Turn to Fatima This Lent

Two experiences in the confessional remind me of the importance of sin — experiences with two confessors: the Zimbabwe jolter and the French consoler.

I bring it up because many of us are getting ready for Lent while getting ready for the 100th Anniversary of Fatima, which God in his infinite wisdom has placed right after the Year of Mercy.

I love the Year of Mercy and I love the message of Fatima — and I think they complement each other perfectly.

If the lesson of St. Faustina is “Fear not! God forgives!” then the message of Fatima is “Fear sin! God punishes!”

St. Faustina reminds me that God is an ocean of mercy. The Faitma children remind me that hell is a lake of fire. And that souls are falling in “like snowflakes.”

This Lent, I will join others — the Ninevah 90, the Fiat 90 here at Benedictine College and others — in turning from “the forgiveness of sins” to “the conversion of sinners.”

It’s what a visiting priest from Zimbabwe reminded me of a long time ago.

In the mid 1990s, I went to confession in Washington, D.C., near the National Press Building, where I worked. It was a typical confession for me. “I am a slob. My desk is a mess. I lack self-discipline. I haven’t helped my wife out as much as I should with stuff around the house …”

I recited the sins from memory, head bowed, kind of planning to amend my life, kind of not.

When I was done I looked up. The African priest’s face was against the screen, and his eyes seemed to stare into my soul.

In a sharp, angry, heavily accented voice, he asked: “Do you believe in God?”

The question shocked me. Did I? “Uh – yeah?” I gulped.

His next words came quietly and slowly, as if he could barely contain his impatient rage, “Then … why … do … yousin?”

I was startled, alarmed and a little frightened.

Then his whole countenance changed and he launched into a gently worded, soothingly delivered homiletic about how I should try harder and trust God, etc.

But the point was made: My whole confession, my demeanor, my phraseology, my list of sins — it all communicated a soul who had gotten used to sin, who saw it as a minor detail — an unmade bed — in his life.

No. Sin isn’t like that. Sin is a big deal. A huge deal.

And the mercy of God is not the shoulder shrug of a benign God. It is the enormous, and enormously costly gift bought and paid for by Jesus Christ.

Little Blessed Jacinta knew. She was given a vision of hell and it shook her and changed her.

She said, “It is necessary to pray much to save souls from hell!… How sorry I am for sinners! If I could only show them hell!”

She famously said: “The sins which cause most souls to go to hell are the sins of the flesh.”

She pleaded with her mom: “Mother, fly from riches and luxury.”

In other words, she was scared white by the sins that are most common in America today — sins of spending and sex.

Pope Francis is the most recent of a long line of popes who decry our culture’s loss of the sense of sin.

In his book, The Name of God Is Mercy, Pope Francis explains several many ways we ignore our sin. But for him, the Good News of Mercy isn’t that God doesn’t find your sins horrifying, it is that with God, you can stop doing horrifying things.

“We are not condemned to sink into quicksand, in which the more we move the deeper we sink,” said Francis. “Jesus is there, his hand extended, ready to reach out to us and pull us out of the mud, out of sin, out of the abyss of evil into which we have fallen. We need only be conscious of our state, be honest with ourselves, and not lick our wounds. We need to ask for the grace to recognize ourselves as sinners.”

All of which brings me to that second confessor, who saved my soul in a very different way.

I was living in San Francisco and went to a French church near the Financial District, where I worked. I was laboring heavily under the weight of a sin I had committed.

In the confessional, I shudderingly unburdened myself of this heinous deed. Only, when I said it out loud it actually didn’t sound all that heinous.

Again, there was an awkward priest pause. But this time, in a French accent, the priest said, “Is this all?”

“Uh – Yeah?”

“Well, these things should not trouble us. Do you want absolution?”

“I guess,” I said, my scrupulosity vanishing in a cloud of embarrassment.

We should never make the mistake of letting our feelings shape the truth. No. We want the truth to shape our feelings.

I am not an advocate of guilt trips. The last thing we need is a year of scrupulosity.

But we do need a year of stopping sinning. So God gave us Fatima, and Lent. In his mercy.

This appeared in Aleteia.

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Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. His book What Pope Francis Really Said is now available on Audible. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, Hoopes served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.