Why can’t we get it?
Religious people often give the impression of over-seriousness. It’s as if
the weight of the worries of world is hanging from our shoulders giving us a
droopy, hand-dog appearance. Making us more than a tad miserable. The kind
of people, maybe, that you’d cross the street to avoid. The kind of people
who sigh their way through the day, expecting the worst. Waiting for some
inevitable disaster to occur. Or possibly, with a bit of luck, the end of
There are exceptions, of course. Pope Francis for one seems to sing from a
different hymn-sheet. Now there’s a 78 year-old man with huge
responsibilities, difficult decisions, an impossible job and yet he seems,
well, happy. Usually religious people don’t seem to be happy. Priests don’t
seem to be that happy anymore. Happy bishops seem to be fairly thin on the
ground. But the pope is happy.
What’s different about the happiness Francis exudes is that it’s based on
the very essence of the Christian faith, that God loves us beyond all our
imagining. And he loves us regardless of what we do or what we fail to do.
For some inexplicable reason some ‘religious’ people tend to want us to
believe the opposite, that we’ll get to heaven only if we succeed in
building up enough brownie points by negotiating successfully a series of
jumps on a complex and difficult circuit. A kind of snakes and ladders
version of religion where despite the ladders we might have successfully
negotiated there’s always a snake waiting to send us to ground zero again.
To such a degree indeed that it’s almost impossible to envisage anyone
getting to heaven at all apart from a few miserable saints.
I suspect that Francis believes that God loves us so much that we’re all
going to end up in heaven anyway. Why else is he so happy to say he’s a
sinner? He wants us to believe that it’s no big deal because to be human is
to fail (and to sin) but the unimaginable, inexpressible, incredible love
God has for us will conquer all our limitations and our sinfulness.
- Isn’t it extraordinary that after 1500 years of Christianity in Ireland, so many of us still haven’t got our heads around the essence of the Gospel message of Jesus Christ – God so loved the world that he sent his Son to tell us about it? Isn’t it extraordinary that so many of us still don’t get it?
- Isn’t it extraordinary that people who have said their prayers, met their responsibilities and lived admirably can arrive at the end of their lives worrying if they’ll get to heaven when the dogs in the street know that they have to be a shoo-in?
- Isn’t it extraordinary that the inevitable failures and peccadillos of the human condition have been promoted into huge sins by misery-inducing Christians who don’t seem to understand the central message of the Gospel?
- Isn’t it extraordinary that we’ve found it easier to believe that, despite everything Jesus Christ said and suffered, that we still find it easier to believe in a God who doesn’t love us rather than in God who does?
A priest who spent much of the pre-Christmas days sitting long hours in the
Confessional told me that though he heard hundreds of Confessions ‘there was
hardly a sin among them’. He’s on the ball because most of the sins
confessed in Confession aren’t really sins at all, just obvious examples of
It can be difficult, especially for those of us old enough to remember the
hell-fire denunciations of sin in the past, to get our heads around the fact
that the religion presented to us (and the image of a judgemental God that
was used to sustain it) seemed to have more to say about sin than about
love. I once heard the priest-philosopher, the late John O’Donohue, talk
compellingly about growing up in rural Ireland at a time when almost
everything seemed to be a sin: ‘You could hardly stir at all’, he said in
his booming voice, ‘without committing some kind of sin!’
It has taken us a long time to realise that such an understanding of the
Christian faith is fundamentally skewed. Younger people, who have no memory
of the fears, worries and scruples that damaged our belief in a loving God,
wonder what all the fuss was about. Sadly some older people still worry,
even after a lifetime of living decent and moral lives, about whether God
will turn them away from him when they die.
Here’s a question to ponder: what can we do to bring the central truth of
the Christian faith – that God loves each one of us individually, uniquely
and personally beyond what any of us deserve or could ever expect – into the
very heart of our religious experience?
Part of the answer may be making Confession simpler. Getting it out into the
open, away from the often-dreaded and dreary Confessional Box. Dare I say
it, making it a bit easier for us to recognise and acknowledge our
sinfulness, without the tortuous and scrupulous detailing of every possible
sin, as if God would refuse to give us the benefit of the doubt if we failed
to include every possible peccadillo for the Great Accountant in the Sky?
Part of the answer too may be to domesticate sexual sin, to place it in due
context rather than at the centre of life’s stage with a great spotlight
emphasising the grand obsession. As Pope Francis seems to be suggesting.
Some priests, of course, don’t want Confession to be easy. For some
inexplicable and probably heretical reason they prefer to retain Confession
as a harrowing experience, as if the forgiveness of God can only be mediated
by making us feel miserable. Some priests talk dismissively about people
today ‘losing their sense of sin’ when what’s really happening is that
despite the guilt we have poured for centuries over the natural compulsions
of people’s lives, so many (to their credit) have retained a natural and
human understanding of what makes sense, sin-wise, and what doesn’t.
So, if religion is making you miserable, give your face a holiday and smile.
Because God loves you. He really does. That’s what it’s all about.