Their shoulders slump from fatigue. Their eyes are bloodshot. Their stoles are a beautiful, albeit disgusting, blend of countless young souls’ tears and snot. It’s a not-too-uncommon sight in youth ministry, actually: priests sitting in persona Christi capitas, offering mercy and absolution to an endless line of adolescent sinners ardently desiring sainthood. The scene repeats itself at every parish retreat, summer camp, and youth rally. The odds are staggering, with priests hearing – on some weekends – literally hundreds of confessions in just a day or two. These courageous (and tired) souls are consistently “poured out like libations” in a manner that would make St. Paul proud (Philippians 2:17), often remaining on less-than-comfortable chairs for hours on end so that every last penitent has the opportunity to hear the words of freedom . . . the words of absolution.
After a cursory glance around the room during these events, many are quick to blame the “priest shortage” (which is actually an irresponsible euphemism for what is really a “response shortage,” but let’s not digress). A more exacting evaluation would reveal a group of teens who have either not been offered the opportunity more frequently or, perhaps more to the point, who have not been invited into the Sacramental encounter since the last such retreat/event.
The lines are long for a variety of reasons, but the ratio of teens to priests is not the fundamental problem; it’s a fruit, but not the root.
The Church needs more sin . . . to be preached and taught, so that we can be reconciled more regularly.
Sin has not lost its luster; leaders have lost their muster. And that is one very deadly combination. Even in a suffering economy, the wages of sin remain the same: death (Romans 6:23).
Get Over Your Fear
So why don’t leaders preach and teach more about sin?
I believe it’s rooted in fear. Sometimes leaders are afraid that preaching sin will push people away or “hurt” their numbers. Experience shows, however, that if done correctly, the result is just the opposite. Teens are dying for someone to draw a line in the sand. To quote Chesterton: “Morality, like art, begins with drawing a line somewhere.”
Teens want truth. Everyone wants truth . . . especially the truth about hell, heaven, purgatory, and the lives that lead to all three.
Teens aren’t stupid, and they’re not to be placated or pandered to. When we refuse to offer teens the raw truth, the hard truth – with love – we are not only shooting ourselves in the foot, we are shooting our youth ministry programs in the heart. At times, sin is even inadvertently empowered because the harsh realities about what living a moral life requires are watered down or, worse yet, never even offered.
God didn’t shy away from preaching on truth, sin, and consequence; He began in Eden and continued throughout Salvation History. Even Christ’s beloved Sermon on the Mount spoke more about Hell and the consequence of sin than any of His other discourses or (far more easy-to-remember) parables.
Teens – and adults – are being swallowed up and spit out by a secular humanist, morally relativist culture. People have forgotten a fundamental truth about sin: namely, that God did not give Adam and Eve the right to decide what was good and evil (subjective); in His mercy, He gave them the right to choose between good and evil (objective).
He was adamant. He was clear. He loved them (and us) enough not to leave anything in doubt. He explained the consequences (Genesis 2:17). Death would be the inevitable result of sin and disobedience. But this was not just any kind of death. This death would be the worst kind of death imaginable — spiritual death.
The death God warned them about was the loss of His divine life animating their souls. Literally, in Hebrew (the original language of the Old Testament), God says that they would “die die” if they disobeyed. This was not an accident on the part of the writer. God did not have a stuttering problem. The word is repeated twice to emphasize the seriousness of the death that would result. This death wouldn’t be small or trivial. It wouldn’t even be merely physical. This death would be the worst of all deaths: it would be spiritual.
God was telling Adam and Eve that to sin would be to commit spiritual suicide.
I think it’s important to remember (ourselves) and reinforce (to others) that the Greek word for “sin” used by St. Paul is the word “hamartia,” which means, “to miss the mark.” There is a very real sense in which sin is “missing,” or not meeting, the expectations God has set up.
It is important that we emphasize the word “miss.” Although we often think of sin as being a “mark” or a “stain” on the soul, we need to remember that sin is not something. Evil has no substance to it. Rather, sin is the absence of something that should be present. It is the lack of the love and grace that we need to survive. Sin is really no thing — it is nothing where there should be something. It is the absence of God’s grace and love influencing our lives. We sin when we act in ways that are contrary to God’s truth and love.
Many teens tend to view sin as just a minor, insignificant thing. But sin is gripping. Sin is deadly. Sin enslaves. Through pride we became “slaves of sin”
(Romans 6:17) – slaves of death. It was our master. It reigned in our hearts. It mercilessly kept us captive, bound to death, away from the light. And it still does.
Questions for Your Ministry
Here are a few practical questions to consider when evaluating whether or not your young people need to hear more about sin or not:
- How often do you, as the leader, take advantage of the Sacrament of Reconciliation? The more grace is overflowing from you, the more others will be drawn to it themselves.
- Are your Core Members frequenting the Sacrament? If not, why not? Most teens are intimidated to show up to Church and wait – alone – in line for Confession. This is a great chance to get some safe-environment-friendly, public relational ministry time by meeting and supporting one another while waiting to receive God’s grace. This isn’t killing two birds with one stone. This is bringing two dead birds back to life with one rock (of the Church – Matthew 16:18).
- If there aren’t any teens in line for Confession on Saturday afternoons (or whenever you offer it at the parish), it’s time to reevaluate.
- Do your teens know “what to say and do” when they get there? If not, are you putting resources like Come Clean in their hands to help them?
- Do you try to offer Confession at least once a semester as part of a Life Night? Even if it takes extra scheduling further out in advance to secure priests, it’s worth it!
- Do your teens understand the differences between venial and mortal sin? Encourage them to pray through CCC #1852-64, and then unpack it with them.
- Do they understand why we go to a priest for the Sacrament (CCC #1461-67)?
People with no realization of sin have no “need” for a Savior. Or do they?
Sin is death. Christ is life. Preach it!