Once (19 December 2004) there was on ABC television a Compass program devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Generally religion is portrayed by the Sunday evening Compass programmes very poorly, and so I decided to watch it to see how bad would be their portrayal of the Blessed Virgin Mary. True to form, it was very bad indeed. It was a terrible distortion of the most holy Virgin, and one would have to say that the production and showing of this constituted a terrible sin against her holy name and against what God had done in her. It was a gross denial of Christian dogma as taught by the Catholic Church. The programme would have had a very bad effect on any unsuspecting viewer.
I mention this as an instance of one kind of sin the seriousness of which we can greatly underestimate. I refer to the sin of placing ourselves in the occasions of sin. By that I mean allowing ourselves to be in situations and circumstances which constitute a temptation to sin. For instance, knowingly and with consent to watch a television programme such as the one I have just mentioned out of sheer curiosity and a vague interest would be a sin, and probably a serious sin. It would be like knowingly admitting a serpent into one’s home. The images, the statements, the suggestions, the insinuations made during the programme contrary to Catholic dogma would be impressed on one’s imagination. Indeed, that is how so much of what is contrary to Catholic teaching makes headway, by simply being stated and suggested. It lodges in one’s imagination, and does its work there. These images are gradually consented to by the mind and heart, secretly, silently, and the next step is the secret denial and disregard of this or that point of Catholic dogma - in this case Catholic dogma on the most holy Virgin. To place oneself knowingly and without a very serious cause in such a situation (by looking at such a programme) is sinful. It is an occasion when a person can be tempted to disbelieve or set aside some doctrine of our holy Faith.
Consider another example of this kind of sin, that of placing oneself in the occasion of sin. I refer to a reading of the novel that at one point was is so popular, The Da Vinci Code, by the author Dan Brown. Vast numbers of people have read it. This novel insinuates that many dogmas about the Son of God in our holy religion are false, and it weaves a gripping plot about it as a developing falsehood. It enthrals and fascinates the imagination of countless readers. It offers no evidence, no truth - it just strikes the imagination by means of its vivid writing and engrossing plot. It could have undermined the faith and certainty in the humanity and divinity of our Lord of so many. It is a book that should never be read, because to read it places a person in an occasion or temptation of sin, the sin of secretly and almost unconsciously abandoning Catholic dogma.
To make true spiritual progress we must consider our sinful condition and our personal sins, to acknowledge before God that we are sinners, and to seek and obtain his pardon in the sacrament of Penance. I would especially suggest a self-examination on how frequently we have allowed ourselves to be in occasions of sin. They could be occasions of sin against our faith, such as what I have mentioned. They could be occasions of sin against one or other virtue, or whatever. In the Lord’s Prayer we ask that God our Father will deliver us out of temptation. If we want to be holy, we must try to avoid the occasions of sin.
There is another kind of sin which we ought consider. I refer to deliberate venial sin. How often we commit venial sin deliberately, and consider that it does not matter much. If we want to make spiritual progress we must strive to avoid all deliberate venial sin. For instance, deliberately and knowingly refusing to forgive, or deliberately taking little things at work, or knowingly giving in to laziness, being knowingly careless about arriving for Sunday Mass on time, or knowingly disregarding the Blessed Sacrament in the church, or whatever. If we give in to deliberate venial sin and not repent of it sincerely, we shall never grow in holiness. Indeed, deliberate venial sin is preparing the way for mortal sin. We must make a point of confessing deliberate venial sin so as to be cleansed of it and to be fortified against it in the future.
And then of course we must be profoundly repentant of any mortal sin. A mortal sin is like a spiritual heart attack that brings instant death to the soul. Only God can raise the soul up, and he does so by giving us the grace to make a sincere act of contrition and then going to Confession, the Sacrament of Penance. A mortal sin of thought, word or deed is spiritually lethal. In it the devil triumphs. So we must be very careful to confess any past mortal sins in Confession.
Now, whatever be our history of venial sins, or mortal sins, or placing ourselves in the occasion of sin, the key to spiritual life and progress is repentance. We must learn to repent of all mortal sin and of any deliberate venial sin. We must learn to repent of occasions of sin. Repentance is the key. It has to be genuine. It is a grace to be asked for, the grace to repent genuinely. To receive the cleansing from sin which the Sacrament of Penance effects, we must confess our sins genuinely, repent from them genuinely, and then strive to make up for the damage and the rupture from God by acts of penance, especially and essentially through the penance we are given in Confession. If we confess our sins, repent for them, and fulfil the penance given in Confession, the grace of the Sacrament of Penance will be ours. Every time we go to Confession, and it ought be frequent and regular, we should aim to undergo a conversion with the help of God’s grace.
Let us ask the grace of God for conversion from sin and a new beginning in our pursuit of holiness. Let us resolve to make Confession a centrepiece of our spiritual life.