I hear lots and lots of confessions. What I hear most is a person telling me that he or she broke one of the Church's rules. "Father, I didn't go to Mass on a Holy Day." What I rarely hear is someone confessing that he or she didn't love. Jesus tells us the Great Commandment of Love is essential. We are told that if we love the way Jesus defines love, everything else is, at best, secondary. We are told by no less an authority than St. Augustine that if we live a life of Christian love, we really don't need to do anything else, including worrying about the rules. If Christian love permeates our lives, St. Augustine says we'll just naturally do the right thing.
So, does what I say above mean that we don't need to follow Church rules? Well, not really. But, we should print the following on the back of our eyelids. Rules are only tools to help us to build love. Properly used, Church rules will discipline us to get the graces we need to love others, including our enemies. But, and this is an important "but," if the rules get in the way of love, set the rules aside. Who says so? Well, I say so, but I'm only a reporter. I'm reporting what Jesus says.
Jesus was constantly telling the Scribes and Pharisees to get their priorities straight. They had more than 600 rules, and they insisted everyone follow them scrupulously. So much so that they criticized Jesus for not washing his hands in the "proper" way. There was a rule on how to do it. The Scribes and the Pharisees even went so far as to tell Jesus that he should not cure desperately ill people on the Sabbath because there was a rule that no work should be performed on the Sabbath. And the Scribes and Pharisees considered curing the sick on the Sabbath, even raising people from the dead on the Sabbath, work. For the Scribes and the Pharisees, rules trumped love.
Here's a modern fable. Amos lived from 10 B.C to 38 A.D. Amos was an observant Jew. He prided himself on following the rules. STRICTLY! He dressed as he should. He had big phylacteries (black bags with bible verses in them that were attached to an observant Jewish man's hair). He tithed. Amos went to the Synagogue when he was supposed to. He prayer in the proper amount, at the proper times.
Well, when Amos died and showed up at the Pearly Gates, he asked Jesus, "May I please come in? I followed all of the temple rules. Perfectly. Jesus checked Amos' record. He said, "Amos, you certainly followed the rules. There's no doubt about it. But, when the hungry came to your door, you shooed them away, saying you were too busy following the rules. You did the same thing when the sick asked you for help. Amos, you were terrific at following the rules, but you absolutely stunk at lovingly helping others. Amos, you didn't get it. Rules make us sterile mules if they don't lead us to love."
Amos, somewhat indignantly, retorted,
Lord, I certainly hope you're not telling me I should have broken the rules."
Jesus responded, "Amos, that's exactly what I'm telling you. Rules are important. Follow them, but not if they keep you from sacrificing yourself to help someone in need. That would make the yools more important than the finished product. That would let tools trump love. And, that would be sinful. For you, Amos, it was sinful."
Let's transition from Judaism to Catholicism. It is now close to two thousand years later. Why, then, do I not hear more people saying, "Bless me, father, for I have sinned. I missed three opportunities to love. Let me tell you about them." My sisters and brothers, if we did that, we'd be wise people. We'd be people who understand rules are only tools that help us to build love.
Follow the Church's rules. Cherish them. But don't think that breaking rules is more sinful than not living the Great Commandment.
We should all be like Jesus. We should break the rules, if, from time to time, that is the only way to help others, if it is the only way to sacrificially love. And, it'd be proper to confess the times we fail to sacrificially love.