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Dear Fr Rutler: Can we feel too much sorrow for our sins?

Dear Father Rutler,

My family is mostly Protestant, and they obviously don’t cross themselves before praying, say “debtors” instead of “trespassers” during the Lord’s Prayer, and so on. I never know what to do when we’re together. Would it be ostentatious for me to do things the Catholic way? Does God mind if I ask him to forgive my debts instead of my trespasses?
Martina V from Houston, TX

I am not glad that you asked this, because it provokes the pedant in me. We could look at the Greek since, as early as the 3rd century in Egypt, Origen used paraptoma which means trespasses, and yet Augustine in Hippo, who opted for Latin since his Greek was shaky at best, found significance in debita as a reference to Jesus speaking about paying “the utmost farthing”. But that does not prove much since our Lord spoke it first in Aramaic, a language I approach with caution, especially its daunting plural forms and subjunctives. Jerome, who gave us the Vulgate, used both peccata (sins) and delicta (offences). There should be no Catholic-Protestant tension here: Wycliffe (1359) uses “sins” and “trespasses”, Tyndale (1526) and the 1549 Book of Common Prayer use “trespasses”, while the King James Bible (1611) has “debtors”. Your Protestant friends are closer to the Latin Rite by saying “debts” (peccata). Ronald Knox is invariably precise, but he uses “trespasses” probably by familiarity with both the Book of Common Prayer and the Douai Bible.

So, it is really no big deal, though “debts” emphasises sin as a moral obligation while trespassing stresses crossing a moral line. Going back to a Jewish source, Ira Gershwin: “You like tomato and I like tomahto… but if we ever part, that might break my heart.” So let your Protestant relatives keep the Catholic usage, while as a good Catholic you may pray the way the Protestant Tyndale did.

I think my husband is going through his midlife crisis. He became a tertiary/oblate of the [redacted] order as a tertiary/oblate and was ordained a permanent deacon. He spends all his time going to Mass, praying, volunteering… He’s a very holy man, but we have five kids, and I need him around the house! Is that selfish of me?
Name and address withheld

Midlife crises can be worse for males of the species than for females, since men do not expect their own kind of menopause. Your husband’s faith may see him through this, if such is his problem, but if he ardently reads Sacred Writ, he should recall the advice of St Paul to the eager clergyman Timothy: “For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?” If he retorts that the Apostle said women should keep silent (1 Corinthians 14:34), that only applies to conduct in church. Freely preach to him at home.

For years I’ve felt a deep devotion to the Mother of Sorrows and the dolorous aspect of Catholic spirituality. However, it can become extremely oppressive – especially during Holy Week. Is there such a thing as feeling too much sorrow for our sins?
Michael D from Boston, MA

Presumption and despair are two sides of the same coin of pride. Christianity is useless without the Cross but it is senseless with nothing but the Cross. Our Lord fell under the Cross three times, but he also got up three times. That is what saves martyrdom from masochism. As St Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth, “…forgive him, and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow” (2 Corinthians 2:7).

My fiancé’s father is an Episcopal priest. He refers to himself as “Fr So-and-so”; I don’t feel comfortable using that title for him, but I also don’t want to refer to him as “Mr So-and-so”. He’s a very prim man and probably won’t invite me to call him by his first name anytime soon. What should I do?
Name and address withheld

If your prospective father-in-law, while not a Catholic priest (cf Apostolice Curae of 1896 and Ad Tuendam Fidem of 1998), requires that his prospective daughter-in law address him as “Father”, he may be insecure. Perhaps your fiancé’s father is prim in compensation for the fact that his clerical lineage is rooted in the loins of a priapic Tudor king.

I hope there is a prospect of a happy marriage, but if your fiancé is the sort of man who would make a good husband, he should ask his father respectfully to stop acting like an asinus asinorum. “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh” (Genesis 2:24 KJV).

Fr George Rutler is the pastor of St Michael’s Church in New York City. To seek his advice, write to [email protected]