What we ‘failed to do’

It began like any other Mass until we got to the penitential rite and started praying: “I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned through my own fault in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done…and in what I have failed to do.”

It was as if I heard those words for the first time. You know the words because you’ve said them thousands of times. In my case, I never took them as seriously as the “what I have done” sins, which typically include swearing, lying, gossiping and other unseemly misdeeds I’ll leave for the confessional.

As Catholics, we have countless “do nots” built into our brains, but what about the elusive things that fall between the moral cracks in the “what I failed to do” category? I’m not just talking about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and giving someone a drink of cold water. Or putting more cash in the second collection or missing Mass. I’m talking about the small situations where someone needed compassion, and I was there to help…but didn’t.

I’m talking about the times when people needed something simple, and I could have fulfilled that need, but was “too busy.”

I have the feeling that Christ put me there for a purpose, and instead I walked away because it was inconvenient, or I figured it was someone else’s responsibility. Unfortunately, “someone else” wasn’t around but I was.

For example, the time—or times—I didn’t answer the phone because it was a relative who always needs money, probably because of a gambling problem. The time I didn’t answer the phone because the person who called constantly complains, and I didn’t want to listen to more grumbling about COVID-19 mandates or Donald Trump or whatever was on that day’s agenda. And the time I didn’t respond to an email from a friend who had surgery because I was tired of his attacks on the Church. And the time I didn’t call back when a friend left a message on the answering machine, only to learn later that he was getting a divorce and needed to talk.

Sometimes I have this haunting vision of Jesus giving me my life review, and he pauses at the incident where I said to a person, “I’m too busy to deal with this,” and walked away.

Then, he tells me, “I sent that person to you for help.” Uh oh.

It’s easy to do things for people when you get something in return, such as recognition, praise, a pat on the back, your picture in the paper, or a certificate of appreciation. But the real challenge is the unseen service to people who are annoying and can’t repay you in any way.

When I think of these so-called sins of omission, I recall that scene in “A Christmas Carol” when the ghost of Jacob Marley visited his former partner, Ebenezer Scrooge, rattling his chains. He came to warn Scrooge about the chain which he had been forging for years…because of what he failed to do.

Before leaving, Marley leads Scrooge to the window, and he looks out on that cold Christmas Eve to see the night filled with phantoms, who are terribly distraught because they want “to interfere for good in human matters but had lost the power forever.”

It was too late for them to do the good, which they failed to do in life.

One of the spiritual works of mercy is comforting the afflicted, and sometimes that means nothing more than listening with compassion or having a few kind words for someone who’s lonely or distraught.

Have you ever been sick and wondered, “Why hasn’t my son (or daughter) called to see how I am?”

Have you ever been depressed and thought to yourself, “I don’t have anyone I can confide in?”

Have you ever waited for the results of a medical test, and no one else seemed to care about your anxiety?

Have you ever lost a beloved pet, and people just didn’t seem to appreciate the depth of your grief?

We live in an age afflicted by spiritual viruses called “self-interest” and “narcissism,” and because of them, many of us “fail to do” what we should be doing.