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Look Not on Our Sins

We pray one of the most comforting prayers of the Mass in the rite of peace, immediately after the Our Father. The petition “look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church” is especially comforting to me because I understand that the lived faith of the people of God far surpasses significant sin—both of commission and omission.

We don’t often celebrate our lived faith; in fact, we often take it for granted even though every day we see countless examples of faith in action. They’re sometimes dramatic, but they’re usually small, ordinary, and overlooked.

Dramatic witness of faith can be found in the countless missionaries who suffer hardship and death as they serve in countries that aren’t hospitable to the Christian practice. This has always been so, and it will continue to be so as long as missionaries preach and live the gospel.

But some powerful witnesses of faith are so ordinary we take them for granted. One example is an overworked and overstressed mother’s taking the time to patiently answer her child’s question. She could easily dismiss him or park her in front of the television or computer, but she chooses to be present and to parent.

Another example is the young student who chooses not to join in the routine playground bullying of another. Another is the young athlete who compliments another player—even an opponent—for a well-executed play.

These are ordinary examples of lived faith in action. We might think these actions are too ordinary to be faith-filled, but they are manifestations of grace and blessing.

For people with scrupulosity—who recognize the impulse of sin before the impulse of faith and belief—faith is also present in both dramatic and ordinary forms. A dramatic example is found in the lifelong struggle of a man with scrupulosity who tried to remind himself every day of the difference between his fears and reality. Small step after small step, each graced and faith-filled, he came to understand that the Lord was patient with him and understood his struggle. In his later years, with the compulsions and obsessions of his youth less active, he is more at peace.

Still other men and women have shared hard-fought small victories in the midst of immense struggle:

  • resisting the impulse to immediately return to the confessional
  • confessing only once a month
  • replacing an anxious thought or fear with a positive action
  • learning to live in the present regardless of how it feels, trusting that the decision to do so will slowly counteract the scrupulosity

Such manifestations of faith need to be discussed much more often, especially from our pulpits. I don’t understand preachers who see sin everywhere but don’t also see the power of faith. Their sermons are often filled with gloom and doom, and God seems so very far away.

The Eucharistic Prayer reminds me of the ultimate “end of the story” of salvation. I share this perception with the people I’m called to serve: Jesus wins, God’s reign has been restored, the light has replaced the darkness, life has overcome death. Why can’t we live in this perception of faith? We shouldn’t deny the reality of sinfulness, but we must bring into sharper focus a more integrated and positive experience of God’s life and love.

People with scrupulosity needn’t ever be reminded of their weaknesses and failures. Their awareness of failure is present to the extreme. But if, by the grace of God, all anxiety, guilt, and need for repentance could be balanced with confidence in the mercy of God, consciousness of the free gift of God’s redeeming love, and a conviction of knowing we’ve been loved by God, everyone—not only people with scrupulosity—would be in much better shape.

This is why Pope Francis is accentuating the positive during this Year of Mercy. His exhortation to priests to be understanding, gentle confessors and preachers of God’s Word is intended to widen our focus. Or, as the old song we sing during Lent reminds us, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea….There is mercy with the Savior, there is healing in his blood” (words by Frederick W. Faber, 1814–1863).

We can all use a little more mercy and a little more healing. Perhaps praying “look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church” often is a good place to start.

—Thomas M. Santa, CSsR

Excerpt from the English translation of The General Instruction of the Roman Missal from The Roman Missal © 2010, International Commission on English in the Liturgy Corporation. All rights reserved.

Published in2016 JulyArticles