Sin. It’s a short word; three little letters that do not look like much.
But for faithful Catholics, that word symbolizes a barrier to living in the fullness of God’s love.
Sin is also something all human beings hold in common, because by our very humanity, we fall short of God’s perfection. The key is to strive constantly to overcome human failings.
“All of us are called to be like Christ, and all of us fall short of that goal,” said Msgr. Leigh Lehocky, pastor of St. Peter Church in Columbia.
“Unless one is reading the Scriptures regularly and being attentive to the constant teaching of the church, one tends to forget how it is to follow Christ. We need to stop and ask ourselves, ‘In light of the Gospel, am I growing in Christ?’”
What is sin?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church offers concise and direct descriptions of sin. It is defined in paragraph 1849 as “an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience,” and in 1850 as “an offense against God.”
The catechism also sets forth ways to describe and define sins. For example, paragraph 1853 states that sins can be “distinguished according to their objects…or according to the virtues they oppose…or according to commandments they violate.” The catechism also offers perhaps the most familiar definitions of the degrees of sin, learned by nearly every child preparing to receive their first sacrament of reconciliation.
The worst sins, it states, are mortal sins, because they turn humans away from God, deprive them of sanctifying grace, and destroy charity in their hearts through grave violation of God’s law. Examples of mortal sin, according to church teaching, include murder, lying, theft and helping someone to obtain an abortion, but there are many others. Mortal sins have three conditions: the object of sin must be a grave matter, the sinner must have full knowledge that the deed is wrong and must consent to committing the act.
Venial sins are less serious matters, such as gossip, that go against basic standards but do not break a sinner’s relationship with God
Theology teachers in Catholic schools face the challenge of helping students understand the nature of these sins, how to detect and avoid them, and the importance of the sacrament of reconciliation. Their descriptions can be helpful to adults too.
Susie Benkert uses an analogy to describe sin for her sixth- and seventh-grade students at St. Joseph’s Catholic School in Greenville.
“I ask them to imagine that there is a giant glass wall between them and God,” she said. “Every time we commit a venial sin, it is as if we use a paintball pistol to shoot at the glass wall. While we can still see God, venial sins make it more difficult to see him. If we commit a mortal sin, it is as if we use a paintball bomb … and the wall is covered. Even though God, with his awesome power, can see us and still loves us, we can no longer see him and walk with him. Confession is a pressure washer that washes away all of the paint, and we can see God clearly again.”
Tony Haughey, chair of the theology department at Cardinal Newman School in Columbia, offers a concise definition for his students.
“Sin is at its heart our decision to choose for ourselves and not for God,” he said. “Sin is always selfish, always prideful and always harmful.”
Sins of omission
Msgr. Lehocky said often sin comes in the form of what people do not do.
Sins of omission, he said, need to be considered just as often as sins caused by actual thoughts or actions. These sins, he said, can be described as actions that fall short of the Gospel.
“A sin of omission is not following what Jesus asks us to do,” he said. “Some people come to confession and say they’ve obeyed all the commandments and can’t find any sin in their lives. I ask them if they are attentive as they read the Scripture and attend Mass, if they have a regimen of prayer in their lives, if they are attentive to the poor and needy. These things are not one of the 10 commandments, but the Gospels show that Jesus put a huge emphasis on things like being attentive to those in need.”
Priests and theology teachers stress the importance of the sacrament of reconciliation as the best way to help Catholics overcome the effects of sin in their lives.
The sacrament is God’s gift and a way to help a person rediscover the path of a true Christian life, said Father Ronald J. Farrell, administrator of St. Mary, Our Lady of Ransom Church in Georgetown.
“Confession is for us, because God already knows us and what we’ve done,” Father Farrell said. “Never let embarrassment over a sin keep you away from confession, because there is absolutely nothing someone can say that the priest hasn’t likely heard many, many times. It’s part of our human nature to sin, and through confession we’re forgiven by God, Remember that God loves you more than anything. As we examine our conscience, we need to realize that we’re human. We all share so much more than what separates us.”
In recent months, the importance of the sacrament of reconciliation has been a big focus among college students who attend Newman Club meetings at the St. Thomas More Center at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.
Students said they have learned how to focus on how sin affects their daily lives, and how to pray before reconciliation to determine what they need to correct.
Sara Hinojosa, 20, a junior from Orlando, Fla., said she learned in Catholic school to list her sins before going to the sacrament of reconciliation, but her examination of conscience now is more of a prayer to the Holy Spirit.
“When I sit and examine my conscience, obviously I think about my sins, what I’ve done wrong, but that’s not the only thing,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to think about what I can improve on, and focus on finding out where I’m struggling, what I’m not doing in my life or need to do better. I ask the Holy Spirit to help me remember everything.”
Stephanie Raguseo, 21, a senior from Fair Play, said she has learned to look for the sins of omission in her life, whether they are good deeds she neglected to do or spiritual failings, such as not being attentive at Mass or prayer. She receives the sacrament of reconciliation every two weeks.
“Confession wasn’t in my routine when I first got to college, but now I’ve come to know the feeling of being absolved from my sins,” she said. “When you leave confession, it’s a feeling of being completely free.”