Why did Pope Francis, who is known for his vivacity and joy, identify himself first and foremost as a sinner when asked to describe himself? And why did he return to this theme earlier today on twitter, where he reminded us that “we are all sinners”?
There is always a temptation, perhaps stronger in those of us who have a personality type prone to perfectionism, to hope for some way to wipe away our past mistakes and sins, to somehow rewrite history, so that we might have moral purity, moral perfection. We might try to justify past sins by placing them within a certain context. We might hide them from others. We might try to overturn the harm we have done to others by acts of repentance or restitution. We might pray to God to erase sins from our memory so that they will no longer blight our self-image and derail our quest for flawlessness.
In all of this is the desire to shed sins, a worthy goal. But if it is not centered in the desire for communion with God and others, it can trespass into the realm of idol worship, treating oneself as an object to be carved into the image of perfection we imagine. And we see ourselves as the artists, chiseling away, shaping our own perfection.
But when we accept reality, it becomes clear that we are sinners. Seeing ourselves as sinners means recognizing our total dependence on God and that redemption is only possible because of the radical love of Christ. We can resist sin, but we inevitably stumble. We might adhere to every law, but we inevitably fail to incessantly choose love. As we grow older, it becomes more and more clear that we cannot erase the consequences of our past errors through our individual actions alone.
We can only turn to God for forgiveness, for mercy. I have heard many people explain how they will certainly go to heaven (“if it exists”), thanks to the fact that they’re not a “bad” person. They felt satisfied with, and justified by, their moral mediocrity.
Yet the saints I have learned about seem to emphasize the opposite: their unworthiness to live in the presence of God. Those who seem morally perfect to the outside world recognize and regret the times they have turned away from God and love. They strive for righteousness, but accept the brokenness of their condition.
They recognize that only God can remedy the injustice, disharmony, and division caused by freely-chosen sin. They come to fully understand the centrality of grace. And it helps them to escape the traps of legalism and moral arrogance.
These saints live in reality. They see who they really are. And Pope Francis seems to do the same. Meghan Clark argues that Francis displays what appears to be a “radical self-awareness.”
To recognize oneself as a sinner is not to proclaim the depravity of man, but the human person’s fundamental need for God and God’s mercy. This recognition is essential for the self-reflection that must accompany authentic efforts to follow the Way of Christ and help build the Kingdom of God.
A spiritual humanism that inspires our pursuit of the common good and our own full development as persons, which is open to the transcendent and recognizes our capacity for good while also accepting the reality of sin, is capable of avoiding both the dangerous hubris that is fostered by a naive belief in the perfectibility of man and the perilous cynicism or nihilism that logically follows from the belief that we live in a strictly material universe. In living this humanism, this personalism, we see others as they are—as persons. As Bishop James Conley recently explained, “When we acknowledge our common sinfulness and our common call to holiness, it becomes easier to see one another, not as objects, but as brothers and sisters in need of support, and encouragement, and solidarity with one another.”
We are sinners. We cannot achieve salvation alone. Only by living in reality and accepting God’s grace and love as sinners can we inch closer toward communion and realize our full potential as persons. And ultimately, while our faith drives us to eradicate all injustice, these good works must be joined by grace in order for us to have eternal life.
We are sinners, but we are hopeful. We hope that our acts of mercy and love, our pursuit of justice and the common good will not be undone by our sins or disappear over time, but will reach their full fruition when we are united through God’s transformative love. We are hopeful because Christ did not come to collect the perfect who are in no need of redemption, but to show sinners the path to God and to carry us when we can walk no more.