The Holy Mass: An Antidote to Sin
How participation in the celebration of the Eucharist deepens both the conversion from sin and the life of grace
Mass and sin are two multivalent terms. Since these terms include several levels of meaning, it is important to focus on each with some precision. Today, the meanings of both terms are frequently poorly grasped even by the most fervent of Christians. This precision is not to narrow an understanding of Mass and sin, but to see more clearly the relationship between the two. This relationship can be further developed with a discussion of how participation in the celebration of the Eucharist deepens both the conversion from sin and the life of grace. Additionally, the complementary role of the Liturgy of the Hours and the Sacrament of Penance to the Eucharist are important.
All of this combines to hold firm for believers that the Mass truly can be an antidote to sin. Certainly, this truth benefits all Christians. However, for priests whose circumstances of life and ministry increasingly become more isolated and demanding this truth can yield a genuine spiritual reassurance and counter a debilitating indifference even to the Mass and sin.
What Is the Mass?
Intending to reform the rites for the celebration of Mass, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) of the Second Vatican Council gives a description of the Mass that links the faith of the Church throughout the centuries: “At the Last Supper, on the night when he was betrayed, our Savior instituted the eucharistic sacrifice of his body and blood. He did this in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the Cross throughout the centuries until he should come again, and so to entrust to his beloved spouse, the Church, a memorial of his death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a paschal banquet in which Christ is eaten, the mind is filled with grace and a pledge of future glory is given to us” (No. 47).
The Mass, with its original form rooted in the Supper of the Lord, comes to us from Jesus himself, as the divine event of his enduring and abiding death and resurrection, and is celebrated by the Church as a source of sharing in his saving life and leading us to eternal life.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes use of this same article from the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy to describe the Mass as well (cf. No. 1323). Then, it further reflects on the Mass under many significant aspects, including the liturgical celebration of the Eucharist. Of particular importance for an understanding of the Mass as an antidote to sin is to reflect on it as the memorial of the Lord’s death for the forgiveness of our sins.
“Because it is the memorial of Christ’s Passover, the Eucharist is also a sacrifice. The sacrificial character of the Eucharist is manifested in the very words of institution: ‘This is my body which is given for you’ and ‘This cup which is poured out for you is the New Covenant in my blood.’ In the Eucharist Christ gives us the very body which he gave up for us on the cross, the very blood which he ‘poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’” (No. 1365).
The Catechism continues: “The Eucharist is thus a sacrifice because it re-presents (makes present) the sacrifice of the cross, because it is its memorial and because it applies its fruit:
“[Christ], our Lord and God, was once and for all to offer himself to God the Father by his death on the altar of the cross, to accomplish there an everlasting redemption. But because his priesthood was not to end with his death, at the Last Supper ‘on the night when he was betrayed,’ [he wanted] to leave to his beloved spouse the Church a visible sacrifice (as the nature of man demands) by which the bloody sacrifice which he was to accomplish once for all on the cross would be re-presented, its memory perpetuated until the end of the world, and its salutary power be applied to the forgiveness of the sins we daily commit” (No. 1366).
The Eucharist, in addition to many other profound theological realities, is the same sacrifice of Christ on the cross. This sacrifice encountered in every celebration of Mass is likewise for the forgiveness of sins, our personal daily sins. The Mass forgives sins, our personal sins.
Sinners at the Lord’s Table
Celebrating Mass at Casa Santa Marta on Sept. 21, 2018, Pope Francis reflected upon Jesus’ invitation to Matthew, the tax collector, and other sinners to join Our Lord at his table.
“One may think that Jesus lacked the good sense to choose the right people as his followers,” Pope Francis said and added that many saints have been chosen by Jesus from the “lowest ranks.”
He said that Christians should always be aware of where they come from and they should never forget their sins; they must cherish the memory of the Lord “who had mercy of their sins and chose them to be a Christian, an apostle.”
The pope spoke of the harmful habit of looking at others, at their sins and talking about them. He said that it is better to accuse oneself and keep in mind where the Lord chose us from.
— Vatican News, Sept. 21, 2018
Further, when we look to the action of the Eucharist as the paschal banquet, we see that it not only forgives sins but is directed to the most possible intimate communion with Christ with each of us: “The Mass is at the same time, and inseparably, the sacrificial memorial in which the sacrifice of the cross is perpetuated and the sacred banquet of communion with the Lord’s body and blood. But the celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice is wholly directed toward the intimate union of the faithful with Christ through communion. To receive communion is to receive Christ himself who has offered himself for us” (No. 1382).
With the celebration of the Mass, not only are we joined to the sacrificial offering of Christ at the altar for the forgiveness of our sins, but we also eat and drink of this very offering, his death and rising, which brings us into an intimate communion with Jesus, a communion of life and holiness, a communion that does not allow for a sinful separation from him (cf. No. 1393). All of which is to say, “Holy Communion augments our union with Christ” (No. 1391).
Communion, as a sharing in the death of the Lord, preserves, increases and renews the divine life begun in us at baptism and for all of our lives (cf. No. 1392). This teaching on the Eucharist speaks with clarity that the Eucharistic prayer and Communion, especially, are a God-given remedy for our sins.
What Is Sin, Precisely?
It is one thing to recall the faith of the Church in the Eucharist as the sacrifice of Christ for the forgiveness of sins. It is likewise important to understand what sin is, what is forgiven by this sacrifice each and every time it is celebrated. The Catechism once again is a help with its several descriptions of sin. The following description captures the essence of what sin is: “Sin is an offense against God: ‘Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in your sight.’ Sin sets itself against God’s love for us and turns our hearts away from it. Like the first sin, it is disobedience, a revolt against God through the will to become ‘like gods,’ knowing and determining good and evil. Sin is thus ‘love of oneself even to contempt of God.’ In this proud self-exaltation, sin is diametrically opposed to the obedience of Jesus, which achieves our salvation” (No. 1850).
Sin is a choice to offend God, at times a serious or mortal choice, and to act contrary to the love he has sown within us with his Son’s redeeming act of laying down his life for us. On many levels, it is counter-indicative for the Christian, for the priest, to approach the celebration of Mass with a soul aligned to sin, aligned to disobedience to God.
Everything about the Eucharist engages us as willing to be in the obedience of Christ, an obedience that compelled the Savior to accept his death on the cross for us and our salvation, for the forgiveness of our disobedience. Preface VII of the Sundays in Ordinary Time expresses this same thought: “For you so loved the world that in your mercy you sent us the Redeemer, to live like us in all things but sin, so that you might love in us what you loved in your Son, by whose obedience we have been restored to those gifts of yours that, by sinning, we had lost in disobedience.”
If we are honest about our sins, honest about our proud self-exaltation, then we would not be so arrogant as to be disingenuous about all that the celebration of the Eucharist and Communion requires of us. Rather, we would approach the Eucharist confident that it is for contrite sinners ready to see it as a countermeasure of our disobedience to God.
Deepening Conversion and the Life of Grace
One of the necessary dispositions for the Christian, for the priest, for the celebration of the mystery of Christ in the Eucharist is conversion, conversion from sin and anything that separates us from Christ. The Eucharistic Prayer for Reconciliation II summarizes the power of the Word of God and the action of the Eucharist to deepen this conversion:
“You, therefore, almighty Father, we bless through Jesus Christ your Son, who comes in your name. He himself is the Word that brings salvation, the hand you extend to sinners, the way by which your peace is offered to us. When we ourselves had turned away from you on account of our sins, you brought us back to be reconciled, O Lord, so that, converted at last to you, we might love one another through your Son, whom for our sake you handed over to death” (Eucharistic Prayer for Reconciliation II, Thanksgiving and Epiclesis).
With the celebration of the Mass, we must be aware of the Holy Spirit’s power, the same power that brings forth the body and blood of Christ from the bread and wine, to awaken faith within us, to convert our hearts from sin and give us a renewed desire to adhere to the will of the Father (cf. CCC, No. 1098). Every celebration of the Eucharist renews the possibility for a deeper conversion from sin and all that separates us from Christ.
As the Eucharistic mystery occasions deeper conversion, each celebration also deepens our share in the holiness of God, in the grace of God. Our offering of our very lives with the offering of Christ in the Eucharistic prayer and our eating and drinking of this same offering with the body and blood of Christ fill us with his divine life. The Lord himself makes this point in his discourse on the Bread of Life: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him” (Jn 6:56). This divine life is infused by the Holy Spirit, the gift of grace, into the soul to heal it of sin and to sanctify it (cf. CCC, No. 2023). Thus, with every celebration of Mass, we are ever refreshed with this gratuitous gift that we might be pleasing to God, free from sin, in our love of him and our service of others.
One of the two possible prayers that the priest celebrant prays quietly before he receives holy Communion during Mass has him asking the Lord Jesus for his assistance with his conversion and the fidelity that comes with the gift of his grace:
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, who, by the will of the Father and the work of the Holy Spirit, through your Death gave life to the world, free me by this, your most holy Body and Blood, from all my sins and from every evil; keep me always faithful to your commandments, and never let me be parted from you” (Order of Mass, No. 131).
Aware of the daily need for conversion, in the deepest part of the soul, and the abundance of grace possible coming from the Eucharist cannot but bring the priest into a renewed regard for the Mass as a remedy for personal sin so that he may embrace more fully his vocation to be in the likeness of Christ.
Liturgy of the Hours and Sacrament of Penance
As we have already noted, it is the saving death and resurrection of the Lord that occurs in the celebration of Mass that both forgives our daily sins and fills us with the saving life of Christ to live in intimate communion with him. This is a part of the spiritual life of every Christian, of every priest. “I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me” (Gal 2:19-20).
For the priest, the Eucharist alone cannot typically sustain a Christian life separated from sin, from venial and even mortal sin. He needs the paschal benefit of the celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours and the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation.
The Church reminds us, “In the Holy Spirit Christ carries out through the Church, ‘the work of man’s redemption and God’s perfect glorification,’ not only when the Eucharist is celebrated and the sacraments administered but also in other ways, and especially when the Liturgy of the Hours is celebrated” (General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours, No. 13).
The Liturgy of the Hours allows for an actual encounter with the death and resurrection of the Lord and all the gifts and graces this encounter brings to the members of the Church who pray it. This is an important recollection for priests who pray the whole of the Liturgy of the Hours each and every day by the promise of ordination.
Since the Liturgy of the Hours manifests the same work of redemption as the Eucharist, it “extends to the different hours of the day the praise and thanksgiving, the commemoration of the mysteries of salvation, the petitions and the foretaste of heavenly glory, that are present in the Eucharistic mystery, ‘the center and apex of the whole life of the Christian community” (No. 12).
Thus, for the priest who recognizes the celebration of Mass as an antidote to sin, he can also see a similar antidote in the Liturgy of the Hours, which “is an excellent preparation for the celebration of the Eucharist itself, for it inspires and deepens in a fitting way the dispositions necessary for the fruitful celebration of the Eucharist: faith, hope, love, devotion and the spirit of self-denial” (No. 12). The Paschal Mystery celebrated in the Liturgy of the Hours and its benefits prepare us for the celebration of the Paschal Mystery in the Eucharist and one of its principal benefits, communion with Christ and remaining steadfast in freedom from sin.
The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation for many, unfortunately, is not considered a celebration of the sacred liturgy, the divine event of the death and resurrection of the Lord. The words of absolution are the mirror words of the words of institution and consecration of the Eucharistic prayer. “God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son, has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins” (Rite of Penance, No. 46).
These very familiar words reveal and make present the very same mystery that occurs with the Eucharist. In the instance of the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, it is directly applied to the forgiveness of sins, reconciliation with God and others (cf. CCC, 1468-69).
The regular encounter with the Paschal Mystery in the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation not only brings about the forgiveness of sins but strengthens the priest in the life of Christ, a life free from sin. “The entire priestly existence falls into decay if there is lacking, through neglect or any other motive, the periodic recourse, inspired by true faith and devotion, to the Sacrament of Penance” (Congregation of the Clergy’s Directory on the Life and Ministry of Priests, No. 53).
As with the grace that flows from the Eucharist, which preserves us from future mortal sins, likewise, the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, as a new share in God’s grace gives us the necessary spiritual assistance to progress in divine friendship and for it to become even more difficult to disrupt this friendship with mortal sin (cf. CCC, No. 1395). We all know that anyone conscious of mortal sin must receive the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation before receiving holy Communion including priests (cf. No. 1385).
The celebration of the Mass becomes even more so an antidote to sin when the Christian, the priest, approaches the celebration in the grace of Christ, a grace only to be deepened with the Eucharist, a grace that brings out more fully a true “spiritual resurrection” that begins with the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation (cf. No. 1468).
So that we may enter into the Eucharist seeking an even greater communion with the redeeming offering of Christ, for the work of our ongoing conversion and openness to God’s grace, we should first examine ourselves for our readiness to do so. This was the advice that St. Paul gave to the Corinthians who failed to recognize their unworthiness to eat and drink of the Eucharist (cf. 1 Cor 11:27-28). This regular examination anticipates the conversion prompted by the Eucharist and the grace that flows from it. A great help to this examination is to surround the celebration of Mass with prayer of preparation and thanksgiving (see back matter of the Roman Missal).
Perhaps we have not frequently thought of the Mass as an antidote to sin. If the saving act of the Cross was for the salvation of all from sin and the limits of sin, then this same saving act celebrated in the Eucharist brings to us now the same freedom from sin. For us the challenge is not only to accept the truth of this teaching but to embrace it from the standpoint of faith. In this way we will prepare ourselves to encounter the Eucharistic mystery free from what separates us from Christ and confident the same mystery is indeed an antidote to sin.
FATHER DENNIS GILL is rector and pastor of the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia and the director of the Office for Divine Worship for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
The Effects of Penance and Reconciliation
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nos. 1468-1469, speaks of the effects of the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation:
“The whole power of the sacrament of Penance consists in restoring us to God’s grace and joining us with him in an intimate friendship” (Roman Catechism, II, V, 18). Reconciliation with God is thus the purpose and effect of this sacrament. For those who receive the sacrament of Penance with contrite heart and religious disposition, reconciliation “is usually followed by peace and serenity of conscience with strong spiritual consolation” (Council of Trent, 1551, DS 1674). Indeed the sacrament of Reconciliation with God brings about a true “spiritual resurrection,” restoration of the dignity and blessings of the life of the children of God, of which the most precious is friendship with God (cf. Lk 15:32).
This sacrament reconciles us with the Church. Sin damages or even breaks fraternal communion. The sacrament of Penance repairs or restores it. In this sense it does not simply heal the one restored to ecclesial communion, but has also a revitalizing effect on the life of the Church which suffered from the sin of one of her members. Re-established or strengthened in the communion of saints, the sinner is made stronger by the exchange of spiritual goods among all the living members of the Body of Christ, whether still on pilgrimage or already in the heavenly homeland (Lumen Gentium, Nos. 48-50):
“It must be recalled that … this reconciliation with God leads, as it were, to other reconciliations, which repair the other breaches caused by sin. The forgiven penitent is reconciled with himself in his inmost being, where he regains his innermost truth. He is reconciled with his brethren whom he has in some way offended and wounded. He is reconciled with the Church. He is reconciled with all creation” (cf. 1 Cor 5:11; Gal 5:19-21; Rv 22:15).
— Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nos. 1468-1469