The First Sunday of Lent (A)
Dear brothers and sisters,
The Effingham area has witnessed a sad tragedy when one of her young people took her own life on Thursday. Our hearts break for her family and friends and all those left behind and we extend our deepest sympathies and condolences to them, and the assurance of our prayers for
the repose of Chloe’s soul.
There is often a great misunderstanding regarding the Church’s teaching on the sinfulness of suicide. Some will suggest it is too soon for me to speak of this from the pulpit, but if I do not speak of it now, when is the proper time? It is being spoken of in classrooms, at work and at the dinner table; it must also be spoken of by the Church.
I have asked the family who are parishioners here for their blessing to speak on this topic; I am grateful to have received it.
Because of the confusion I think it wise to provide an explanation today of what the Church teaches. Funerals were once denied those who committed suicide, but after considering the knowledge gained through modern psychology this is no longer the case. How and why has this changed?
Most people of good will recognize the great seriousness of suicide and see it as a mortally sinful act, which is true, to a certain extent. What, then, is a mortal sin?
We know that, first of all, committing a “mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1861). The Lord God has given us the tremendous gift of our free will so that we might freely choose to love him and to love our neighbor. We are free to choose what is good, but we know all too well that we do not always choose the good; we sometimes choose to do evil, either explicitly or implicitly by what we fail to do.
When we fail to choose the good we choose the evil - by word or deed, by action or inaction – which we call sin. Some sins we call venial. Venial sin weakens our love and “manifests a disordered affection for created goods; it impedes the soul's progress in the exercise of the virtues and the practice of the moral good” (CCC, 1863). Venial sins wound our friendship with God, but do not deprive us of his friendship, of his sanctifying grace, by which we grow in holiness and love. Of these sins we are all guilty; we are all sinners. A denial of sin is a denial of reality and is among the greatest works of the Evil One.
Other sins we call mortal, because they deprive us of God’s friendship. Mortal sin “destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God's law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him” (CCC, 1855).
The Lord Jesus has given us the Sacrament of Penance for the forgiveness of sins, both venial and mortal. He longs to forgive our sins and waits for us in this most sublime sacrament.
We also know that if a mortal sin “is not redeemed by repentance and God's forgiveness,” that is, if it is not confessed and absolved, “it causes exclusion from Christ's kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back” (Ibid.).
There is no limit to God’s mercy, but we are free to refuse his mercy; he will not force someone who refuses his friendship to be with him in eternity.
At the moment of death, our life choice for God or against him is definitive. “To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God's merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called ‘hell’" (CCC, 1033).
We must, then, consider what is necessary for a sin to be mortal. For an act to be mortally sinful, three conditions must be present: the act must involve grave matter; it must be known to be grave; and it must be freely chosen (see CCC, 1857). If one of these three conditions is not met, the act is gravely wrong, but not mortally sinful.
The first condition, then, is easily met in cases of suicide, because the act itself is the taking a human life.
We know that “everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him” (CCC, 2280). Because we have not given ourselves life, we cannot claim a right to this life we have; we did not choose to be born and so we cannot morally choose when to die. “We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not our to dispose of” (Ibid.).
The second condition is also easily met because “suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life” (CCC, 2281).
Though the first two conditions are easily met regarding suicide, the third condition of a free and deliberate choice is another matter.
We know that “grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide” (CCC, 2282). This we learn from modern psychology; only rarely does someone commit suicide with the full and deliberate consent of their will. Consequently, we cannot say definitively whether one who commits suicide does so freely and deliberately; without a free and deliberate choice, the sin is not mortal and a Christian burial can rightly be celebrated for the deceased.
We see, then, that “although we can judge that [the act of suicide] is in itself a grave offense, we must entrust judgment of persons [who commit suicide] to the justice and mercy of God” (CCC, 1861). While we can judge the objective sinfulness of an act, we cannot judge it subjectively; only God can read and judge the soul.
For this reason, the Church teaches that “we should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives” (CCC, 2283).
The greatest prayer of the Church is the Holy Mass, through which the sacrificial death of Christ Jesus is re-presented to the Father for the salvation of all mankind. Through her funeral rites, the Church “commends the dead to God’s merciful love and pleads for the forgiveness of their sins” (Order of Christian Funerals, 6). It is fitting, then, that a funeral Mass be offered for the repose of the souls of those who take their own lives.
It is in moments such as these, when we are confronted with the stark reality of the human condition and our sinfulness, that we recognize our great need for Savior.
It is the work of Satan to tempt us to disbelieve the reality of sin, to have no trust in God’s power and to despair of receiving the merciful love of God. Just as he tempted Jesus to determine the quality of his character – to see if he really is who he claims to be – so he tempts and tests us.
He tempted our first parents, Adam and Eve, in the Garden of Eve, telling them that God was their rival who did not want them to be as powerful as he. They believed this lie and rather than uniting their will with that of the Father, they chose their own way and brought into the world sin, suffering and death. Yet Christ has defeated these powers on the Cross, dealing them a mortal blow; the Devil simply refuses to admit his defeat.
We experience the effects of this original sin to do this day; though its stain is washed away in the waters of baptism, the consequences of sin remain, as well as our tendency to do as Adam and Eve have done.
Even today Satan tempts us to live as though God did not exist or that he had no power. Through his lies and half-truths he seeks to fill us with doubt of about the Father’s mercy and love.
In this temptation we are not alone, for Jesus, too, endured these temptations, as we hear in today’s Gospel. Indeed, the Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin. So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help” (Hebrews 4:15-16).
When we are tempted to despair and to lose all hope in the future, we must look to Jesus Christ, to him who was victorious over the assaults of the Enemy; not with the power of might and force, but with the power of prayer and of trust in our heavenly Father. He is the one over whom the grave holds no power; he is “the light of the world” who has illuminated the Prince of Darkness and he who is “the truth” has revealed the reality of the Father of Lies.
We must remember that our hope is in Jesus Christ, who will give us back the joy of our salvation and will sustain us with a willing spirit (cf. Psalm 51:17). He does this when we humbly open ourselves to the power of his love and receive the sacrament of his Body and Blood with devotion and when we confess our sins to him in the sacrament of confession; these are the best defenses against the temptations of the Evil One.
If we remain close to Jesus Christ our future is certain and our hope secure.
Let us then commend all the dead into the just and merciful love of God who desires to raise us out of the mire of our sin. Let us look with confident and eager hope to our Lord Jesus Christ, to him who has conquered the grave and who will come to raise the dead to life! Amen.