First Reading: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8
Psalm 15 :2-3, 3-4, 4-5
Second Reading: James 1:17-18, 21B-22, 27
Gospel: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Saturday afternoon confessional lines were pretty long when I was young. This gave me time to come up with some “good sins” to lay on Father Haney. Something new, fresh, interesting. In the end, though, I always brought into the box the same dreary slate of childhood iniquities: teasing sis, lying to dad, talking back to mom. Father H. matched my lack of imagination with his own. Every time I got the same penance: three Hail Mary’s, an Our Father, and a Glory Be.
One Saturday I’d had enough. If I couldn’t be original in my sins, I complained, at least Father Haney might spice up the penances. What did Hail Mary’s have to do with teasing sis, lying to dad, or talking back to mom? Padre patiently explained to me that the prayers themselves weren’t the point, which was to spend some time directing my heart back to God. Why didn’t I just take a couple of minutes to tell God how much I wanted to love him with my whole heart and ask for his help to do that? I liked this, and from then on it was my regular penance. As I grew up, so did my sins (alas), but to this day I always include that prayer along with the others after confession.
The prayer Father Haney taught me is really a prayer for purity of heart, a heart that draws close to God and learns to love what God loves. Sin is a manifestation of a heart that’s not there yet, that still struggles with defilement, with impurity. And as Jesus points out, the results are all around us in the same dreary slate of iniquities: evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.
We Catholics recently have been reminded that defilement can indeed come from within, and that it can take particularly heinous forms. Like others, I have responded to these new revelations of moral corruption and compromise with both grief and anger. And I have felt helpless. But I’ve been inspired by the example of many who, while fervently hoping that perpetrators and enablers alike will be held accountable, have also taken this moment to reinvigorate their own life with God. They have decided to contribute to the purification of the Church by recommitting to the purity of their own hearts. Rooting out the evil within and without is the only way to rebuild the Church, which indeed seems to be falling down around us. I like this response not only because, well, that’s the task of discipleship in any season, but also because it’s something I can do in this especially painful season. I’m not helpless. I can counter defilement in the Church by working with God to rid the impurity that lurks in my own heart.
My holy Father Saint Francis had a marvelous way with prayers, and although this one is a little wordier than the one Father Haney taught me, I think he would like it: “Therefore, let us desire nothing else, let us want nothing else, let nothing else please us and cause us delight, except our Creator, Redeemer, and Savior, the only true God, who is the fullness of good, all good, every good, the true and supreme good.” This is purity of heart. This is something to which we can all aspire. And, with God’s grace, it’s something we can all achieve, for the praise and glory of God’s name, for our good and the good of all God’s holy Church.
Assistant Professor of Old Testament Studies
Interim MDiv Director