During the 20 years I was pastor of a north Jersey church, one of our excellent catechists and her husband, both educated, intelligent Catholics, welcomed into their beautiful home about a dozen of our teenagers twice a month for two years. The purpose of these meetings was to teach the children and discuss openly with them matters of faith as they were making their way toward the sacrament of Confirmation.
Naturally, I would inquire regularly how things were going. After the expected reports on both the funny and the insightful things the kids were saying and doing, their mentors more than once told me of their concern that many of their students did not feel that they are loved by God. Their image of God, I was informed, was of a distant, judgmental, overseer who has no personal relationship with them, no intimate involvement in their lives, but who is constantly scrutinizing their behavior from afar and, as they put it, “taking notes” to hold against them.
Where did those young people ever get such notions? Where does anyone get them? I believe the process starts when we who grew up in religious homes were told by well-meaning parents that God won’t love us – in fact, that God will punish us – if we did not behave as we were told to. The lesson got reinforced a little later when we learned that we can commit a sin called mortal, like murder or missing Mass on Sunday (seems ridiculous now, doesn’t it, to place those two side by side?), a sin for which we would be punished in everlasting fire!
And then we find out that certain Catholics are barred from the sacraments of the church because they married again after a failed marriage ended in divorce.
And so on & on & on…
Add to all of that the possibility of a childhood under stern, unaffirming parents, and it is almost inevitable that one’s image of God will be forever malformed accordingly.
But the church was established to spread throughout the world a revelation called the Gospel, the Good News. The Good News it proclaims is both a person and a primary fact of human life. The person, of course, is Jesus, and the fact of life revealed in and through him is that God is pure, unconditional love! While we may be obsessed by or worried about our human weaknesses, God sees in us what God has made – and loves us.
You remember Sister Helen Prejean, author of the book Dead Man Walking. (Susan Sarandon played her in the movie by the same name.) Sister Helen’s ministry was to prisoners on death row and to the families of their victims. I met her once and asked her advice as I was about to fly to Georgia to meet with a man on death row with whom I had been corresponding for years. Among the gems of wisdom she gave me was this: “Tell him over & over that people are far more and better than the worst thing they’ve ever done; and that’s what God sees.”
Yes, we are far more and better than the worst thing we’ve ever done, and that’s what God sees.
We are loved just as we are – and just because we are! That unconditional love has the power to inspire us to achieve as best we can our human potential and to find ever-increasing peace and joy in the process of daily conversion.
How are we supposed to commune with the Creator of this unfathomably immense universe? What language do we use? What concepts do we think with? Jesus solves the conundrum by telling us emphatically that “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” We converse with the mystery we call God through the one who has penetrated the mystery as no one ever has – and, for the time being, that is more than sufficient.
The Easter we continue to celebrate assures us that the lines are open – and never closed.