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Saint Polycarp was the bishop of Smyrna. As a young man, he had been a disciple of St. John the Apostle. In A.D. 167, a persecution broke out in Smyrna. When Polycarp heard that his persecutors were at the door, he said, "Let the will of God be done." When he met them face to face, he begged to be left alone for a little while so that he could pray for "the Catholic Church throughout the world."
Later, the proconsul commanded him to sacrifice to the gods and curse Jesus Christ — or be killed. Polycarp replied, "For 86 years I have served Him, and He never did me wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and Savior?"
When he refused to sacrifice to the gods, he was put to the stake and burned — but the fire wouldn't touch him. So Polycarp was stabbed in the heart. Then his body burned.
Polycarp became a saint because he refused to break the First Commandment, which reads, "I, the Lord, am your God. You shall have no other gods besides Me" (Exodus 20:2–3). Saint Polycarp certainly demonstrated the extreme we must go to in order to keep the commandment.
This commandment tells us that we are to love God above all things and adore and worship Him alone. The way we show our love for Him is by believing in Him and His teachings — as well as thanking and trusting Him. We also show it when asking His forgiveness for failing Him by sinning and when asking for His help, doing penance for past sins and obeying His laws.
There are many ways we can worship God. Indeed, each act of love for Him is an act of worship. But the highest form of worship is performed by our good and proper participation in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
Showing God our love and worshipping Him are obvious requirements, but the First Commandment implies so much more. The admonition also expresses things we are forbidden to do. Let's take a look at some of the various sins we can commit against the First Commandment. We'll list and then explain them.
The First Commandment forbids superstition, idolatry, spiritism, sacrilege, atheism and participating in certain acts of non-Catholic worship.
Superstition is the sin of attributing to a creature a power that belongs to God alone. An example of how this sin is committed might be refusing to play a particular sport without wearing your "lucky" hat. Another example might be letting your dreams influence what you do.
On the topic of idolatry, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that the sin "consists in divinizing what is not God. Man commits idolatry when he honors and reveres a creature in place of God, whether this be gods or demons (for example, satanism), power, pleasure, race, ancestors, the State, money, etc."
I never thought of myself as being one who was guilty of idolatry until I began making a daily examination of conscience and weekly confessions. That was when I realized I was often putting other things before God — which amounts to a variation of idolatry. You might want to consider, by the way, undertaking the practice of a daily examination of conscience and weekly confession. Doing so may help you gain surprising spiritual insights over time.
Regarding spiritism, the Catechism says, "Spiritism often implies divination or magical practices." This may include such sinful practices as conjuring the dead or having recourse to demonic powers.
Popular sins these days include reading a so-called horoscope and calling on self-identified "psychics." While these pursuits might seem like harmless entertainment, they are actually dangerous in practice. We tend to begin to put stock in such things because circumstances, often aided by demonic forces, start coinciding with these entertainments. We thereby become entangled in the sin of spiritism.
The sin of sacrilege is another way of breaking the First Commandment. Sacrilege is the profane or irreverent treatment of sacred persons, places and things. It's an act of irreligion, and it is always gravely sinful. A very common example of sacrilege is receiving Holy Communion in a state of mortal sin. This is a grave abuse of the Holy Eucharist and an abuse of our Eucharistic Lord veiled in the Blessed Sacrament.
The next in line is atheism, yet another violation of the same commandment. Outright denial of God's existence is called actual atheism. Practical atheism, however, occurs when a person lives a lifestyle that completely ignores God and His laws. Practical atheism is a subtle form of atheism. Many Catholics today have bought into the modern cultural lie of "situation ethics" and the so-called fundamental option, both of which lead to forms of practical atheism.
Situation ethics contends that moral decisions should not be based on universal moral laws but, rather, on the particular circumstances in which a man finds himself. Since each situation is unique and unrepeatable, the person's conscience alone is (supposedly) able to determine the right moral decision without any absolute moral principle.
The fundamental error of situation ethics is that it ignores the fact that God gave us certain objective moral norms, the Ten Commandments, by which to judge what is morally right and wrong. The Church has always taught that some acts are intrinsically evil.
An example of an action that's always objectively evil would be a married couple using artificial contraception (perhaps because they're not in the best financial position or because of a health situation or simply because they don't want additional children). Artificial contraception is always evil, regardless of the circumstances.
The erroneous fundamental option theory claims a person commits mortal sin only when he has the outright intention of completely rejecting God. The Church teaches, however, that when a person knowingly and willfully does anything that is seriously against God's law, a mortal sin is always committed — no matter the sinner's intention.
Finally, although we should promote genuine ecumenism at every opportunity, ecumenism does not include participating in certain acts of non-Catholic worship. There is a problem when an activity implies that a Catholic believes non-Catholic religions are equal to Catholicism. For example, Catholics may never participate in Protestant communion services. Christ is only truly present in the Holy Eucharist.
Catholics were also traditionally instructed to never attend the invalid weddings of Catholics marrying outside the Church. Doing so would falsify the sacrament of matrimony — which is a form of worship. When in doubt, consult your confessor during confession.
Next week, we'll take a look at other implications of the First Commandment. These include honoring the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints, as well as the proper use of images. Both are often a source of contention between Catholics and non-Catholics.
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