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 Almighty. We are all worthy just by the fact we were created in God’s image.

A: This is a very good question.  Believe me, 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?

First off, I need to say that I am all about encouragement and positivity.  Possibly even 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 ignore (or completely 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”?

If we start claiming dignity or worth as our “own” apart from God, we will have begun to wander into a very dangerous trap.

Before we get to that, a very important question arise here: 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 will have begun to wander into a very dangerous trap.

My pal C.S. Lewis may be of some help here.  In his collection of essays, ‘The Weight of Glory”, he writes, “The infinite value of each human soul is not a Christian doctrine. God did not die for man because of some value perceived in him. He loved us not because we are lovable, but because He is love.”  I remember being challenged by this claim (super-positive-priest here, remember?), until I was redirected back to Scripture and the words of Saint Paul to the Church in Rome.  He wrote, “For Christ, while we were still helpless, yet died at the appointed time for the ungodly. Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just person, though perhaps for a good person one might even find courage to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6-8).  Saint Paul is reminding those Christians that God’s love, not some intrinsic goodness on our part, is what drew God to us.

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.

In comparison to His infinity, I remain completely and utterly unworthy.

All of our goodness comes from God.  Because of this, human dignity is something we can scarcely imagine.  But this does not make us even close to becoming equals with God.  And I think that this might be the source of your difficulty.  We are so used to comparing our worth with other human beings (and being told, “no one is better than anyone else”), 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.

Again, we are not talking about being worthy of just and honorable treatment by another human being.  We are not talking about being worthy of respect and equality in the community in which we live.  We are not talking about being worthy of the love of the people around us.

We are talking about the assessment of whether or not we believe that God “owed it to us” that we deserved that He should die for us.  We are talking about whether or not 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.  And 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”.