Why do we say ‘I am not worthy’ at Mass?

| Father Michael Schmitz | November 9, 2016 | 0 Comments

Q. I struggle each Mass when the congregation says, “I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof … .” I understand its biblical significance, but maybe I’m just bothered by the phrase “I am not worthy.” My parents taught me I am worthy because I’m a child of God. We are all worthy just by the fact we were created in God’s image.

A. You are not the first person I’ve encountered who has been bothered by the implications of not being worthy. So, what are we saying when we utter those words?

I am all about encouragement and positivity, possibly to a fault. I can sometimes err on the side of “let’s try and find something good to say about this person or this situation” to the degree that I miss the full truth. So I want to be quick to affirm your goodness. The Church affirms your goodness.

The Catholic Church has always taught on the universal goodness of, well, the universe. Further, the Church teaches a number of powerful truths related to human dignity. First, “man has been created ‘in the image and likeness’ of the Creator” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1701). Further, “It is in Christ, Redeemer and Savior, that the divine image, disfigured in man by the first sin, has been restored to its original beauty and ennobled by the grace of God” (CCC 1701). And third, “The divine image is present in every man” (CCC 1702).

The Church affirms that these incredible realities are true for all human beings, regardless of race, sex or life experience. Every human being is created good. Every human being is fallen, wounded, scarred by sin. And every human has been redeemed by Jesus (though not every human being participates in this redemption). So, yes, you are good. Yes, you are fallen. And yes, you have been redeemed. But does that make one “worthy”?

Before we get to that, a very important question arises: Where does “our” goodness come from? The Church teaches that all of our goodness comes from God. Not some — all. God is the source of everything that is good in us. I cannot overemphasize this point. If we start claiming dignity or worth as our own apart from God, we wander into a very dangerous trap.

So, you are completely correct in affirming the worth of every human being in relation to other human beings. But at this particular moment of the Mass, we are not speaking of our worth in relation to other human beings. We are talking about our worth in comparison to God himself.

Because all of our goodness comes from God, human dignity is something we can scarcely imagine. But this does not make us even close to becoming equals with God. I think that this might be the source of your difficulty. We are so used to comparing our worth with other human beings that we take the same comparisons and confidences into our relationship with God. But in comparison with God, I am literally “zero.” I offer nothing. I am nothing. In comparison to his infinity, I remain completely and utterly unworthy.

We are not talking about being worthy of just and honorable treatment by another human being, or being worthy of respect and equality in the community in which we live or being worthy of the love of the people around us. We are talking about whether we believe God “owed it to us” that we deserved that he should die for us. We are talking about whether we deserved that God “emptied himself and took the form of a slave … [and] obediently accepted … death on a cross!” We are dangerously close to asserting that we are so worthy that the Lord of the Universe ought to humble himself to the point of becoming our food. I am not worthy of that. God is so good, however, that he offers me this.

Remember, pride is still the deadliest of the deadly sins. And pride that is simply dressed up as “self worth” remains deadly. In comparison with God, I am not worthy, yet his goodness desires to bridge the gap between his worthiness and our unworthiness, which is why we continue, “but only say the word, and my soul shall be healed.”

Father Schmitz is director of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Duluth and chaplain of the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Reach him at fathermikeschmitz@gmail.com.

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