Now is the time to remember your story

When one is close to the events of history, it can be hard to have an objective perspective on their significance, but it does seem that recent events place us at an inflection point for our country and the Church in America, which makes it an important moment to remember our story.

For that reason, I am dedicating three issues of the Denver Catholic and two of El Pueblo Catolico to retelling the story of how we got here, the story of who we are and who we are called to be. This reminder of our story and our identity is crucial for us to navigate the challenges that will confront us. 

I begin this effort by looking at how God created us and why the world is so troubled and broken.

We all know the Creation story of God calling forth the earth, the moon and sun, the plants, and animals, and finally, his creation of Adam and Eve as his greatest masterpiece. But do we remember that God created us out of love, not need, or that we are made to be in communion with each other and God himself? Even more astonishing, do we remember that God made us with eternal souls and desires for us to become like him in glory in Heaven?

These facts can seem distant and abstract from our daily lives that don’t yet partake in that glory and experience of all-encompassing love. Thankfully, we only need to look at the many wonders that fill our planet to get a glimpse of God’s power, creativity and goodness. To look at the beauty of a sunset, the intricacy of the smallest microscopic creature, or to stand on top of a 14,000-foot mountain and gaze at all that surrounds leads us to appreciate God’s beauty, the intricacy of his creation and fills us with wonder. And if you look up to the sky, you can see some of the 70 sextillion stars in the universe that he made. To grasp the magnitude of that number, you can think of the fact that it’s 10 times more than the number of grains of sand on Earth’s deserts and beaches. Think of it – that is only counting the stars, not any planets orbiting those stars. Indeed, our God is awesome and all-powerful, and just like he made the universe, he made YOU.

This naturally begs the question, “If God is so powerful, then why is the world so messed up?” The short answer is that God gave us and the angels free will so that our love for him and the rest of Creation would be genuine, something we chose, mirroring God’s own love. Part of being made in his image and likeness is to love, beginning with receiving his unconditional love for us. The risk of genuinely free love, though, is that it can be corrupted and doubted. And that is what happened with Satan when he tempted Adam and Eve to distrust God’s goodness, and this has been passed on to us.

The events of 2020 should be convincing enough evidence for anyone questioning the effects of this break from God that sin and its effects are real. By believing the lie that we can be happy and better off apart from God, we allow ourselves to become enslaved to our sins. We become tyrants. If you think about it, each appetite and desire claims increasing amounts of control over our lives as we indulge it. If we are honest, we realize that in the end, we are outgunned. None of us can escape the ultimate consequence of man’s separation from God: death. This is our story, but it is not the end of the story.

Thankfully, God’s love for us did not end with the original fall from grace or our ongoing failures to love as he does. As we just celebrated at Christmas, Jesus came in the unassuming form of a child to rescue us. He came, as the early Church Fathers said, to do battle against sin, death and Satan. 

In the next edition of the Denver Catholic magazine and El Pueblo Catolico, we will dive deeper into Jesus’ mission and remember how he rescues us. 

Join me for The Search this Lent

If you want to walk through our story – your story – in a deeper, compelling and beautiful way, I encourage you to watch and participate in The Search with Chris Stefanick. You can participate as an individual or create a small discussion group with family and friends. Additionally, I will appear on Chris’ show The Life You Were Made For on Feb. 18 to discuss The Search with him, and I invite you to tune in.

To learn more, visit archden.org/the-search.

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.