ASK FATHER: My son’s best friend is Presbyterian

From a reader…

My son asked me about his best friend a Presbyterian when I told him in response to his question that Presbyterians do not have confession do they not receive forgiveness for their sins do they have all the time.

I told him that God is merciful and has created confession for the forgiveness of sins and in the case of his best friend that God loves him and for those who are genuinely sorry for their sins that we pray they are forgiven. I was not satisfied with my response. What is a clear statement of Church’s teaching, including CCC reference so I can locate in my son’s Youcat.

Please pray for me as I pray for you and all religious.

Parenthood, if taken seriously, is tough work.

God has given to the Church, to the Apostles and their successors who are the bishops and priests of His Church, the authority to absolve sinners from sin. What an awesome responsibility our pastors have been entrusted with (CCC 981 ff). This fount of mercy and forgiveness is available to all the sinners who make up the Church.

Through the Sacrament of Penance, all sins, mortal and venial, can be forgiven. It is the ordinary means through which we receive forgiveness.  He explicitly gave this power to his priests so that we would use it.  This is the way that He wants us to use.

However, God’s mercy doesn’t stop there. There are other, extraordinary ways that sin can be forgiven.

Venial sins can be forgiven through reception of the other sacraments, especially a devout reception of Holy Communion. It is still good to bring those sins to the confessional, especially if they are frequent or troublesome. Making a good Act of Contrition with a firm purpose of amendment can also lift the burden of venial sins when one does not have recourse to confession. It is a good practice to make such an Act of Contrition at the end of the day after examining one’s conscience.

Mortal sin, sin which breaks our relationship with God, a sin which kills the life of grace in the soul, requires more. If one cannot get to confession, a Perfect Act of Contrition with a firm purpose of amendment can restore one’s relationship with God. Recourse to sacramental confession is still necessary before one receive the Blessed Sacrament.  How do we know if our Act of Contrition is perfect?  I’m not sure.  God knows and He cannot be deceived.


How about our Protestant friends who, sadly, do not have access to this beautiful fount of mercy which is the Sacrament of Penance? How are their sins forgiven? Are their sins forgiven?

Bluntly put, we don’t know.

We know that God is merciful. We know that God has established the Church as the ordinary means through which He dispenses His mercy. Can He forgive sins outside of the Church? Of course He can. God can do anything.  Does He? We don’t know.

Since we don’t know, we should do everything we can to bring our friends and loved ones to the fullness of the Faith in the Catholic Church.

That does n0t mean always preaching at them, or nagging them (though sometimes nagging might be called for, depending on the person). More often, we can help bring our loved ones to the fount of mercy by the example of our lives, especially if they see that we are happy.  If they see us happy, and prayerful, and respectful, they’ll begin to wonder what makes us that way. Happiness is alluring.  And don’t forget a large dollop of kindness.  If they experience our being kind to them, and to those classmates of ours that aren’t the most popular, they will be inspired. If they see us playing fairly, studying diligently, backing away from gossip and bad behavior, they’ll become curious. If they see that our Faith is important to us, that we take going to Church each week seriously, that we go regularly to confession, that we pray before meals, that we cross ourselves when we pass by a church or cemetery, it may inspire them to seek the same happiness that we display.

Also, remember to “sanctify the Lord Christ in your hearts, being ready always to satisfy every one that asketh you a reason of that hope which is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). We have to know our Faith and be ready to explain it well. Study and discuss.

So, we pray for our friends who do not share our Catholic Faith, and do not have access to the great graces that God makes available to us in the sacraments. We ask God to forgive their sins and to bring them into the fullness of the Faith. And we thank God that this wonderful resource is right there for us when we need it.

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Terry1 says:

    My regrets began within a few hours after mom passed away, she wasn’t supposed to die and with deep sorrow I knew I could have been a better son. Soon my regrets turned into anguish for my lifetime of sins. It had been a long time since my last confession and with tears flowing down my face I asked God to forgive me for offending Him.

    A month after mom passed away my wife and I attended the Feast of Corpus Christe, a couple of converts were also to receive the sacrament of confirmation during mass. As everyone was softly singing “Come Holy Spirit” I felt a strange and previously unknown burning sensation boring dead center into my chest and than I felt a great emotion of peace and joy coursing throughout my body immediately after this burning sensation had completely pierced through my breastbone. This new found comfort was quickly followed by a sensation that an immense weight had been removed from my body. I went from feeling like an old man to something new and for nearly an hour afterwards I experienced an indescribable Love, something greater than I could possibly have ever imagined nor will ever forget.

    I learned later that I had received the consolation of the Holy Spirit and had made a perfect contrition.

  2. gramma10 says:

    Don’t know which discussion this comment box is for. . . but I will say how fantastic the Swiss Guard photos were. God bless those men! That wife or girlfriend is obviously rather proud! Thank you for sharing.

    As for the Presbyterian friend question. . .I immediately thought of Scott Hahn who was a past Presbyterian Minister. I love to think of how we are all in “process” and like all the saints and hopefully many others, they/we, all keep getting graces even without the Sacraments. Somehow non Catholics who converted were given loads of grace right?

    Perhaps you will hugely disagree but I really believe that since God knows our heart and if we love Him deeply, and are intimate with Him, then He can know how contrite we are. Thus He certainly forgives us. Even without the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Don’t you think? That is an added bonus for Catholics I think.

    I need to ask then, that maybe even if the non Catholics do not have access to the Sacrament of Penance, that beautiful ‘fount of mercy’, they can surely receive forgiveness connecting directly with the—— ever present, always compassionate Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ Himself——who is the original source— the genuine, one and only true beautiful fount of Mercy’ from which forgiveness pours out.

    As the Chaplet says “Oh blood and water which gushed forth from the heart of Jesus as a fount of mercy for us, we trust in you”.
    “For the Sake of His Sorrowful Passion, have Mercy on us and on the Whole World”.

    So doesn’t that mean His mercy comes from His heartfelt Sorrowful Passion? Plus it gives Mercy to all the world, not just Catholics?

    I know non Catholics who are far more deeply in love with the Lord and in more repentance for their sin, than some Catholics who go to Confession and mass frequently and skim the surface.
    So, does that mean only Catholics only going through the motions, are forgiven? Obviously not.

    I thought it was a heart to heart encounter and repentance in or out of the Confessional. True sorrow is from deep within and often even brings one to tears and a metanoia, right?

    Of course, the Sacrament gives grace, but gee, God gives grace all over the place, right?
    No one is denied grace I hope, no matter what religion they are.

    Maybe we don’t know the mind of God, but this seems to be about His loving, forgiving heart.
    In this case, at least, I believe the best case scenario.

  3. Militans says:

    I helped out at the first communion catechesis class last night and they left me in charge of the children when they spoke to the parents. I spoke to them about vestments and liturgical colours – and then had a general question time. Whereupon one of the children asked “what would happen if there was no church?”.

    I said something along the lines of “I don’t want to imagine it. The Church is how God has given us our salvation, we have seen when we looked at the prodigal son that God’s mercy is endless when we choose to turn towards him. It was very hard for the Jews to keep all the rules, to be as good as God – but when God became man he made it possible for us to join Him in heaven. When we struggle we can call on the grace of God to do what we cannot do on our own”.

  4. Agathon says:

    This issue is close to my heart. My wife and I are adult converts: both of us from devout, Protestant families who were deeply rooted in devout, Protestant communities. My children are still too young to be asking these kinds of questions, but I often think about what my answer will be.

    I remember how painful it was to me when, as a young boy, I learned that certain extended family members were not Christians. I prayed for them, often with tears. It can be a difficult thing for a young soul to process.

  5. Cantor says:

    Can a priest grant absolution to a non-Catholic or even a non-Christian?

    I realize that a non-Christian’s sins will be forgiven upon Baptism, which makes it a bit of a “twofer” sacrament (clean slate and a new life!). But does a non-Catholic have access to the inviolability of the confessional as well?

  6. Reconverted Idiot says:

    “If they see us happy, and prayerful, and respectful, they’ll begin to wonder what makes us that way. Happiness is alluring. “

    One of the things that constantly blows my mind whenever I encounter it in the liturgy or prayers of The Church is the promise of joy. What confidence! To be able to promise, and then deliver, true joy and fulfillment! When, some time after my reversion to The Faith, I realised that I was suddenly happy, more happy than I’d ever been in my life, I was indeed “surprised by joy” as C.S. Lewis once put it. This one thing has done more to give a witness to the real power of The Catholic Faith in my life than anything I could ever say or do (though I do still say and do much besides as I encourage my friends and loved ones to search deeper).

    I always try to remember to thank God for the gift of fine priests who hear my confessions, and who thereby help me to maintain my joy in the face of many trials and tribulations (not to mention falls….).

    Deo Gratias.

  7. Gerard Plourde says:

    Fr. Z,

    This is one of the best, most concise, and most complete answers to this difficult question that I’ve seen. Your advice that good example is the best means to effect lasting conversion is also excellent. May God continue to bless your work.

  8. Giuseppe says:

    So much of who we are comes from something we have no control over, namely, the circumstances of our birth (most specifically, our parents, including their circumstances and their values.)

    Worldwide, a minority of people born each day are born into Roman Catholic families. Roughly 1 in 6 births worldwide are into a Roman Catholic family. Roughly 1 in 3 births are to a Christian family (Catholic 50%, Protestant ~40%, Orthodox ~10%). (Based on Pew foundation numbers.)

    God breathes life into every child born in this world. He places 2/3 of the world’s children into non-Christian families, and 5/6 of the worlds children into non-Catholic families.

    Long story short: I don’t think those of us who were born into Christian, and specifically into Roman Catholic families thank Him enough for giving us the chance to be born to our specific parents and the chance to be raised Christian, and specifically Roman Catholic. It is a privilege granted to a minority of people.

  9. vandalia says:

    Can God forgive sins outside the Sacrament of Penance? Sure.

    If you are diagnosed with cancer, is it possible to fly to India, design and purchase your own chemotherapy regimen, and survive? Sure.

    However, I would not recommend relying on either approach.

  10. tzabiega says:

    A few months ago, my 7 year old son, being prepared for First Communion by an actual priest who finds this to be an important task in his parish, was reading a book with me which included a Protestant pastor character. When I explained how a pastor was different from a priest, my son asked me the question: “how can someone go through a lifetime of committing sins and never have the chance to go to confession? How can they go to Heaven?” I tried to answer that question the same way Father Z has done here, but in my son’s simple, innocent mind, that only made some sense, because to him it seemed natural that someone who has never had a chance at confession is probably going to go to hell, considering how many sins people commit. And my son’s idea is supported by St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and others, who believed most people go to Hell. So when my wife’s Protestant friend visited us, my son asked about the differences again between Catholics and Protestants. And now after his bedtime prayers, he prays that this friend convert to the Catholic faith so “she can be able to go to confession and then go to Communion.” Sometimes children make more logical sense than we do. We need to pray for everyone to become Catholic, as that is the only probable way to attain salvation.

  11. Supertradmum says:

    Two months ago, the Presbyterian Church voted to accept same-sex marriage. At least one minister I am acquainted with may leave this congregation because of this absolutely anti-Christian stance.

    I think as the Protestant denominations fall away from revealed Christianity, we have a great opportunity for evangelization. The Catholic Church is the one, true Church and somehow, through the peace and holiness (hopefully) in our souls, we can bring these dissatisfied people to the Truth.

    I think talking about grace and how one can lose the life of God is appropriate in some contexts.

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