Each of us has probably heard at least one amusing comment about “Catholic guilt,” or may even have shared humorous experiences relating to going to confession when we were a child. Such innocent humor is a part of our broad Catholic culture. Yet guilt is a normal part of our human experience, and as such, we bring it to the liturgy as a part or the selves that we offer, joined with the self- offering of Christ, as our gift to the Father.
Throughout history, the liturgical rites of the Church have dealt with human guilt in various ways, depending, to a large extent, on how guilty people have felt. How the liturgy addresses human guilt has also depended on how the teaching Church, at various times in history, viewed human unworthiness and the salvation Christ brought to our human condition. In looking at the centuries of Church history, there is no question that guilt and unworthiness have at times been exaggerated, often at the expense of other important considerations. Today, we are gradually bringing back to a proper perspective the balance between human guilt and God’s love, compassion, mercy and forgiveness.
A person’s or a community’s faith is lived out and expressed through the medium of certain particular metaphors. These metaphors shape not only the way people think about their faith, but also the ways they imagine, feel, and express that faith in liturgical rites. God’s making a covenant with his people has been such a metaphor for Judaism, and so to be a faithful Jew, one must live out the implications of that covenant. In the orthodox Christian East, the primary metaphor has been the breaking into human history of the kingdom of God. In the Christian West, our primary metaphor, gaining great popularity in the middle ages, has been Christ’s atonement for sin on Calvary. During following centuries there was no little confusion and misunderstanding about the nature of Christ’s sacrifice, his atonement for our sins, and the sacrificial nature of the Mass. By the thirteenth century, the atonement metaphor - Christ dying for us with the weight of our sins upon him, as if to appease the angry Father in heaven - had come to dominate the rite of the Mass.
Many theologians, and perhaps our own personal experience, suggest that Christ’s atoning sacrifice on Calvary is ceasing to be the primary metaphor for people that it has been since the high middle ages. Why? Because we view the human condition quite differently than did medieval Christians. We come to liturgy today to encounter not only the Savior who died for our sins, but also the Lord, the lover, the friend, the healer, as so many of our contemporary hymns suggest. It is Christ’s identification with humanity that grips so much of the contemporary imagination. As one theologian puts it, “Most healthy people in our world are simply not prepared to see guilt as the primary ground of their meeting with God.”
Professional liturgists at Vatican II argued, wisely but unsuccessfully, that the Mass should not begin with a proposed penitential rite, since it was not necessary to call to mind our sinfulness at this time, and since such a communal rite never before existed, except in a few Protestant traditions. Meanwhile we still begin most liturgies with an exercise in “calling to mind our sins,” (although the rite of sprinkling water and calling to mind our baptism is an optional and welcome alternative). Why should we always begin the liturgy by calling to mind our sins? Why not begin with calling to mind how much we love one another, or by calling to mind how good God is? If salvation is understood to be not just forgiveness from sin but wholeness, then our liturgical and personal prayer must speak for the whole of our lives and not simply for our sense of sinfulness.