Father Ignatius had been asked to take Sister Josephine’s Catechism class again as she was away on business. This time he attended to the top class at school – the 16 and 17 years old.
They were discussing sin and the nature of sin; and especially how often God was willing to forgive our sins.
They had mentioned Christ’s famous saying about forgiving 70 times 7 and understood that this did not mean literally that number of times. But, in discussion, they seemed confused about the various degrees of gravity between one sin and another.
“Does God forgive greediness like having an extra piece of cake, or chocolate, as much as He forgives cheating on one’s husband or wife?” asked a student sitting up front.
Father Ignatius cleaned his glasses of imaginary smudges just to gain some thinking time.
“It’s true to suggest that there are various degrees of seriousness between one sin and another,” he said quietly, “and the Church has tried, over the years, to help with this distinction by denoting venial and mortal sins.
“Traditionally, this has meant that breaking one of the Commandments is a mortal sin.
But there’s more to it than that in my opinion!
“You’re all astute enough to know the difference between having extra cake, or in my case extra ginger marmalade, and cheating on one’s spouse, or stealing, or murder.
“There is an obvious difference in seriousness between these sins and God views them differently as such. But He is wise too, and He considers the circumstances behind the sin; not just their degree of seriousness.”
He stopped for a second or two to gain their attention.
“We know that the Church, for instance, considers not going to Mass on Sunday as a mortal sin. It is after all one of the Commandments” the priest continued.
“Now, in my view, I believe that God looks for the real intent of that sin before deciding on its degree of gravity.
“Was missing Sunday Mass the result of an act of laziness brought about by tiredness, by having a good Saturday night with plenty to eat and drink?”
They all laughed.
“Or was it a deliberate attempt to defy and disobey God?” he continued as the laughter died down.
“If it’s the former, then God will consider it a sin of weakness. Not too different from the sin of weakness of Christ’s disciples when they could not stay awake as Jesus prayed in the garden before His arrest.
“God knows all about our weak nature. He did create us after all! He knows full well I have a weakness for ginger marmalade, and some of you have a weakness for chocolate or whatever.
“And He forgives that sin for what it is. Provided of course we repent and try our best not to repeat it. Albeit our weakness may cause us to sin yet again.
“He is of course disappointed at our behavior. Very much as a loving parent would be disappointed at the behavior of his children. Yet He forgives it again and again.
“So missing Mass on Sunday because of the occasional laziness, I believe, would be viewed with disappointment for what it is … a sin of weakness.”
“So is it not a mortal sin then?” asked one pupil.
“Yeh … what if someone dies with venial sins, but has missed Mass due to laziness. Does he go to hell?” asked another.
Father Ignatius waited a second or two before going on.
“As I said, the Church does designate missing Sunday Mass as a mortal sin. I believe God looks at the intent, the very reason, behind the sin before deciding on its seriousness.
“So in the example you mention I believe that God would not exclude a person from Heaven purely because he missed Mass as a result of a drinking hangover.
“If on the other hand someone misses Mass because He doesn’t believe in God, or in direct defiance of God, then that is more serious.
“Let me explain what I mean to be in defiance of God. This means being in full knowledge of God yet having the impertinence, the impudence, the audacity to stand up against Him.
“This means making oneself as big and as important as the Lord God Himself.
“We read in the Bible about the original sin committed by Adam and Eve when they ate the forbidden fruit. What do we learn from this?”
“Don’t eat in the nude!” replied one of the school’s comedians as the class broke into total laughter.
Father Ignatius tapped the ruler gently on the desk to regain control of the class. As they settled down he continued.
“Adam and Eve wanted to be like God. That’s what the devil told them would happen if they ate the fruit. Theirs was a sin of defiance, not weakness. They didn’t want to know what the fruit tasted like. They wanted to be like Him.
“Over the years since then, many have tried to defy God. To stand up to Him instead of loving and obeying Him. The Pharisees did not believe that Jesus was the Son of God. Now that in itself is bad enough. They made the choice, given freely by God, to believe in Him or not.
“But they went further. They attributed Christ’s powers to the devil, knowing full well this is not so. And they encouraged others to stand up against Him.
“Some theologians call this the un-forgivable sin against the Holy Spirit. And many have debated it over the years and wondered whether it can be committed today, considering that Jesus is not visible amongst us as He was then.
“Personally, I don’t think this is important. What is important however is our relationship, individually, with God.
“Do we believe in Him? And if we do, do we honor, love and obey Him or do we stand against Him.
“Remember, even the devil believes in God. So believing alone is not enough. What is the action, the intent, behind our belief? That’s what God looks for and judges.
“These days, sadly, there are many amongst us in our society who do not believe in God. That is of course their prerogative, and whether we call it a mortal sin or not, we know that only God will judge those individuals when the time comes.
“But what is worse, is when those individuals encourage others to follow in their ways by what they say, and what they write or do, which serves as an example to others. They are no different to those people at the time of Christ who tried to lead others astray.
“Not to believe in God is one thing … but to lead others to do the same is far far worse in the eyes of God.”
The priest stopped again to ensure the message hit home.
“As I said many times before” he continued, “no one goes to hell by mistake.
“God judges each and every sin according to its seriousness and its intent. He sees deep into our hearts and knows whether it is a sin of human weakness or a sin of defiance against His Divinity and omnipotence.
“And of course, He forgives. He forgives as many times as is necessary if our repentance is genuine. Our remorse is genuine. And our determination not to sin again is genuine.
“To go to hell requires a soul to be in complete breakdown of communication with God. Not just the occasional missing of Sunday Mass.
“I view life a bit like that tree out there,” he said looking out of the window, “you see how it is leaning to one side? When the time comes for that tree to die and fall the chances are it will fall in the direction it is leaning. Not the opposite direction.
“We too, if we spend our lives in communion with God, doing what He asks of us, the chances are when our time comes we would fall into His loving waiting arms!”