in strengthening our communities – and our very own Cardinal Stafford Library at the Archdiocese of Denver is no exception.  

Since 1932, the library has served as a religious, intellectual, and cultural resource for seminarians and students at St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver.

As the library of the seminary, we are always responsible for the four dimensions of the priestly formation of our seminarians. The library is charged with being responsible to all the divisions of the Seminary: the Lay Division (Catholic Biblical School and Catholic Catechetical School), the Permanent Deacon Formation Division, and the Priestly Formation Division, said Stephen Sweeney, Library Director. 

In addition to being one of the main resources to the seminary, the Cardinal Stafford Library serves the needs of other educational programs in the Archdiocese of Denver, including the St. Francis School for Deacons, the Biblical School, the Catechetical School and the Augustine Institute. While the library is currently closed to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was previously open to anyone, giving people access to more than 150,000 books, audios, and videos. 

The Cardinal Stafford Library was named after Cardinal J. Francis Stafford, Apostolic Penitentiary at the Vatican and former Archbishop of Denver from 1986 to 1996. He was a dedicated advocate of the library and of Catholic education.

In 1932, the library was established by two seminarians, Maurice Helmann and Barry Wogan. While they were not the first seminarians to conceive the idea of establishing a library, they are considered the founders for undertaking its organization.  

Since its founding, the library has grown and compiled a fine collection of resources on Catholic theology, Church history, biblical studies, liturgy, canon law, religious art, philosophy, and literature. Special collections include over 500 rare books dating back to the early 16th century and many periodicals dating back to the 1800s. The oldest publication in the library is a book on excommunication published in 1510. The Cardinal Stafford Library is also home to various relics and holds bills personally written by some of those saints.  

Over the past few years, the library has undergone a process of beautification through various renovations that include improvements in lighting, flooring, and even furniture restoration. During these difficult times, libraries are doing their best to adapt to our changing world by expanding their digital resources to reach those who don’t have access to them from home. 

The Cardinal Stafford Library provides a community space; we subscribe to about 200 print journals and have access to literally thousands more through online resources available on campus computers, Sweeney added. “I have been the Library Director for almost 11 years. I absolutely love my work, especially participating in the intellectual formation of the faithful from all of the dioceses we serve”.  

For more information on the Cardinal Stafford Library, visit: sjvdenver.edu/library 

Featured photo by Andrew Wright