The Sacrament of Penance

Monday in the Eighteenth Week after Pentecost

Penance is a disposition of the soul, an interior attitude, intimately connected with Christianity. Christ in his first sermon said,

Repent, the kingdom of God is at hand.

St Matthew 4.17

Repentance is a change of outlook, fresh orientation of thought, combat and deed. It means putting off the old Adam, with his purely human values and appreciations, and a putting-on of Christ with his values, his ambitions.

Penance is not an affair of any given moment, of any one day; it is an attitude to be maintained all through life. The weekly confession imposed by their rule on all religious is an act of penance, raised to the rank of a sacrament. Each one is a new orientation towards God, a return to the rod that leads to heaven.

As Christ on the eve of his Passion gave us the Blessed Eucharist, so on the day of his resurrection he gave us the sacrament of penance. The gift of his mercy followed the gift of his love.

In the hours of his Passion, what mercy Christ showed! Mercy to Peter, who had declared that he did not even know him; mercy to the penitent thief who, when he turned his head towards the dying Saviour, turned his heart to God; mercy to the traitor, whom he met with the words:

Friend, wherefore art thou come hither?

Did not all these pardons show that he forgives as he loves: “usque in finem“, to the very end?

Yet Christ, when he passed on his divine power to his Apostles, made one condition. The words by which Jesus instituted the sacrament show that his pardon was given only when the Church, his Bride, was prepared to give hers. According to St John, the words of that institution were,

Receive the Holy Spirit; when you forgive men’s sins, they are forgiven, when you hold them bound, they are held bound.

St John 20.23

Christ forgives sins only when the priest, successor of the Apostles, and thus the Church itself, is ready to forgive them.

Christ is so entirely at one with his Church that it is impossible to offend him without offending her also. Sin does not only wrong God, it also wrongs God’s Church, and Christ esteems the wrong done to her so great that not until it has been expiated does he grant his forgiveness.

It shows how real our membership of the mystical body is, how great the social as well as the personal meaning of this sacrament, as of all the others. The whole body is sanctified by the confession of the individual. It is an occasion of real reparation, not for our sins and faults only, but also for the shortcomings of many others.

Confession, the sacramental act of penance, does not only re-orientate ourselves, but also the whole community. By our confessions we build up the Church; who strengthens the Vine, strengthens all its branches.

Let us pray that the Lord may be always in our heart and on our lips, so that our confessions may be pleasing to God. May they be such that, united to the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, to the merits of the blessed Virgin Mary and of all the Saints, to the good done in the world and the evil which is overcome, they may obtain for us the pardon of sin, increase of grace and the reward of eternal life.

from With the Church: Meditations on the Missal and the Breviary
edited by Father Mathias Goosens OFM
published 1962, cum approbatione ecclesiatica

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