Growing up in an evangelical faith tradition, I heard a lot around Easter time about how you “can’t have Resurrection Sunday without Good Friday.” This sentiment often struck me as lacking in some way; since converting to Catholicism two years ago, I now understand it’s because I was meant for a faith that embraces the interconnectedness of all the Church’s liturgical seasons. Taking this perspective as a Catholic convert, I have a special affection for the Lenten season and its role in preparing our hearts for the glories of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection. If Easter is truly the center of the sacraments, in a sense, it seems critical to anticipate this season of celebration by revisiting the presence of sin that made Christ’s sacrifice necessary in the first place.
This year, to put me in mind both of that original sacrifice and the ongoing need for repentance, I have been reflecting with Bishop Fulton Sheen. Specifically, in his series of 1939 talks now collectively titled “Seven Capital Sins,” Sheen merges these two realities together in powerful ways. Each section focuses on a particular capital (or more typically known as “deadly”) sin and connects it to a statement Jesus made on the cross, then applies it to how we can understand the role that sin plays in our modern world and can continually be redeemed through the blood of Christ.
Through the new MFA program at the University of St. Thomas, I recently discovered this text as part of a class assignment and have been surprised by how powerfully Sheen’s words still resonate over 80 years later. While certain cultural references of course are bound to their particular period, Sheen consistently pierces through the surface of our lives to make us consider afresh the pervasive influence that sin can have on every aspect of our lives. When I am tempted to become angry, for example, Sheen helps me see how this sin is attached to the root cause of “ignorance”: a failure to understand another person’s motives or fully to comprehend my own selfish motivations. When I find myself wanting to get angry at my husband or at my children, this truth gives me pause as I try to reconsider their perspectives and see the best in them. More importantly, it enables me to recognize that what I may have initially seen as my own righteous indignation is often rooted in a misguided attempt to feel sorry for myself — choosing selfishness over service.
In each section of the text, as Sheen opens with a statement from Jesus on the Cross — whether “This day you shall be with Me in Paradise” (for envy) or “It is finished” (for sloth) — Sheen develops observations about how Jesus uses his suffering as an opportunity to offer up “reparation” for each of the major ways that sin inhibits us from experiencing the fullness of his grace. Such a mindset is constantly challenging me in the daily, semi-controlled chaos of life at home with two toddlers as they continue to help me confront the long-lasting effects of my own human failings, both on myself and on their development.
A major takeaway from Sheen’s reflections is his focus on building awareness: on our sin, on the ways that God redeems, on the constant tension between these forces in our lives as Christians. It is this relationship that makes a primarily positive focus during Lent ultimately lacking in some way, as it can tempt us to overlook our constant dependence on the God who makes any kind of such spiritual growth possible. The liturgical year is beautiful because it reminds us that there is a time and place for everything. Just as the Mass walks us through each step of the Christian life each week, Lent provides a season of deeper concentration to become more mindful of our ongoing dependence on Jesus to keep us from being left to our own limitations. This process is why we need the extended time of Lent beyond a few days in Holy Week; it takes time to dig into the ways that sin seeps into the many layers of our humanness. This year, by reading through Sheen’s text each week, I can prolong these reflections and single out particular facets of my life that need sanctification without getting overwhelmed.
Perhaps the most powerful aspect of reading Sheen’s addresses in its complete form is how it builds ultimately toward his concluding Easter sermon. Lent is necessary because it gives us focused time to cleanse ourselves of sin while also keeping that sinfulness tied to its culmination in the Passion and Resurrection. Rather than merely reveling in our sinfulness — which would itself become a kind of warped pride, another of the capital sins — or trying to avoid it by taking Christ’s sacrifice for granted, Sheen’s reflections help us to keep these dual realities of our faith in perspective. As I become more aware of this constant need to root out sin in order to make room for holiness, I am inspired to help instill a similar discipline in my children. One of the beauties of Catholicism is its wholeness: its ability to contain all aspects of the Christian life and to keep them in the proper order. Sheen’s meditations both ground us in the purpose of this time and keep our perspective inextricably linked with the redemption that awaits us.