I was born in 1966 on the tiny island of Malta, in the middle of the Mediterranean. My dear parents were hard-working people. Although my father was employed full-time, his salary was not sufficient to support the family, so he also worked as a farmer. My mother not only took care of the house and the family, but during her rest, she knitted woolen cardigans to earn some extra money. They cared for six children. There were my two brothers, three sisters, and I.
My parents were God-fearing people, and they made sure to teach all of us the Catholic faith. Apart from the daily religious instruction at school, they also sent me to catechism after school hours in preparation for the communion. When I was older, I went to classes for the sacrament of Confirmation. Attendance to Mass on Sunday was obligatory; my mother encouraged us by word and example to attend church daily. Every evening, my father used to gather all the family for the recitation of the rosary.
Proud to be Catholic
As a young teenager, I was a proud member of the Catholic Church—believing it to be the one true church of the Lord Jesus Christ. I did not know much about other religions, but the priests at the bishop’s seminary where I studied told us that Greek Orthodox and Evangelical churches were breakaway bodies guilty of serious sin due to separating from the Catholic Church.
We were taught about the Lord Jesus and His death on the cross. However, it was emphasized that we had to make our own contribution to our salvation. Doing good works and living a moral and religious life were necessary to increase personal righteousness and keeping us on the way to heaven, and finally gaining eternal life. Of special importance were attending Mass and participating in the Eucharist for spiritual nourishment and freeing us from our daily faults. Failure to attend Mass on Sunday would be a grave sin that if left un-confessed would send me to hell—forever.
Confession was an intricate part of my life. I confessed my sins to a priest after which he would prescribe some works of penance to make satisfaction for my sins. Usually the penance would consist of saying the Lord’s Prayer and Ave Maria1 for a definite number of times. I was left in no doubt that my heart remained stained with sin until I performed penance. I did not recite those prayers because of my personal faith in God but as a “form of punishment.”
The feast of our Lady of Sorrows is a very special occasion in my country. Solemn processions are organized in many towns and villages, which are attended by a good portion of the population. Our family was no exception. It was a day of fasting, and in the evening we would join the penitential procession saying the rosary and other prayers while we walked behind the statue of Our Lady. We were happy to be doing something—fasting and praying—to cancel our sins. We performed those religious works to make ourselves fit for heaven, for we knew that we were not yet good enough. As a Catholic, I did not rest my salvation in the hands of Jesus, rather, I was striving to to merit, or earn, eternal life by obeying the commandments, participating in the sacraments, praying, and fasting. Just one mortal sin at the end and I would lose all my merits and my soul. So, although we saw salvation as somehow related to Jesus and His cross, it was equally clear that the crucial factor that determined where I would spend eternity was my own personal contribution of good deeds. I had a definite part to play to achieve forgiveness and to be accepted by God.
Weight of Responsibility
At home, at church, and on street corners there were images and statues depicting “souls” in the flames of purgatory. They were a constant reminder that we needed to do more and more good works to prepare ourselves before we died. The mind of a young boy would remain impressed by the scene of men, women, and children in the agony of fire. The horror of that picture can only be surpassed by the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory itself. The faithful must pay a debt of punishment by penance and good works on earth, and failing to do so, they must finish paying the debt of their sin by personal suffering and torment in purgatory, or worse, the eternal fire of hell.
Looking back, I can see what a heavy burden my parents felt as they strove to rescue all their children from the torments of purgatory. They too feared the possibility and consequences of failure. I felt very troubled and concerned. I took seriously my duty to say prayers, confess sins, do penance, and perform good works to decrease the torment awaiting me after death, and to keep my soul on the path to heaven and ultimate happiness.
A Strange Question
When I was 14, my brother came home one day and asked me a very strange question: “Do you realize that we are saved by faith in Christ, and not by our good works?” His statement shocked me. He was denying the faith that we cherished so much. At that time, I did not know that the religious conversation that followed would mark the beginning of a dramatic change in my life. I could not believe that such a tragedy as this had happened to our family, and I was determined to convince him of his error and bring him back to the Catholic Church. I knew that I had to study the Bible for myself in order to disarm my brother and prove that the doctrines of the Catholic Church are found in the Bible. And study I did! I read the Catholic Bible, both in English and Maltese. I also asked questions to my religious instruction teacher so that I would be better prepared.
The Bible Reaches My Heart
The reading of the Bible had an unexpected and unforeseen effect. Initially, I used the Bible merely as an argumentative tool. Gradually, however, the words of Scripture began to penetrate the very depths of my soul. Because my brother always seemed to be able to quote Scripture to prove his point, I was determined that I would do the same. However, as I read the Bible, there was a gradual shift in my concern. I was no longer merely interested in a religious argument, but I had a pressing concern about my personal salvation and relationship with the Lord.
The Sermon on the Mount particularly impressed me, and I determined to make it the standard of my life. I tried to follow the teaching of the Lord; I thought that this would gain me much merit. Yet, the harder I tried, the more evident it became that I could never reach the high moral and spiritual standard demanded by Christ. His standards were beyond my reach. An overwhelming sense of frustration and defeat forced me to reconsider my religious beliefs about good works. How could I be as perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect—as Jesus demands? I would have to attain this standard if I wanted to reach Heaven. I began to see that I was failing miserably to be right with God by my own obedience and goodness.
What the Bible Actually Says
When I discovered what the apostle Paul had to say about this matter, it was as if he were speaking directly to me:
“For by grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast … Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin… Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.”2
I must have read these passages a hundred times. Why does the apostle Paul say that works do not save us? As a Catholic, I believed that I was supposed to do good works in order to merit eternal life, and I was trying to be right with God by obeying His law. Instead, the law was revealing my failures and weaknesses. God was breaking my pride and preparing me to believe in Jesus Christ.
Christ, the Sin-bearer
As a Roman Catholic, I knew that salvation had to do with the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. We used to repeat this prayer, especially during Lent, “We adore You, O Christ, and we praise You. Because by Your Holy Cross, You have redeemed the world.” We were taught that Jesus opened the gate of heaven that had been closed by Adam’s sin, and that now it was up to us to enter that open door by doing good and participating in the sacraments. With further reading of the Bible, I discovered that the Lord Jesus accomplished something much greater than that. It says:
“Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed… For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God.”3
The work of Jesus was much, much greater than opening the door of heaven for hard working Catholics. The Bible was saying that Jesus paid the debt for all my sins. Instead of me working all my life and doing penance and good works to pay for my sins, Jesus did this for me.
He bore my sins on the cross. How different this was to what I had been taught to believe. The punishment for sin is not repeating a few prayers or suffering in the fires of purgatory. The penalty for sin is death; yet, Jesus died in the place of sinners. The Lord Jesus did not just make salvation possible by opening the door of Heaven. No, on the cross Jesus became the substitute for sinners by dying in their place. Therefore, we cannot possibly make satisfaction for our sin or merit eternal life by anything we do; rather, we must entrust our salvation into the hands of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is able to save completely; His blood cleanses from all sin.
His Work, or Mine?
God brought me to this crossroad. On one hand, I could continue to live according to the religion that promised me eternal life on the merits of my works. On the other hand, I could abandon that teaching and completely trust in the Lord Jesus Christ alone for my salvation. I was alone at home one evening when I knelt down and prayed. I acknowledged my sin and guilt and expressed my faith in Lord Jesus Christ. I admitted that I could not pay my debt by doing good, and I asked God to receive me for the sake of Jesus Christ His Son. He did. The joy in my heart was unspeakable!
God illustrated to me the wonderful truth of Jesus’ substitutionary death on my fifteenth birthday. I was supposed to be helping my father in the fields. Instead, I was driving the tractor up and down a busy road without my father’s permission and without a driving license. I was involved in a traffic accident, causing hundreds of dollars worth of damages to the brand new van involved in the collision. It was entirely my fault. My father was not guilty. Yet, my father paid all the damages for me. I did not pay a single penny. I will always be grateful for my father’s goodness. That is exactly what the Son of God did on my behalf. He died for me, freed me from sin that I may live for Him who loves me with such amazing love.
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Joe Mizzi is the founder and director of Just for Catholics on the Internet.
1 A Catholic prayer addressed to Mary
2 Ephesians 2:8, 9; Romans 3:20 and Galatians 3:24
3 1 Peter 2:24; 3:18