A month ago, I went to Angola Prison to assist Fr. Charlie with his masses. Many of the guys who were gathered for mass were what they called “life-timers”—guys who were there for life. To me most were normal guys, who did not fit my stereo type of what a prison inmate looks like. I felt like I was in a normal church, and for a brief moment during mass, I had to ask myself what was the difference between the inmates and I. But I was reminded of that difference when I approached the gate to leave
Many of you probably remember Bishop Fulton Sheen and his TV program “Life is Worth Living.” He was preaching to prison inmates on one occasion, and he said something very profound. He said, “Do you know what is the difference between you and me? You got caught and I didn’t.”
How many of us here can honestly say that we don’t need to go to confession? We might say, “I’m a good person. I haven’t killed anyone.” Can we honestly say then to Jesus, whom we’ll meet in the Eucharist in a short while, that we are sinless so we don’t need his forgiveness?
If we are so confident about our own purity, Our Lord has a word for us today. Today’s Gospel begins with the following words: “Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.” I know our churches are deemphasizing confession. You can tell this by how less frequently confession is offered. Typically it’s offered only one hour on Saturday and available by appointment. But I notice that people even do not take advantage of this small opportunity.
Are we perhaps taking the same attitude of the Pharisee of today’s gospel? When he entered a temple and saw a tax collector, he prayed, “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.” What was wrong with this Pharisee? Was it his spiritual discipline? His stewardship? No, he was doing the right things—commendable things. But the Pharisee was forgetting that it was God who gave him the grace to be able to pray, to fast, and to give. Pride can eat your lunch; it can spoil our good works.
How could all of us improve, who has some degree this Pharisee’s attitude in us, improve? Our Lord tells us, take the attitude of the tax collector who prayed, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” None of us can boast in front of Our Lord that we are sinless. The opposite is true. All of us can boast that we are sinners. This is truth. We are clay, molded in God’s hands and animated by his gift of Spirit. Everything about us, we don’t possess, even our own life. Everything belongs to God. All of us have a different starting point—environment in which we were born, circumstances that surround us. But all of us have freedom to choose—to choose to be humble.
I bet if Fr. Jack or Fr. Leo has the ability to read souls like St. Padre Pio this church would be packed day and night with people who want to go to confession. For some strange reason, people flocked to Padre Pio because he could tell what sins you committed even prior to entering the confessional. Personally, I would be afraid to go to Padre Pio for confession because I would rather hide my sins rather than have them exposed. I would rather others think that I was a holy person rather than a person in need of forgiveness. I’m afraid of getting caught. Remember what Bishop Fulton Sheen said to the prison inmates, “The difference between you and I is that you got caught, and I didn’t.”