Lent: A Time to Look at Our Social Sins

Years ago I read an article by Patrick McCormick entitled “Bless me, Father, for I have ism-ed.”  (U.S. Catholic, March 2001) In the article McCormick proposes a different kind of examination of conscience for Lent, one that focuses not so much on personal sins but on social sins. 

McCormick lists seven “deadly isms” of our contemporary American society. (Other countries share in many of these.) The seven are: individualism, consumerism, racism, sexism, classism, militarism, and voyeurism. I’ll briefly address four of these isms and offer a few reflective questions after each one.

volunteer-652383__180Individualism is the disposition to withdraw into ourselves while letting the rest of society fend for itself. Other authors have traced this growing tendency in our country—for example, Robert Putman in his book Bowling Alone. Our individualism is seen in the fact that the U.S. is the only modern democracy without an adequate welfare system. In addition, we in the U.S. give less per capita in foreign aid than our European counterparts.

Reflective Questions: How do I as an individual invest my time and talents in the communities to which I belong: family, parish, religious congregation, local civic community? How do these communities contribute to the larger communities such as the diocese, the city, the state, the country, the world? Do I consciously make myself aware of people in need in my local, national, or world community? In what ways do I reach out to them?

Consumerism can be another social sin. We Americans consume more fossil fuels (gas, coal, oil) than any other country in the world except China. Americans make up less than 5% of the world’s population; the Chinese comprise 20% of the world’s population. According to the Global Footprint Network, it would take four planet earths for the world’s current population to live an American middle class existence.

Reflective Questions: What steps can we take as individuals, families, and communities to man on bike-471192__180reduce our consumption of resources such as electricity, natural gas, gasoline? Do we recycle? Do we donate our surplus goods to our brothers and sisters in need? How do we live more simply amid the affluence of our culture? Do we ever say, “I have enough stuff”? Have we ever consciously “fasted” from consuming electricity or gas even for a day?

Racism is discrimination against another group of individuals. We can be racist toward anyone: African Americans, Native Americans, Whites, Asians, Hispanics, Jews, and Muslims, to name a few. Racism can be subtle. Sometimes it is hidden even from the person who is exhibiting racist attitudes or behaviors.

Reflective Questions: Have I as an individual ever acknowledged and asked forgiveness for my prejudices against certain groups of people? Have we as a parish or local civic community ever acknowledged or asked forgiveness for our racist attitudes or actions? If not, how might we do this? How strong are our corporate commitments to people who suffer from the effects of racism?

Militarism. Here are a few facts. The U.S. maintains an arsenal of 4,760 nuclear warheads. Below is a graph of the U.S. military budget compared to the budgets of other countries with a major military.



There are 310 million firearms in the U.S. excluding those owned by the military. There are over 33,000 deaths by firearms in this country annually excluding deaths by legal intervention. The U.S. also has the highest number of people in prison than any other so-called developed country in the world. We have an estimated 2.4 million people behind bars.

Do I deliberately relate to others in non-violent ways?

Do I deliberately relate to others in non-violent ways?

Questions for Reflection: To what extent do I participate in a “militaristic” way of relating with other people? For example, what “weapons” do I use against others: sarcasm, cutting remarks, giving them the silent treatment? Have I ever committed an act of violence against someone by mocking them, repeating vicious rumors, or by speaking to them in a demeaning way? Have I ever “imprisoned” someone by refusing to forgive them or failing to give them a second chance? Have we as a parish, religious congregation, or local community ever taken a corporate stance against the violence in our country?

At the end of his article, Patrick McCormick says, “Since the sins of our communities are often found in our disordered appetites, conversion doesn’t so much mean eliminating these passions as learning to place them at the service of our love of God and neighbor.” My prayer for Lent is two-fold. May we recognize and acknowledge our disordered appetites as individuals and as communities. And may we take some definite steps to place our passions and resources at the service of God and others.

Conversion from social sins begins with individuals like me. And my conversion begins with a change of heart. This gentle song simply asks: “Change My Heart, O God.”

Does anything touch you in this reflection or song that you’d like to share with us?

PS: This past weekend I facilitated a Lenten weekend retreat for alumnae of Regina High School. It was held at Bethany, our SND retreat center in Chardon. I want to thank the 14 women who participated. I appreciated their goodness, vitality, attentiveness, and prayerfulness. Special thanks to Sister Kay O’Malley for inviting me to lead this retreat and for taking care of the many details involved in hosting such an event!


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  1. Kathleen on February 22, 2016 at 2:45 am

    Wow! The reflected of imprisoning others by not forgiving them really hit home. That is good Lenten reminder for me. Something to ponder Sr. Melannie.


    • Melannie Svoboda SND on February 23, 2016 at 10:09 am

      Dear Kathleen, This point hits home for me too… Thanks for writing! Sr. Melannie

  2. Diane Butler on February 22, 2016 at 9:42 am

    Thanks SR Melanie for a wonderful reflection as we begin this second week of Lent. I would like to read the articleon the sin of ism. It makes me more aware of the need to recycle and live more simply. I am glad to know you facilitated a retreat. I am looking for a place to retreat in my new state. I am planning to get in touch again with my Benedictian roots in northern VA at Bristow. Thank you for your wisdom.

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on February 23, 2016 at 10:11 am

      Dear Diane, I lived in Middleburg, VA for five years. It’s near Bristow, so I’ve been to the Benedictine Monastery many times. What a great group of nuns! … Thanks for responding to my blog! Sr. Melannie

  3. Josita on February 22, 2016 at 10:18 am

    Hi Melannie, Thanks for these thoughts. I never realized that we spend that much money on militarism! I appreciate your reflections on this topic and the others, as well…a positive way to reflect during Lent. The song is an inspiring and gentle way of helping me see what I need to change in my life.
    Have a blessed week.

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on February 23, 2016 at 10:11 am

      It’s always good hearing from you, Josita. Thank you for your remarks. Melannie

  4. Patty on February 22, 2016 at 11:34 am

    Thank you, Sister.

  5. Kathleen on February 22, 2016 at 1:19 pm

    Your reflections, Melannie, are always so thoughtful and thought provoking…moving one to action.
    I was disappointed, however, that sexism or gender bias was not addressed, since this is an “ism” to which the Church itself must confess.
    Perhaps next time?

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on February 23, 2016 at 10:15 am

      Dear Kathleen, Yes, I focused only on four of the ism’s… I’ll make a note to say something about sexism in a future post… The Church as a human institution is tempted by all of these ism’s… And certainly sexism is one we’re very aware of these days. Thanks for your response! Melannie

  6. Sister Lalemant Pelikan, RSM on February 22, 2016 at 2:58 pm

    Thank you, Sister Melanie! I remember reading the same article, and have kept a copy of it in my LENT folder to refer back to from year to year. It is always very timely. . .

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on February 23, 2016 at 10:08 am

      That’s amazing that you have this same article in your Lent folder! It proves what an impact the article had on both you and me! Thanks for writing Lalemant! Melannie

  7. Dolores Leffler on February 23, 2016 at 7:54 am

    An excellent reflection as we prepare for our Diocesan Reconciliation!!

  8. Jean Canatsey on February 23, 2016 at 6:03 pm

    Dear Sister Melannie,
    I really appreciated your reflection on the ism of putting others in prison by not forgiving. This is an ism the church is guilty of without even realizing it.
    My husband and I are very involved in prison ministry – specifically with families of the incarcerated – and are dealing daily with the exclusion of an entire classisification of our population (Sex Offenders) from any active participation in the Church. In Florida, no matter what your offence, you are on the Registry for life and therefore excluded from the Community of the Church for life. We are imprisoning them outside the Camp by not forgiving or giving them a second chance.

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on February 24, 2016 at 9:32 am

      Dear Jean, Thank you for your insights into another way we imprison others, namely sex offenders. You raise some good questions. Thank you for sharing with us some of the wisdom gained from your prison ministry. God bless you and your husband! Sr. Melannie

  9. Mary Fran on February 25, 2016 at 1:44 pm


    Thank you for the research, thought and reflection packed into this “isms” blog…
    Much appreciated.

    Mary Fran

  10. Victoria Cofield-Aber on March 6, 2016 at 5:59 am

    Thank you for this reflection. It is so timely as we struggle to determine how we welcome the strangers, the immigrants, in our country. It is particularly important as we reflect this Lenten season on our “ism” of forgetting the needs of the poor; excluding the immigrant; and hating those who look different (classism and racism). Prayers of forgiveness are offered each day for ignorance of not recognizing the beauty in the faces of all people and the dignity that they deserve. Each person represents the face of Christ. As I continue to work with the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Baltimore as a social worker, I am reminded that we are sent to proclaim the gospel through our works of mercy. Thank you for sharing these powerful reflections. Vicki

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