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I Believe in the Forgiveness of Sins
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
We do not ordinarily associate Christmas with the forgiveness of sins. But we should. God became man in the person of Jesus Christ in order to redeem the human race. So true is this that we merely speculate whether the Incarnation would ever have taken place if sin had not entered the human family. However, having sinned, we are absolutely sure this was the reason why God came into the world.
When we use the expression Christ came into the world, we are referring to God become man, who came into the world. Jesus Christ is God made man. Moreover, when we speak of Christ coming into the world, we are referring to His entering the world with a human nature. We further understand that Christ came into the world in the way in which we have come into the world. Like us, He was conceived, born, and, as the expression goes, grew up with a true human nature. Finally, when we say that Christ came into the world, we are referring to the world that has sinned. His purpose, therefore, was not only to save individuals. His purpose was to save all of mankind. God does not want anyone to be lost.
In this article of the Creed, we profess to believe more than simply Gods mercy to sinners. Certainly the Church believes that God is merciful. But our Catholic faith goes far beyond that. We not only believe in the Divine Mercy. We believe that He exercises His mercy. We believe that God became man in order to actually forgive sins. Furthermore, He continues exercising His mercy here, and now, in our age, today. Lastly, we believe that He exercises mercy by forgiving sinners through the Church.
Those who believe the foregoing paragraph are Catholics. No one else is.
The Power of the Church to Forgive Sins
Strange as it may sound, this is, in a way, the heart of the purpose that Jesus Christ founded the Church. During His visible stay on earth, our Lord more than once forgave sinners. On one dramatic occasion, a paralytic was dropped through the roof of a house where Jesus was preaching. The obvious reason was that the Savior might miraculously cure him of his paralysis. The Pharisees were carefully watching what He would do. The first statement of Jesus to the paralytic was, Your sins are forgiven you. Spontaneously, Christs enemies said, Who does He think He is? Only God can forgive sins. Christ knew what they were saying among themselves. So He asked them, What is easier to say, Your sins are forgiven you, or Pick up your mat and walk? Then He turned to the man and told him, Pick up your mat and walk.
The paralytic picked up his mat and, although the room was very crowded (that is why they had to drop him through the roof), he managed to walk out of that room. However, between saying your sins are forgiven you and telling the paralytic to pick up his mat and walk, Christ asked the Pharisees, What is easier, to tell somebody, Your sins are forgiven, or Pick up your mat and walk? In other words, is it easier to tell somebody that their sins are forgiven when nothing visible or audible will take place, or to work a miracle? Then He told the Pharisees, That you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins, He proceeded to work the miracle of forgiveness of sins that God, first of all, possessed as Man in the person of Jesus Christ.
It is also the astounding miracle of God, through Christ, having then conferred on menand they can be very human, human beingsconferring on them the power to forgive sins. It is consequently not only true, but in many ways is at the heart of our faith to believe that the Church actually, literally, truly, not symbolically, nor metaphorically, has received from Christ the power, to not only declare that God is merciful, but to forgive sins.
What is the Remission of Sins?
It is impossible to exaggerate the power which Christ gave His Church to not merely preach the forgiveness of sins, but actually remit the sins we have committed.
There are basically three things that take place when our sins are remitted. First of all, we are reconciled with an offended God. Having failed in loving Him by our sins, we have offended the God who brought us out of nothing into existence. Secondly, when the Church remits sins, by the divinely conferred power she received from Christ, she removes the guilt that we have incurred. This means that the grace that we had lost, depending on the gravity of our sins, is restored when the Church remits our sins. Thirdly, when the Church remits sins, she also removes, more or less, depending on our dispositions, the debt of pain and suffering that we had incurred as a debt from a just God whom we have offended. In other words, remission of sins means reconciliation with an offended God, removal of guilt by the restoration of grace, and removal of the penalty, or the obligation to suffer, that we deserved because we had sinned.
Let us be as clear as possible. Forgiveness means remission of guilt for sins committed. The word guilt is misleading. In ordinary language, as understood by most people, guilt is a psychological state of mind. We see that a person feels guilty, or say, in a court of law, is found guilty. But as Catholics, we understand guilt to mean the loss of divine grace. Three kinds of grace are understood as being lost, in greater or less measure, depending on how gravely we have sinned.
Forgiveness also means remission of the penalty due for sins committed. What are we saying? We are saying that every sin, just because we have sinned, always incurs a debt of suffering. When, then, we are forgiven our sins, the debt of suffering incurred by sinning is more or less removed. Remission means restoration; restoration of the joy and peace and happiness that we had a right to before we sinned. When we are forgiven, the remission of the penalty is remitted in two ways: More or less of the pain that we dread is removed, and there is restored more or less of the peace and joy that, had we not sinned, we would have experienced. We get a titlea title to peace and happiness, because the penalty for our sins has been removed.
No Remission Without Contrition
Even as we profess our faith in the Churchs power to forgive sins, we must keep in mind that we have a free will. One of the most mysterious truths of Christianity is that there can be no reconciliation with God without voluntary repentance on our part.
There are different ways of expressing this cardinal truth of revelation. We may say there is no reconciliation with an offended God without sorrow for sins on our part. We may say there is no remission of either guilt or penalty without contrition.
As often as we use the word contrition, it is most important to know that it does mean sorrow for sin. However, this sorrow need not be in our feelings, or our emotions, or in our mood. The essence of sorrow is in the will. When we have sorrow for sins, then our will is pained, our will regrets, and our will is sorry for having offended an all-good God.
Of course our contrition can also be painful regret because of the consequences that will follow our sins. Indeed, not only will follow, but may already have followed. We have done something wrong. We have offended some person whom we should dearly love. In a fit of anger, we may have said something very cruel. We are sorry. And we should be. No doubt, contrition does include sadness, for say, having hurt a person or for that matter, having hurt ourselves. But let us be clear. The heart of contrition is sorrow for sin, though it may include other regrets and other kinds of pain, not just in the emotions, but even in the will. All are legitimate regrets, but they are not at the heart of contrition or sorrow for sin. The heart of sorrow for sin is regret in my will for having offended a loving God.
Then, as we know, there are two kinds of regret or sorrow for having offended God. I can be sorry for having offended God, who is so loving to me and then I am deeply pained over my ingratitude, over my lovelessness toward an all-loving God. We call that perfect contrition. Or I am sorry for having offended a God who I know is all just, and therefore has a right to punish me. But notice, God is still in the picture. I regret, therefore, having offended a God who is not only all-loving, but all-just. One final word. Even when our contrition is imperfect, even then, there is some love for God in my sorrow. My mind realizes, however dimly, that God has a right to punish me. I further realize that His right to punish me is because He loves me, and I should love Him so that the deserved penalty is for failing in my love of an all-loving God.
Peace of Soul in the Modern World
In a later conference, we shall reflect at length on the sacrament of confession, which can also be called the sacrament of peace. On Easter Sunday night, when Christ instituted this sacrament, He addressed the Apostles with the words, Peace be with you.
For the present, we shall concentrate only on the close, shall I say divinely established relationship between peace of soul and forgiveness of sins. As we have said more than once, the mysteries of Christianity are not only to be believed with the mind, but lived out with the will. How are we to live out the article of the Apostles Creed on which we are reflecting, namely, I believe in the forgiveness of sins?
We are to live this mystery here on earth by growing in that peace of soul, which depends absolutely on being freed from sin.
Siegmund Freud, the founder of psychotherapy, wrote from experience. In more than twenty years of counseling his clients, he found that with almost no exception, the root cause of their emotional and even mental disorder was a deep sense of guilt.
In the United States alone, the American Psychiatric Association has more than thirty-six thousand members. In my five years of teaching at a State University, I was also the Catholic chaplain at a State Mental Hospital where I ministered to over six hundred patients. Most of what I learned I cannot share with you. But one thing I can say. Feelings of guilt are somewhere near the central cause of emotional disturbance in the modern world.
Nothing should be clearer to a person who believes in Christ and the Church than that we are meant to be at peace, not only between ourselves, which is external, but within ourselves, which is deeply interior. Shalom, the Hebrew word for peace was built into all the messianic prophecies. Jerusalem, the City of Peace, was the symbol of what the messianic kingdom was to be. Peace was the theme of the angels song at Bethlehem. It was the theme of Christs promise to His followers the night before He died. It was His first message to His Apostles the day He rose from the dead. In the Eucharistic liturgy, how often the Church has us pray for peace. And how earnestly we hope to obtain peace if we lack it, or retain it if we already have what must surely be counted as our single greatest possession on earth, this side of the vision of God: to be at peace.
Interior peace is of two kinds: one in the heart or will, and the other in the mind or intellect. They are closely connected, but they are not the same. Peace of heart for the believing Christian is the absence of conflict between His will and ultimately the will of God. My heart is at peace when I want what God wants, when I desire only what He desires. It is in this sense that the inspired writer asks and does not have to answer his own question addressed to God, Who has ever resisted Your will, O Lord, and been at peace? There was no need for a reply. The answer is no one.
Peace of mind, on the other hand, for the believing Christian is the absence of conflict between his own mind and finally the mind of God. My mind is at peace when I know what God knows, insofar as a creature can participate in the ocean of divine wisdom. My mind is at peace when I assent, because I want to do whatever God has revealed. Not because I understand what these mean or can understand the mysteries of revelation, but because I trust in Gods authority and submit my intellect to His. In a word, I have peace of mind when I have the truth; when my thoughts agree with Gods thoughts, and my judgments correspond to His. Peace of mind, then, is the experience of the truth. It is the result of truth. It is the fruit of truth. I shall have only as much peace of mind as I am in possession of the truth, especially of that truth which God has revealed and bids us to believe.
We return to the subject of our closing reflection, Peace of Mind in the Modern World.
Anyone who knows the modern world has no illusions. If there is one thing which modern man desperately needs, it is peace of soul. This peace of soul is available only to those who have sinned indeed, but they believe that God became man precisely to be what He called Himself, the Prince of Peace. They believe that the Incarnate God established the Church for just this reason: to provide repentant sinners with the assurance that they are once more in the divine friendship, because they have humbly confessed their sins and received absolution in the sacrament of peace.
There are two short quotations from the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen that deserve to be quoted here. Psychoanalysis, he says, is the probing of mind by mind; confession is the communion of conscience and God. And again, There are many souls stretched out on a psychoanalytic couch today who would be far better off if they brought their conscience to the confessional box. Of course, this presumes that a person believes that Jesus Christ instituted the sacrament of confession in order to forgive us our sins and restore that peace of soul for which there is no substitute this side of eternity.
I would like to share a precious quotation from Robert Hugh Benson (1871-1914), the youngest son of Edward W. Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury. He entered the Catholic Church in 1903, and a year later was ordained to the priesthood in Rome. In the decade between his conversion to Catholicism and his early death, he published some of the most quotable books in English literature. In context, he is speaking of a converted sinner whom he calls the ransomed soul. Says Benson:
Picture the peace of the ransomed soul, that knows itself safe in the arms of God; that rejoices, even in this world, in the light of His face and the ecstasy of His embrace; that dwells by waters of comfort, and lies down in the green pastures of the heavenly love; while, round this little island of salvation in an ocean of terror, the thunders of wrath sound only as the distant surge on a far-off reef (By What Authority).
This peace of soul is promised to us repentant sinners who believe that Christ gave the Church He founded the power to restore our friendship to an offended God.
Lord Jesus, we thank You for founding the Catholic Church to which we belong. Through the Church, You tell us today what You told the sinners of Your day, Go in peace, your sins are forgiven.
How can we best show our gratitude for this mercy? We can do this by serving You with heroic generosity. The more deeply we have sinned, the more deeply we will spend ourselves in loving You, who died on Calvary to restore us sinners to your love. Amen.
Copyright © 1997 by Inter Mirifica
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