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Penance in the Ecclesial Community

General Audience — April 15, 1992

As the Second Vatican Council says: "It is through the sacraments and the exercise of the virtues that the sacred nature and organic structure of the priestly community is brought into operation" (LG 11). In today's catechesis we want to show how this truth is reflected in the sacrament of Reconciliation, which traditionally has been called the sacrament of Penance. In this sacrament there is a real exercise of the "universal priesthood," common to all the baptized, because a fundamental duty of the priesthood is to take away the obstacle of sin, which prevents a life-giving relationship with God. So, this sacrament was instituted for the remission of sins committed after Baptism and the baptized have an active role to play in it. They are not limited to receiving a ritual and formal pardon, as if they were passive subjects. On the contrary, with the help of grace they take the initiative in the struggle against sin by confessing their faults and seeking forgiveness of them. They know that the sacrament involves an act of conversion on their part. With this understanding they participate actively in the sacrament and fulfill their role, as is clear from the rite itself.

We have to acknowledge that lately there has been a crisis in many places regarding the reception of the sacrament of Penance by the faithful. The reasons, which concern the same spiritual and socio-cultural conditions of broad sections of humanity in our time, can be summarized in two points.

On the one hand, the sense of sin has been weakened in the consciences of a certain number of the faithful who, under the influence of an atmosphere current in today's world which claims total human freedom and independence, experience difficulty in acknowledging the reality and seriousness of sin, and even of their own guilt before God.

On the other hand, many faithful do not see the necessity and benefit of receiving the sacrament, and prefer to seek forgiveness from God more directly. In this case they find difficulty in accepting the Church's mediation in being reconciled to God.

The Council replied briefly to these two difficulties and considered sin in its twofold aspect as an offense against God and a wound to the Church. We read in Lumen Gentium: "Those who approach the sacrament of Penance obtain pardon from the mercy of God for the offense committed against him and are at the same time reconciled with the Church, which they have wounded by their sins, and which by charity, example and prayer seeks their conversion" (LG 11). Concise, well-thought out and enlightening, the Council's words offer various important points for our catechesis.

First and foremost, the Council recalls that sin's essential nature is that of an offense against God. This is an important fact which includes the perverse act of the creature who knowingly and freely opposes the will of his Creator and Lord, violating the law of good and freely submitting to the yoke of evil. It is an offense against the divine majesty, in regard to which St. Thomas Aquinas does not hesitate to say that "the sin committed against God has a certain infinity in virtue of the infinity of the divine majesty" [1] . We must say that it is also an act which offends the divine charity in that it is an infraction against the law of friendship and covenant which God has established for his people and every person in the blood of Christ. Therefore it is an act of infidelity, and in practice, a rejection of his love. Sin, therefore, is not a simply human error, nor does it cause damage only to the person. It is an offense against God in that the sinner disobeys the law of the Creator and Lord, and thus offends his paternal love. Sin cannot be considered merely from the point of view of its psychological consequences. Sin draws its significance from the person's relationship to God.

Especially in the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus makes us understand that sin is an offense against the love of the Father in his description of the son's outrageous scorn for his father's authority and house. The son is reduced to very tragic conditions, which reflect the situation of Adam and his descendants after the first sin. However, the great gift which Jesus gives us in this parable is the comforting and reassuring revelation of the merciful love of a Father. With his arms open wide, he awaits the prodigal son's return, hurries to embrace and pardon him, cancels all the consequences of sin and celebrates the feast of new life for him (cf. Lk 15:11-32). What hope this has enkindled in hearts. Throughout the Christian centuries, how many people have been helped to return to God by reading this parable narrated by Luke, who has rightfully been called the "scribe of Christ's meekness." The sacrament of Penance is part of the revelation of God's love and fatherly goodness which Jesus has given us.

The Council reminds us that sin is also a wound inflicted upon the Church. In fact, every sin harms the holiness of the ecclesial community. Since all the faithful are in solidarity in the Christian community, there can never be a sin which does not have an effect on the whole community. If it is true that the good done by one person is a benefit and help to all the others, unfortunately it is equally true that the evil committed by one obstructs the perfection to which all are tending. If every person who seeks perfection lifts up the whole world as Blessed Elisabeth Leseur said, it is also true that every act which betrays the divine love weighs down the human condition and impoverishes the Church. Reconciliation with God is also reconciliation with the Church, and in a certain sense with all of creation, whose harmony is violated by sin. The Church is the mediatrix of this reconciliation. Her Founder assigned this role to her and gave her the mission and power of "forgiving sins." Every instance of reconciliation with God thus takes place in an explicit or implicit, conscious or unconscious relationship with the Church. St. Thomas writes about "the unity of the Mystical Body, without which there can be no salvation; for there is no entering into salvation outside the Church, just as in the time of the deluge there was none outside the ark, which denotes the Church, according to St. Peter (1 Pet 3:20-21)" (Summa Theol., III, q. 73, a. 3; cf. Suppl., III, q. 17, a. 1). Without a doubt the power to pardon belongs to God, and the forgiveness of sins is the work of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, forgiveness comes from the application to the sinner of the redemption gained through the cross of Christ (cf. Eph 1:7; Col 1:14, 20). He entrusted the Church with the mission and ministry of bringing salvation to the whole world in his name (cf. Summa Theol., III, q. 84, a. 1). Forgiveness is asked of God and granted by God, but not independently of the Church founded by Jesus Christ for the salvation of all.

We know that in order to communicate the fruits of his passion and death to people, the risen Christ conferred on the apostles the power to forgive sins: "Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained" (Jn 20:23). In the Church the priests, as heirs of the mission and power of the apostles, forgive sins in Christ's name. However, we can say that in the sacrament of Reconciliation the priest's specific ministry does not exclude, but rather includes the exercise of the "common priesthood" of the faithful who confess their sins and ask for pardon under the influence of the Holy Spirit who converts them intimately through the grace of Christ, the Redeemer. In affirming this role of the faithful, St. Thomas cites the famous words of St. Augustine: "He who created you without your consent will not justify you without your consent" [2] .

The Christian's active role in the sacrament of Penance consists in recognizing his own faults with a "confession" which, apart from exceptional cases, is made individually to the priest; expressing his own repentance for his offense against God (contrition); humbly submitting to the Church's institutional priesthood to receive the "efficacious sign" of divine forgiveness; offering the "satisfaction" imposed by the priest as a sign of personal participation in the reparatory sacrifice of Christ who offered himself to the Father as a victim for our sins; last of all, giving thanks for the forgiveness he has received.

It is good to recall that all that we have said is true of the sin which breaks our friendship with God and deprives us of "eternal life"; that is why it is called "mortal." Recourse to the sacrament is necessary when even only one mortal sin has been committed (cf. Council of Trent., DS 1707). However, the Christian who believes in the effectiveness of sacramental forgiveness has recourse to the sacrament with a certain frequency, even when it is not a case of necessity. In it he finds the path for an increasing sensitivity of conscience and an ever deeper purification, a source of peace, a help in resisting temptation and in striving for a life that responds more and more to the demands of the law and love of God.

The Church is at the side of each Christian as a community which, as the Council says, "by charity, example and prayer seeks their conversion" (LG 11). The Christian is never left alone, not even in the state of sin. He is always part of the "priestly community" which supports him with the solidarity of charity, fraternity and prayer to obtain for him the grace of being restored to God's friendship and the company of the "saints." The Church, the community of saints, in the sacrament of Penance shows that she is a priestly community of mercy and forgiveness.

[1]   Summa Theol., III, q. 1, a. 2, ad 2

[2]   St. Augustine, Super Ioannem, serm. 169, c. 11; St. Thomas, Summa Theol., III, q. 84, aa. 5 and 7