Lenten Recollections

Awareness is the foundation of fundraising – people don’t give if we’re not front of mind. With the slow recovery of the market and high cost of living, donors might have more important concerns needing their attention. Now that COVID restrictions are gone, we’ve been getting back to the Campaign we left 4 years ago. The first leg started last June when I preached every weekend of the summer in the Toronto Archdiocese as a lead-up to its August collection for Canadian missions. That resulted in a $20,000 increase from the previous year, which had risen $10,000, with marketing from the year before. But that’s limited to the greater Toronto area.

The second leg of the Campaign started after Thanksgiving, taking me into my home Diocese of Hamilton. I preached in parishes I hadn’t been to previously and sold boxes of our 2024 calendars to new audiences. One of these parishes was Mary Mother of God in Oakville.  Fr. Jerry Punnassery, CMI is pastor there in one of the diocese’s largest parishes. He told me of his disappointment with western “programism” substituting for spirituality and wondered how to change the focus of his parish. “Our people are good at doing,” he said. “There’s much happening but not enough about the development of the soul. Every night something is going on that isn’t about growth of the spirit.” We discussed various options but nothing met his expectations. He wanted me to return to his parish, but wasn’t sure what I could do. As I was preparing for the last Mass, an idea popped in my head – Lenten Recollection. He said he’d think about it and take it to his parish council. 

After Christmas, Fr. Jerry called to confirm the recollection idea and we booked a date. Another 5 parishes were added along the way, which told me there was a great hunger for spiritual renewal. Now I had to come up with a homily and 3 one-hour presentations around a theme. The premise I worked on was that, while the Church tells us what we ought to do morally, it doesn’t teach us how to do it. This had more to do with personal interactions than sacramental actions, although it covered those too. 

In my experience, many people confuse spiritual parameters with psycho-social factors. In other words, feelings get confused with spirituality. Though these sides of ourselves are related and can overlap, they are distinct. For example, in the spiritual life, moral behaviour should be based on the continuity of principles and norms, not feelings. Spirituality involves the transcendent, faith and belief in the divine. Psychology also deals with behavior but on the basis of emotion and thought that can change from day to day. Another whole article could be written just on this distinction. 

C.G. Jung wrote in Modern Man in Search of a Soul that our spiritual and emotional sides interact, affecting each other. Many of his patients “had lost that which the living religions of every age have given their followers, and none of them has really been healed who did not regain his religious outlook.” I find that a large number of Catholics confuse their feelings with spirituality. We can choose whether our reason is influenced by emotions and random thoughts, or by moral values and truth.  

For example, if someone insults me, I can choose either to respond reactively or to ignore it. It gets more complicated when a loved one does this because I am more vulnerable. The spiritual act of forgiveness can get blocked by the need to react negatively. We don’t forgive right away because our feeling of hurt blocks us, which is an emotional response. Whereas the spiritual response would be to forgive as we say to our father, “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who’ve sinned against us.”  From a moral perspective, it’s a matter of choice, but we often don’t see that. Since we are created in the image and likeness of God, we have the divine faculties of reason and free will. We are capable of transcending our instincts and reactivity to choose between the good and the bad. To say I can’t forgive really means I won’t forgive, because mercy is a choice. That is not to say that it isn’t difficult. 

The theme of the recollection became The Anatomy of Forgiveness, examining the differences between emotional reasoning and spiritual reasoning and dealing with blockages to offering mercy and asking for forgiveness. I defined Christian forgiveness as, not the passing of emotion, but the paying of the debt incurred by the offender. That might seem contradictory, but it’s not, according to our scripture and tradition. One need simply review the story of Joseph’s forgiveness of his brothers who sold him into slavery or follow the suffering servant in Isaiah. These texts foreshadow the Paschal mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection in the New Testament, where Jesus pays the price for our sins with his death.

So many penitents ask for help with forgiveness when they find mercy is overwhelmingly difficult.  They confess ‘unforgiveness.’ What they really mean is that they choose not to forgive. They can’t forgive their brother/mother/friend for what they did/said 1/10/30 years ago because they hurt too much/were in a rage/were betrayed. In short, they want their pound of flesh or the negative emotion gone before mercy is offered. 

Some might think that mercy excuses the offense or that the relationship continues as it was. This is not the case. The offender still has to face God’s judgment and take responsibility for their actions.  While forgiveness may be offered, this doesn’t mean that things necessarily return to normal. In fact, it could be that the relationship ends because of abuse, betrayal or criminal behavior. This is where the virtue of prudence is important.

A serious blockage to mercy is hurt and resentment. Forgiveness is spiritual.  I can say I forgive you while still being angry. It is up to me to deal with my anger or other emotion apart from the mercy. That’s what it means to pay the debt. A Christian doesn’t punish the offender, just as Jesus didn’t punish Judas, Peter or Paul.  Yes, I know this is very difficult. Remember that we ask the Father to “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us.”  True forgiveness offers mercy as a divine action and carries the burden of the offense by dealing with the psycho-social consequences that are resultant.

In practice, it looks like the father in the parable of the prodigal son. The father forgives the son who squandered his inheritance and is celebrated upon return. While the money is gone, it’s the father who pays and carries the loss, not the son. Otherwise, we live in a world of chaos. The ultimate example is Jesus upon the cross when he says, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.“