What was the first sin? Not what was the first act (eating of the fruit), but why was the first sin a sin and what did it do?

While it might seem like an easy question, there are a number of ways of looking at it. Some might see it as an act of disobedience against God, that humanity sinned in breaking God’s law. Others might see it as a poor use of the intellect, that it was the act of choosing something that was not pure and true, turning away from the source of Truth. Others, still, might see it as an act that affected future generations, breaking down the ways of a perfect society to create a world of injustice. All of these things are true, and yet they reveal a different operative theology.

This week on Catholicism in Focus, I look at the work of Justo Gonzalez, Roger Schroeder, and Steve Bevans, theologians that suggest that there are three types of theology for which all theologians generally conform. These types identify how we may begin the theological process from a different assumptions and values, and how this leads us to a different conclusion.

Take, for instance, the role of evangelization. What is mission and why should we engage in it? For those of Type A (sin as disobedience), the outside world is depraved and without the light of Christ, so we must save souls by informing them of what they do not know, namely, that Christ saves. For Type B (sin is untruth), the truth of Christ can be found everywhere and so we must ask questions, engaging in mutual discovery with all of creation. For Type C (sin as social disorder), the kingdom in which we live is far from the Kingdom of Heaven and we must undertake the process of bringing, proclaimed and lived by Jesus, of reconciliation and justice.

Are all three of these answers capture an important aspect of our theology. All three of these answers have defined our mission theology for centuries. And yet, all three of these answers end up at a completely different place with widely divergent expectations.

And for me, that is not only fascinating, but encouraging. When we think of Catholic theology, we must fight the temptation to think of it as a singular relation of answers and open ourselves up to the true meaning of “catholic”: we are a universal Church. When we look to the full history of our Church, we see that we consist rather of Catholic theologies, many perspectives that offer a deeper, more universal take on God and our reality.

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Have you ever looked out on the world in all its vastness, seen the many trees and rocks and animals, and just wondered, “Why is any of this here?”

It may seem like a bit of a trippy question, but it’s an interesting one. Why is there something rather than nothing? The universe could have just as easily been an infinite void of space without any matter. Theologically speaking, God did not have to create anything; as a relationship of Father, Son, and Spirit, God is a perfect community of love and so did not need anything else.

And yet, quite obviously, God did create something. And not only did God create, but God became a part of that creation.

Why?

I imagine that many are able to answer the second question with some confidence, that Jesus came to be like us to save us from our sins, but this doesn’t help us to answer the first question. There must be a different reason…

What a strange sight it is to return to your seat after communion only to find half the people in your pew no longer there. They walk up to communion with jackets on, purse in hand, and in one fluid motion receive communion as they’re walking out the door.

They got what they came for, so what’s the point in staying any longer?

When I see this happening each week I just want to shout, “Wait! Don’t leave yet! Mass isn’t over yet!” I wouldn’t… because, you know, I have tact. Also, I hate confrontation. But it doesn’t stop some priests. There was an infamous priest we used to see every summer on vacation who would literally call people out each week if they tried to leave early. If he saw people heading for the door before he made it down the aisle, he would actually call to them and tell them that mass wasn’t over. He would make an announcement either before communion or before the final dismissal that mass was not over until he processed down the aisle, so people were to remain in their pews. (Which… is not even correct. The procession by the priest down the altar isn’t technically a thing. The final part of the mass, according to the GIRM, is the reverencing of the altar. A procession to the door is simply a practical reality of getting the priest outside so he can greet the people, and there is no requirement that the congregation stay until the song is over. But I digress.) If I remember correctly, I think he even preached about it.

Okay, so it’s not that big of a deal…

But it is a little bit of a deal. Mass may not end with the priest processing down the aisle, but it also doesn’t end immediately after receiving communion. If this is something that you do, or think is fine, here are a few things to consider:

1. Communion, by its very nature, is a communal activity, not a personal one. If all we’re focused on is getting mine, regardless of others, I think we miss something about the experience. As I mentioned in the last video, the communion hymn begins when the priest receives and ends after the final person receives. Why? Because none of us truly receives until everyone receives. It’s a holistic, communal act. To leave the church before everyone receives turns the whole event into a personal experience, which is a shame. (If you’re going to leave early, maybe consider waiting until the end of the communion song.)

2. There are still prayers to be said. Sure, receiving the Eucharist is certainly the high point of the mass, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of the mass doesn’t matter. Just as the penitential rite is not the most important part of the mass but still serves an important purpose, the prayer after communion serves the purpose of bringing the event to a close, giving the Father thanks for what we have just received. We did just receive something amazing, right? It only seems polite to say “thank you.”

3. Our prayer is a continuous whole, beginning and ending with the sign of the cross. To leave before the blessing leaves the prayer sort of hanging. We opened it but never brought it to a close. The symmetry is lost, the acknowledgment of the act is skipped over. Something about it seems incomplete if we leave immediately after communion.

4. And finally, much to the point of today’s video, the dismissal gives insight to the rest of the Mass. In being sent out—not just as a practical, “you don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here,” but as a Christological imperative—we see that our Christian life does not reside within the walls of the Church. To fulfill our discipleship, we must go! Too often we think of Church as the place to find God, to be a Christian; we come to Church to find refuge from the world. But it’s so much more than that. God is just as much in the world as in the church, and our duty is not to hide from the world, but to take the church to the world. In being sent out, we see that the reason we gather is not so much an end in itself (at least not the only end) but the means for discipleship: we gather together so that we can have the strength and inspiration to go out into the world and make disciples of all nations.

I think that it is in this act that we find our true identity and purpose. As many theologians say today, we are not a Church that has a mission, but rather a people of mission that happens to have a Church. The Church—the institution, its prayer, its worship, its leaders—is not the complete end in itself for which the mission must support by raising money or gathering new members. It is the other way around: the mission we share—our call to follow Christ, making disciples of all nations—gives us our primary identity, and the Church exists to support and drive that work.

It is through this lens that we see the purpose of the Eucharist. Obviously an end unto itself in that we are in communion with God, it was also given to us as a means: to offer the guidance of knowing where to go and the strength to actually get there. The Mass is not an end in itself in the sense that our lives as disciples would not be complete if we remained in the liturgy our entire lives. It may be the “source and summit” but it is not the entire journey. By its very nature, by its dismissal, we are a people that goes forth, returning with new prayers, experiences, pains, and hopes, but ultimately so that we may go out again.

We are a people on a mission, and this is our prayer.

There is an important principle that I’ve learned as a friar: when the food is on the table before a meal, make the prayer quick. It’s dangerous to keep people waiting for too long.

It’s for this reason that I think many people struggle with the Eucharistic Prayer at Mass: it is really long. Like, so long, that people find it difficult to follow and don’t even know that it has numerous parts. Seemingly the same each week, the words of the priest seem to all run together in a never-ending monologue, and even the most faithful of Catholics find it difficult to pay attention throughout the whole prayer.

Which is a shame, really, because the prayer is beautiful. Also, it’s the central prayer of our Church, so we should probably want to take part in it.

So, how do we engage with it better and allow the beauty of the prayer to come alive? By learning what it actually says. Although the specific words of each option are different (there are 13 Eucharistic Prayers and 85 prefaces), each Mass followed the same structure. Below, I will leave you with the structure of the Eucharistic prayer, as outlined by the General Instruction of the Roman Missal:

79. The chief elements making up the Eucharistic Prayer may be distinguished in this way:

  • a Thanksgiving (expressed especially in the Preface): In which the priest, in the name of the entire holy people, glorifies God the Father and gives thanks for the whole work of salvation or for some special aspect of it that corresponds to the day, festivity, or season.
  • b Acclamation: In which the whole congregation, joining with the heavenly powers, sings the Sanctus. This acclamation, which is part of the Eucharistic Prayer itself, is sung or said by all the people with the priest.
  • c Epiclesis: In which, by means of particular invocations, the Church implores the power of the Holy Spirit that the gifts offered by human hands be consecrated, that is, become Christ’s Body and Blood, and that the spotless Victim to be received in Communion be for the salvation of those
    who will partake of it.
  • d Institution narrative and consecration: In which, by means of words and
    actions of Christ, the Sacrifice is carried out which Christ himself instituted at the Last Supper, when he offered his Body and Blood under the species of bread and wine, gave them to his Apostles to eat and drink, and left them the command to perpetuate this same mystery.
  • e Anamnesis: In which the Church, fulfilling the command that she received from Christ the Lord through the Apostles, keeps the memorial of Christ, recalling especially his blessed Passion, glorious Resurrection, and Ascension into heaven.
  • f Offering: By which, in this very memorial, the Church!and in particular the Church here and now gathered!offers in the Holy Spirit the spotless Victim to the Father. The Church’s intention, however, is that the faithful not only offer this spotless Victim but also learn to offer themselves,[71] and so day by day to be consummated, through Christ the Mediator, into unity with God and with each other, so that at last God may be all in all.
  • g Intercessions: By which expression is given to the fact that the Eucharist is celebrated in communion with the entire Church, of heaven as well as of earth, and that the offering is made for her and for all her members, living and dead, who have been called to participate in the redemption and the salvation purchased by Christ’s Body and Blood.
  • h Final doxology: By which the glorification of God is expressed and which is confirmed and concluded by the people’s acclamation, Amen.

If you’ve ever been to confession, you know that it is a “safe space.” When you bear your soul, confessing sins committed, the priest is forbidden to tell anyone what you’ve said. This is the “inviolable” seal of confession.

What most people don’t know, however, is that this seal extends far beyond words and is completely free of exceptions. A priest may not act upon anything he hears in the confession, neither telling anyone else or changing the way he would normally act, no matter what is confessed. While a mandatory reporting for things like suicide in abuse in every other case, if such things are revealed within the confessional, he risks excommunication if shared with authorities.

Recently, this is come under great scrutiny by civil authorities, and some states have even made it illegal, forcing priests to break the seal under certain circumstances or risk being imprisoned. At the moment, California is considering this exact legislation.

And in one way, it makes sense, right? Why would we want to protect a potential murderer, child molester, or someone at risk of suicide? We should want to do everything we can to turn this person in, either to get them help or to punish them for their actions.

And yet, I have to argue that something quite essential would be lost within the sacrament if the inviolable seal were removed: with anonymity comes the freedom to return to God with one’s whole heart and take the first step towards retribution for one’s sins. Without the fear of civil punishment, the Church is able to engage with people who would have otherwise carried their sins alone until their death, never taking a step forward and never finding the peace necessary to make things right. As counter-intuitive as it may sound, a firmly believe that the seal of the confession actually makes it more likely that people who have committed horrible sins will seek the help they need and reconciliation will be achieved by all involved.

As the Church continues to move forward with scandal, showing that it has been irresponsible to keep the safety of the public in mind, this case is going to be more and more difficult to make, but it is one that I think we must continue to hold. There is truly nothing like the opportunity that the sacrament allows, to step outside of our time and space, and to speak directly to God.