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I got a funny response to one of my posts once. It was litany of reasons (tagged “an interesting read”) why Catholicism is wrong, wrong, completely wrong. I ignored it. Not because you can’t teach an old dog new tricks (I am neither terribly aged nor canine), but because Catholicism is ingrained in me. It is woven into my being like a fine silk thread. Once, someone asked me if I was “a cradle Catholic.” I responded that I had been born five weeks early — my mother had gone into labor during Mass on Christmas Day — and that I’d been born in a Catholic hospital and named after a priest. (Fr. Lawrence Smith, devotee of his namesake, St. Lawrence, and who himself is surely a saint now.) You don’t get more cradle-y than that.

One of complaints in the aforementioned litany concerned the sacrament of Reconciliation. Having just experienced the sacrament’s sweeping beauty just last night, I thought there no better time than the present to explicate it further. My detractor noted, “Only God can forgive sins.” Yes. Of course. A priest does so as a representative of God. Jesus himself told the apostles that whose sins they forgave in His name would be forgiven in heaven. Sweeping aside the notion that priests (as vowed disciples of Christ) are the successors to the apostles — I can’t sweep it aside, but maybe someone else can — there is more to the story than merely this.

All sin is public. You may think that diatribe you utter in the privacy of your own home has no ripple effect in the larger world, but you’d be wrong. All sin affects others because it causes you to be estranged from the Church; and, as we know, the Church is made up of the people of God. What I do wrong hurts you. It changes the air between us. It warps all of my relationships on a molecular level. The priest, as the representative of the Church, extends mercy to me on behalf of those I’ve wounded. I can’t apologize to all of you, but I can apologize to the person who shepherds our local flock.

True, priests are not perfect. There are a few bad apples, just as there are bad doctors, bad politicians and bad truck drivers. This imperfection — and I promise you, most of the men I’ve known as priests strive hard to avoid imperfection — does not make a priest incapable of being the conduit of forgiveness. If a baby were dying before my eyes, I could baptize it — and I’m not even a priest. Sinner that I am, God can still use me to do God’s work.

We used to call this sacrament “Confession.” The Church updated its language more than 30 years ago to reflect the fact that it is so much more. The sacrament is greater than just a personal unburdening of sin. It is a celebration of mutual healing: I am healed, and the community I’ve wounded is healed as well. What a lovely two-way street it is!

Reconciliation is a beautiful thing, especially at this time of year. Advent calls us to walk together to that place where we behold the Son of God in all His humanity, in all His glory. I can’t walk with you if we are estranged from one another. Even if you think Catholicism is wrong, wrong, completely wrong, you must admit: Anything that brings us together must be a good thing.

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The Pope is coming! The Pope is coming! Already he is in the Americas, being besieged everywhere he goes by happy, hopeful people. Our Papa is a ray of sunshine after a very long stretch of darkness. I’ve lived half a century, and Francis is the first Pope that has prompted optimism in my soul. No, the Church isn’t actually changing much, but even hearing words of acceptance, possibility and radical positioning with the poor and marginalized causes me ineffable joy. As it does in many others. This is where the Church should be going.

Alas, Francis has hinted that his papacy may be short-lived. While I sympathize and understand — being Pope must be the most exhausting position possible — I hope it will not be so. The Church needs the breath of fresh air Francis brings, and I fear that if he steps down (or God forbid, dies), the Cardinals will waste no time in reacting with a swift slamming of the door, almost certainly installing a Pope more reactionary and conservative than even Francis’ predecessors. While Francis is certainly loved, he is also feared by those who would keep the Church immured in the Middle Ages.

What else is in the news? Reaction to the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on gay marriage, that’s what. Already some people are nervously squawking about religious freedom being breached. Don’t worry, chickens! The Church is not changing. Yes, civic marriage is legal for homosexuals. But they cannot receive the sacrament of marriage from the Catholic Church. The Church decides who receives which sacraments (and why). They cannot be made to change by anyone outside of the Church.

Which is not to say that homosexuals cannot receive sacraments. Clearly, they already do. Still, it’s safe to say that whether you (or anyone) is “good enough” to receive one sacrament but not another is an assessment that only the Church in its infinite mystery is allowed to make. Women, for instance, cannot receive Holy Orders. In fact, only a man can hope to attain all seven sacraments. The rest of us are excluded not by unfitness so much (though many in the Church hierarchy might argue this point) as because of things we cannot control. Because we were born women. Or gay.

Is this fair? I don’t think so. But I don’t make the rules. However, I believe I can state (as our pastor did) that the Church will not be performing gay weddings anytime soon. On the other hand, our pastor also warned me not to express the opinion I just expressed at the top of this paragraph. I will continue to do so. Because what has sustained me though all of the dark nights of the Church is my right to dissent.

Sometimes prayers are answered when you least suspect them. Francis is proof of that. Let us pray for many more open doors.

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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