Being Good or Going to Mass?

Not long ago I had a conversation with a woman which is pretty typical. She’s real nice, wealthy, upper middle class and Catholic. I ask her where they go to Mass. She says they don’t go to Mass, but they are “really good people.” She then proceeds to tell me how good she is.

So I’m at St Joseph’s Catholic School and I ask the kids, “So here’s a Catholic question for you..what’s better to be good and not go to Mass or to go to Mass and be bad?” They’re pretty smart. A few of them say, “Be good and not go to Mass.” Some others come up with better answers, “What if you went to Mass and you were bad, but going to Mass made you realize you were bad, and so you went to confession. Wouldn’t that be better?” Another said, “You couldn’t go to Mass and fully participate and be bad. Just going and being close to God would make you good.” Another was even smarter, “The person who says they’re good is bad because they’re self righteous. It’s the person who thinks they’re bad who’s really good.”

So the conversation continues and I ask individual kids, “Steven, are you a good person?” Now they’re beginning to get it and they’re laughing.  Steve says, “No Father, I’m not good. I’m bad.”

“That’s the right answer!” I exclaim. “Mary are you a good person?” She comes up with a corker, “By God’s grace I hope I might one day be good.” Wow! These kids are on it.

This is the how exciting paradox of religion. Anyone who says, “We don’t go to Mass, but we are really good people” have missed the Christian bus big time. They don’t get it and so greatly don’t get it that they are almost uneducable. Their misunderstanding is so profound that you couldn’t even say to them what they haven’t got because they don’t know what they don’t know. The astounding blind ness of such folks is that nine times out of then they then turn around and blame the people who do go to Mass for being hypocrites. Their lack of self awareness and spiritual awareness reveals the depth of their own hypocrisy for they think they are good, and never see that the essential prayer–the prayer at the heart of it all is the sinner’s plea, “Lord Jesus Christ, Have Mercy on me a Sinner.”

This prayer, so simple and so profound is the prayer that truly liberates. See how free and how child like you can be if you simply say this prayer? Within this prayer is the soul’s freedom and the soul’s joy. Within this prayer is the  simple trust in God on which everything else depends. Therefore, “Being good or Going to Mass” is a totally false dichotomy.

As one of the students said, “You can’t really go to Mass and mean it and be bad, and if you don’t go to Mass you can’t really be good.”

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  • Militia Immaculata

    When this woman finished telling you how good a person she supposedly is, what was your response?

  • Just another mad Catholic

    I'm bad but sometimes I think the fact I go to Daily Mass makes me a good person :(.I'm a bad layman who with the grace of God would one day like to be a GOOD priest.I'll never be as good as Our Lady but I want to be like her.

  • shadowlands

    I will always need to stay close to God, be regularly plugged in and put on charge, in order to be any good. I do tend to run my batteries down, now and again though and flap about on empty (some of you may have heard me during these phases, sorry). The rosary is my soul's best cell charger! I don't know why, but it works. Mass does as well, ofcourse.I love Mass, but must admit, I sometimes have to shake myself to get there. Once there, it's fine once I am there, but the resistance is something I recognise within at times, so might as well admit it this side of Judgment day.

  • bbmoe

    This reminds me of an exchange between a long-time church goer and a woman who was "church shopping." Or maybe she was just trying to find a parking spot. Anyway, the shopper got frustrated because she wasn't able to park and or get information quickly enough to suit her. She snapped at my friend who was just an innocent bystander, saying, "I don't think much of this place. You call yourselves Christian but you're not very nice." My friend replied without thinking, "That's I come here. I know I'm not nice." As far as we know, the lady left and found something better (and, for the record, no one treated her badly- she just didn't get "service.")

  • Deltaflute

    This is my thought about the "good" lady. If she was so "good", doesn't she realize that she's breaking one of the ten commandments by not going to Mass. God tells us to honor the Sabbath or the Lord's Day, but yet, she's not honoring it by fulfilling her obligation (or to worship) the Lord. So really she's not good by not going.Whether I'm good or not doesn't really matter. It's about God. But truthfully, I am good because God made me that way. I'm not perfect. I'm broken. I make mistakes. But I'm good because of Christ.

  • Richard Collins

    Lech Walensa, when he assumed the Presidency of Poland used to say that going to Mass daily "kept me good and stopped me from being bad."You cannot not go to Mass and claim that you are "good".

  • Steve

    I get the problem with declaring one's self "good," and whenever I'm inclined to think of myself as a Good Person, I have to check myself, because that's the surest sign that I'm filling up with pride and starting to close the door on God's grace — which is, ironically enough, the only thing that truly can make me good.Having said all that: There are people who have deep (and sincere) prayer lives…and do not go to Mass. There are people who live out the Gospel, live the Sermon on the Mount (because they love God, not because they're trying to score brownie points as "good" people)…and do not go to Mass. Meantime, most people who go to church are not (as you point out, Fr. L) hypocrites; they are, of course, just flawed sinners on the long road to conversion. (I'm one of that pack. I bet most of us are.) However, there ARE people who go to Mass, don't take any of it to heart, and then go out and act all mean and selfish the rest of the week, and think of themselves as very good people because they go to Mass.My point (long winded, I know) is that I don't think we can safely break people into two categories: those who love God and always go to Mass vs. those who do not go to church and cannot possibly be good people, Christ-like people. Yes, the commandment is to keep holy the sabbath. Could be that there are people, good people, who do that in a wide variety of ways, and for some of them, that does not involve going to church. (For the record, I go to Mass. I encounter Christ there. But I can't claim others outside of the church building are more distant from God than me. I have no basis for making such a claim about the state of their souls.)

  • Dr. Eric

    Father, your story to the kids reminds me of this passage:"But what think you? A certain man had two sons; and coming to the first, he said: Son, go work today in my vineyard. And he answering, said: I will not. But afterwards, being moved with repentance, he went. And coming to the other, he said in like manner. And he answering, said: I go, Sir; and he went not.Which of the two did the father's will? They say to him: The first. Jesus saith to them: Amen I say to you, that the publicans and the harlots shall go into the kingdom of God before you." -St. Matthew 21:28-31It is better to go to Mass as a bad person than not go to Mass as a "good person."

  • kkollwitz

    The Prodigal Son's brother was a Good Person too; or as Jesus would have ironically described him: righteous.

  • Ultramontanist

    Well, in principle I agree with you. Nonetheless, there remains that awful paradox that I know moren than one or two people who do not go to Mass and are not even religious who are much more virtuous than I am – and I do go to Mass at least once a week. I do admit that going to mass has kept me from doing something bad more than once, but in direct comparison some of my atheist friends are much better people. To play the devil's advocate: Does that not give support to that famous old argument that when religious people (as myself) do good, they do so because they are in fear of hell, and when atheists do good, they do so because they are, in fact, good? Of course, ultimately this is a horrible thought and something I do not really believe. However, the dilemma remains: how can we explain thorughly irreligous people who are demomstrably good? And I am not talking about the "noble savage" who has merely not had the chance to know Christ and His Church – I am talking about Westerners with, theoretically, easy access to Catholicism, in some cases about ex-Catholics. By the way: the people I am talking about would never say "I do not go to Mass but I am a good person" – they usually believe themselves to be pretty weak and immoral and do not realize their own virtues.

  • shadowlands

    Sorry to comment twice, that's reflection's fruits at work for you. Never mind who is or isn't good, only God is good and His eye is on the sparrow. He lives in the now!What, is His will, for us, now?Confession? Arange it. Celebration? Embrace it! Etc, etc etc.Leave the final giving out of trophies to Him who knows wot we lot don't.The reward is learning to love (and not be distracted from doing), as the Father bids.I am still seeking the total manifestation of that, in my own being. From Christ Jesus.Please pray, I don't seek in vain.

  • Ann

    I used to be that woman. I really was trying to be 'good' and thought (mistakingly of course) that I could do this on my own. I could blame bad formation(as a child of the '70s,) bad culture, bad choices or all of the above. But Mercy saved me. Love saved me~from myself and He continues to do so. But I can tell you that Mercy and Love was first extended to me by a good and holy priest who gazed at me with the eyes of a Loving Father, listened to my nonsense with a nod and a smile~and invited me to learn more about Goodness Himself! May God reward you Father, for loving the ones (especially the most unloveable ones like myself) who desire goodness but need your prayers, the sacraments and your Fatherhood!

  • Bender

    I ask the kids, "So here's a Catholic question for you..what's better to be good and not go to Mass or to go to Mass and be bad?" False dilemma – a type of logical fallacy that involves a situation in which only two alternatives are considered, when in fact there are additional options."Better" means to be more good than the other, but neither of these is "good." They are both bad, even if we might go around and around arguing over which is the more bad. But that one thing is more bad than the other does not then make the first better; it is still bad.While intentionally failing to show your love for God (missing Mass) is wrong, it is no virtue whatsoever to go to Mass with a lack of love in the heart. The Pharisees that Jesus repeatedly spoke out against were, no doubt, quite the Temple worshipers. But it was of no benefit whatsoever. In fact, to "be bad" and receive Holy Communion would be a sacrilege — better that that person had stayed home!What IS better is to love God by going to see Him every now and then (go to Mass) AND to endeavor to do good and avoid evil at all times. Not one or the other. Not either/or. Both and.

  • Robert H

    The heart of the matter may be in how you exposed the hypocrisy of those who make claims of hypocrisy against those who do go to Mass. Clearly that is only self-justification. Even so, even if we were in a position to judge as to who was good and who was bad, which we are obviously not, there still would not be enough information. Is she a prayerful person?, what is in her heart? Ronald Reagan was a good man, however he did not often go to church, however he was a man of deep faith and prayerful. A further consideration is what is the person's potential. CS Lewis makes the point that one person may be much more faithful to the commandments, more regular at church, etc. than another who is much less so in all the pertinent aspects. Still the second may be less well disposed to their religious duties, such that the first is the better person, that is, has made of what God gave him to work with. Having said all that, it is much like your earlier post, how faithful can a person be to God's will, and free of self, without constant reinforcement and spiritual discipline?

  • KRKrawiec

    The Essence: Being good and going to Mass are not mutually exclusive. Unless on your way to church you stop to save a dying person in a car accident, you can generally do both. I missed Mass for 30 years based on the same flawed principle. In retrospect, I didn't miss it because I was volunteering in a soup kitchen; most often I was in bed nursing my Saturday night hangover.

  • Joseph D’Hippolito

    "You can't really go to Mass and mean it and be bad, and if you don't go to Mass you can't really be good."You know, Dwight, there are a lot of faithful Protestant and Eastern Orthodox Christians who don't go to Mass. A good number of them are more knowledgeable and faithful than Catholics, dare I say….

  • Joseph D’Hippolito

    Besides, Dwight, what you forget — as that Little Ol' Tentmaker from Tarsus once said — all have sinned and fallen short of God's glory. That includes even the most dedicated Mass-goers. Why, I'll bet you that some of the priests who molested the young and the bishops who protected them went to a lot of Masses…. ;)

  • Shelagh

    I know a lot of regular Mass goers who have never grasped the true meaning of Christianity – they gossip, they judge, they look down their noses at people and some of them have stated that it would be better to protect the Church than have all the bad publicity surrounding the scandalous infiltration of the Church by paedophiles. Surely a person who looks after their neighbour, who is compassionate and empathetic to the suffering of others, who will share what they have even when it is little, but who may not go to Mass regularly, or even at all, would deserve their place in Heaven, and their title as Christian, or to be called a “good person”.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    they might be a ‘good person’ but they wouldn’t be a Catholic.