“The age of mercy is now,” Pope Francis exclaimed during his 11 January Angelus talk. His words, gathered in his simple, unique way of expressing deep theological concepts, provides us with a leitmotif for our Lenten journey this year, a pilgrimage chosen again by Archbishop Leonard Blair, leading us toward a fresh appreciation of the Sacrament of Penance – confession, as it is called.
“The age of mercy is now.” At Jesus’ Baptism, we read in Holy Scripture, the heavens were opened and the Father’s voice was heard naming Jesus for his mission; specifically, our salvation. And lest we nonchalantly ignore the meaning of the Father’s voice defining Jesus’ mission, the action of the Holy Spirit upon our minds and hearts bids us muster the necessary courage not only to kneel in repentance but also to convey his presence before an unbelieving world.
“Mercy” means divine love bestowed upon the sinner. The problem, as many a theologian has observed, is not forgiving sins, but rather forgiving sinners. To be forgiven, one must open his or her heart to the divine action. In other words, pardon for sin presumes a willingness to be pardoned. And a willingness to be pardoned presumes acknowledging Christ Jesus as Savior.
Forgiveness for sin obviously can only be granted by God. Sin incurs real guilt. Real guilt entails culpability. Real guilt is not identified with emotional guilt – a guilt feeling. Guilt feelings usually accompany real guilt. If they are substantial, they may need addressing by experts; i.e., therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors. But real guilt arises from the human intellect and will.
Emotional guilt can be totally imaginary, or it can be a feeling of culpability even after real guilt has been absolved from. Committing sin, after all, affects the whole person, body and soul. Occasionally guilt feelings can become irrationally exaggerated or isolated from reality. Here an experienced priest-confessor can be of immense help to a penitent. As one commentator has put it, the priest can “assist in restoring bodily or mental well-being. This, however, is not his principal purpose. The soul in the state of sin is not necessarily mentally ill. Confession is not a substitute for psychotherapy; neurotic guilt is not real guilt…” The psychiatrist (e.g., therapist) is mainly concerned with “feelings of guilt which are delusional and distorted and not based on objective reality…”
One theologian (I am not sure as to his identity) has observed that a healthy knowledge of how real guilt differs from mere guilt feelings is also important in the contrition one has for wrongdoing. Succinctly expressed, one’s contrition requires that he or she be contrite, not necessarily feel contrite. Ordinarily, of course, the two go together, but being contrite is essential. Feelings of contrition can accompany one’s being contrite, of course, and this usually does happen. But for forgiveness, being contrite is what matters.
Incidentally, the noun “contrition” entails more than sorrow for sin. Indeed, sorrow for sin is but one of three elements of true contrition. The others are (1) detestation of sin and (2) resolution not to sin again. All three dispositions constitute the act of being contrite; all three are explicitly affirmed in the traditional prayer known as “the Act of Contrition.” First, sorrow (“I am heartily sorry…”); secondly, detestation (“I detest all my sins…”); and finally, resolve (“I firmly resolve…”).
All of the above are faith-concepts; they are hardly intelligible outside of the dynamics of faith. Faith reminds us of sin and provides us with God’s merciful pardon. However, we now live in a world wherein the sense of sin has become dull. Alongside a waning sense of sin is a general compromise of conscience – a confusion of conscience with moral relativism and a general reluctance to admit human shortcomings, coupled with efforts to blame society for personal failings.
In one sense, the magnificent Sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation has been so trampled or distorted by a world that has ignored or rejected God and his mercy that mankind is rapidly slipping into hopeless darkness. The situation is a classic example of how mankind can crudely dismiss God’s special gift; namely, spiritual healing. Catholics who still believe that the confessional is a sacred, privileged place can, by example as well as words, help invite those whose faith is weak, to return to the confessional, which Pope John Paul II called “a special and blessed place from which … there is born anew an uncontaminated, a reconciled individual ...” (Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 1984)
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.