SOUL FOOD Talk # 19 – Penitence and Humility
1. The Greek word penthos means” to mourn.” The Old Testament used the Greek word penthos 120 times to indicate the grief experienced by those who mourn in private or public settings. But to the earliest Church fathers, this penthos meant “sorrow at the prospect of losing eternal salvation on the part of ourselves or of others.” From penthos comes our modern usage of penitence, penance, and repentence.
penitence –the action of feeling or showing sorrow and regret for having done wrong; repentance.
penance –voluntary self-punishment inflicted as an outward expression of repentance for having done wrong.
repentance–the action of repenting; sincere regret or remorse.
2. These words we have heard all of our lives, associating them with the sacrament of healing: Confession or reconciliation. The Catholic Catechism devotes several pages to the theology of the sacrament. Yet many Catholics today are confused by this sacrament. Believing it generally unnecessary, great numbers never avail themselves of the sacrament, unless it is at Christmas or Easter, as they “make their Easter duty” as I remember some of the older members of my family used to refer to it. We were all taught that if we committed a mortal sin, we could not receive the Eucharist unless we had first repented in the sacrament of Confession. Today we see hundreds receiving communion every Sunday without benefit of Confession. I fear great sacrileges are being perpetrated in our churches. When I was a child, our family went to Confession at least once a month on Saturdays in preparation for Sunday’s Eucharist. What has changed?
3. On EWTN, Father Ronald Lawler, O.F.M. Cap. tells us: “For a while, things were very bad. In many huge parishes, thousands of people went to Communion every week, while almost none went to Confession. There were serious reasons to wonder if many anxious and unhappy people were going to Communion, and even that there were too many unworthy and sacrilegious Communions. Many more were communicating without the peace and deep friendship with Christ they really desired. For many, Communion no longer seemed to bring growth in faith and friendship with the Lord, because they ceased to have repentant hearts. They ceased to have that peaceful friendship with Christ, that we sinners can have only when we have tasted personally and deeply of his forgiving mercy.”
4. When we lose sight of who God is, His purity, power, holiness, and majesty, we lose sight of how unworthy we are in his sight. Without fear of the Lord, awe in His presence, we take Him for granted and begin to act as though any behavior on our part is” good enough.” If we haven’t committed murder or adultery, we feel we are “good enough” in God’s eyes. We have totally forgotten that the least imperfection or stain is unacceptable to our all-Holy God. It’s not just the adulterers and murderers who are purged of all uncleanness in purgatory. Upon our death, even venial sin makes us unclean to enter His presence.
5. In his book, Prayer of the Heart, Father George Maloney, S.J., reveals: “For the desert Fathers cultivating a lively sense of compunction [sorrow for sin] was an absolute necessity for every Christian. It fostered the conditions of brokenness and the insights into the sinfulness and precariousness of human existence. They saw, therefore, that any neglect of spiritual exercises such as frequent examination of conscience [recommended daily], serious meditation on the words and life of Christ along with his stress of man’s end and judgment unto eternal reward or punishment would cause a corresponding insensitivity in the human heart and open it to a spirit of dissipation. Pride would dominate such a ‘worldly life’, while compunction would foster the growth of humility, which would bring knowledge of God’s allness and …sheer gift [to man] of God’s goodness.”
6. Those who feel, “I can just confess my sins directly to God,” bypass this sacramental source of humility and a corresponding sense and acknowledgment of the inviolable holiness of God. The sacrament of Confession forces us to say aloud through the medium of another human being, the priest, who here represents the merciful Christ, what we have done most to offend the purity of the Trinity. To confess is humiliating—because of our egotism and pride, we hate acknowledging our sins aloud to another. It is precisely in this bowing down, denying ourselves human respect, that the grace of humility becomes most available to us.
7. Fr. Michael Shanbour of the Antiochian Orthodox Church shares these insights into Confession: “There are other, often very common-sensical reasons that the Church has always had a “public” form of Confession. (In the early Church, sins were confessed publicly to the whole church gathering before the Eucharist began).
“a. God already knows our sins…Confession to God is not really Confession properly speaking. We should however confess our sins to God daily…this is part of repentance.
“b. Telling our sin to another person makes it “real.” How many times have we only finally gotten relief for a guilty conscience after confess out loud? Most of us realize that when we have a problem we need to talk to someone, we need to get things “off our chest.”
“c. We often need help and encouragement to confess and face our sins. Most of us recognize the value of going to a psychologist or counselor in order to figure out our attitudes and behaviors.
“d. Confession makes us accountable. If we confess to God privately, but have not declared our sin to someone else, there is much less sense of accountability. It’s much easier to repeat our sin. For this reason it has been “popular” off and on in Protestant circles to have “accountability partners”…people with which you confess and who encourage you to remain faithful.
8. “e. God ACTS in Confession. Confession is a Sacrament by which GOD acts. In every Sacrament of the Church GOD acts. (In the prayer of absolution the Priest says: “May that same God forgive you…through me, a sinner…”). He does so “through” the Priest, the successor of the Apostles who has the responsibility to guard the Faith, to preserve the integrity of the Church and the souls of Christians. Jesus Christ acts through His Church, and through those ordained by the Church. Remember after His Resurrection He said to the Apostles: “Whosoever sins ye remit they are remitted, and whosoever sins ye retain, they are retained.” He says in another place, “Whatever sins ye remit they are remitted in heaven.”
f. The Grace of God is given in Confession. There is an incredible and undeniable power and grace in Confession. The Sacrament is more than what we might see with our eyes. A drinking fountain that is not being used does not look refreshing. But turn the knob and water gushes forth. It is the same with Confession. Great Grace is imparted to those who take advantage of this Sacrament. Some remarkable and extraordinary “miracles” have been known to happen in Confession…miracles of release from burdens, ephiphanies, something said which pierces the heart and effects change, etc. It is not so much that God gives the “authority” to the Priest. Rather, He works in His Church through the Priests. His grace and power are available and accessible in and through the Church, Her prayers, Her teachings, Her whole life and atmosphere.” [http://www.peterandpaul.net/art-confession]
9. Even Wikipedia has this to say: “ Frequent Confession is the spiritual practice among some Roman Catholics of going to the sacrament of reconciliation often and regularly in order to grow in holiness. It is a practice that has been recommended by Catholic leaders and saints as a powerful means of growing in love with God, in humility, and having sorrow for sins, since it is considered a personal encounter with Jesus who is the source of God’s grace, help, and forgiveness.”
“A recommended frequency, based on the teachings of the Pope and Catholic Church law, is between once a month and once a week. This practice ‘was introduced into the Church by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit,’ according to Pius XII. Confession of everyday faults is ‘strongly recommended by the Church,’ according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1458. Pope Paul VI said that frequent Confession is ‘of great value.’.
St. Pope John Paul II went to Confession every week.
Pius XII, who went to Confession daily, explained that by frequent Confession:
• genuine self-knowledge is increased,
• Christian humility grows,
• bad habits are corrected,
• spiritual neglect and tepidity are resisted, [tepidity is lukewarmness]
• the conscience is purified,
• the will is strengthened,
• a salutary self-control is attained,
• grace is increased in virtue of the sacrament itself.
He then warned those ‘who make light of or lessen esteem for frequent Confession know what they are doing. What they are doing is alien to the spirit of Christ and disastrous for the Mystical Body of Christ.’ ”
10. If the saints went to Confession weekly or daily, who can presume to say it’s not necessary more than once or twice a year? We are insensitive and have such poor understanding of what it is we do when we sin, whether serious or venial sin. The saints who live in close union with God have tender, sensitive hearts and regret the least motion, feeling, or thought which moves them away from God. A sensitive heart in love with God will feel instantly even a fault which tends to move him away from God! To sin, even in the slightest way, or to commit a fault against grace brings sorrow, even tears, to a heart in love with God. This is the level of sensitivity to which we should all aspire. God calls us all to union with Him.
11. St. Pius XII told us that through Confession “the conscience is purified.” What does he mean? The more frequently we access this sacrament, the more we hone or refine our conscience. For example, if you go to Confession only once a year, you will forget most of your sins, except for major or mortal sins which you may have committed. Without practice, our conscience grows coarse and rough, a crude instrument of spirituality. For those who reject Confession, their consciences often become nonfunctioning. What is it that “pricks” the sensitive heart when we are tempted or presented with a bad choice—a sensitive conscience. That “pricking conscience” is the prompting of grace, our guardian angel or the movement of the Holy Spirit. But if we get into the habit of disregarding that prompt, it will fade away and eventually die completely. Result? Hardness of heart.
12. In 1961, at age 80, Pope John XXIII wrote: “First of all: ‘I confess to Almighty God.’ During my whole life I have kept faithful to my practice of weekly Confession. Several times during my life I have renewed my general Confession. So now I content myself with a more general examination, without precise details, but in the words of the offertory prayer of my daily Mass: thinking of my ‘countless sins, offenses and negligences,’ all of which have already been confessed in their turn but are still mourned and detested . . . The vivid memory of the failings of my life, eighty years long, and of my ‘countless sins, offenses and negligences’ was the general matter for the holy Confession which I renewed this morning to my spiritual director.”
13. Our Catholic Catechism teaches us: [CC 1431] “Interior repentance is a radical reorientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away from evil, with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed. At the same time it entails the desire and resolution to change one’s life, with hope in God’s mercy and trust in the help of his grace. This conversion of heart is accompanied by a salutary pain and sadness which the Fathers called animi cruciatus (affliction of spirit) and compunctio cordis (repentance of heart).”
14. [CC 1432] “ The human heart is heavy and hardened. God must give man a new heart. Conversion is first of all a work of the grace of God who makes our hearts return to him: ‘Restore us to thyself, O LORD, that we may be restored!’ God gives us the strength to begin anew. It is in discovering the greatness of God’s love that our heart is shaken by the horror and weight of sin and begins to fear offending God by sin and being separated from him. The human heart is converted by looking upon him whom our sins have pierced: ‘Let us fix our eyes on Christ’s blood and understand how precious it is to his Father, for, poured out for our salvation it has brought to the whole world the grace of repentance.’”
15. In the waters of baptism we are converted to Christ, cleansed, and made new creatures. But it is not just the unbaptized who are called to conversion: [CC 1426] “ Conversion to Christ, the new birth of Baptism, the gift of the Holy Spirit and the Body and Blood of Christ received as food have made us ’holy and without blemish,’ just as the Church herself, the Bride of Christ, is ‘holy and without blemish.’ Nevertheless the new life received in Christian initiation has not abolished the frailty and weakness of human nature, nor the inclination to sin that tradition calls concupiscence, which remains in the baptized such that with the help of the grace of Christ they may prove themselves in the struggle of Christian life. This is the struggle of conversion directed toward holiness and eternal life to which the Lord never ceases to call us.” [See Soul Food Talk # 13 – Acceptance. In that talk we covered in great depth the effects of original sin and personal sin: darkening of the intellect, weakening of the will, and diminished unity of body and soul.]
16. Why did St. Piux XII, St. John XXIII, and St. John Paul II go to Confession so frequently? What did they know that we, apparently, do not? The sacrament of reconciliation gives grace which helps us, as often as we seek it, in the struggle of conversion directed toward holiness and eternal life to which the Lord never ceases to call us. “In all our imperfection and weakness, we are constantly called to turn our hearts to God, to “be perfect.”
17. Hear what other saints have to say of this sacrament:
“A soul does not benefit from the sacrament of Confession if it is not humble. Pride keeps it in darkness. The soul neither knows how, nor is it willing, to probe with precision the depths of its own misery. It puts on a mask and avoids everything that might bring it recovery.”
18. “My daughter, just as you prepare in My presence, so also you make your Confession before Me. The person of the priest is, for Me, only a screen. Never analyse what sort of a priest it is that I am making use of; open your soul in Confession as you would to Me, and I will fill it with My light.” (1725)
—St. Faustina, Divine Mercy in My Soul
19. “Daughter, when you go to Confession, to this fountain of My mercy, the Blood and Water which came forth from My Heart always flows down upon your soul and ennobles it. Every time you go to Confession, immerse yourself in My mercy, with great trust, so that I may pour the bounty of My grace upon your soul. When you approach the confessional, know this, that I Myself am waiting there for you. I am only hidden by the priest, but I myself act in your soul. Here the misery of the soul meets the God of mercy. Tell souls that from this fount of mercy souls draw graces solely with the vessel of trust. If their trust is great, there is no limit to My generosity. The torrents of grace inundate humble souls. The proud remain always in poverty and misery, because My grace turns away from them to humble souls.”
—St. Faustina, Divine Mercy in My Soul
20. As we grow in holiness and close union with Christ, it may sometimes happen, to our horror, that we commit what seems to us, an unpardonable or frivolous sin—a sin which we knew all too well to avoid. We may be in a state of unbelief, unable to comprehend what possessed us to do this thing. Sometimes God permits us to fall to remind us that we are truly weak without Him, that we must always lean on His strength and grace. Also, the penitence and tears He gets from us when we fall as we lovingly repent and promise Him our undying love, delight His Heart. Through our fall, we grow in humility, we become more constant in guarding our hearts, and become more patient with the weaknesses of those around us. For example, if I commit the sin of gluttony by overeating some cake or ice cream, I recognize that just as I could not resist, others cannot resist alcohol, drugs, or sex. In a way, I am no better than the worst alcoholic. I have the same darkened intellect and weakened will. This condition in us is caused by original sin, and we will live in this state till we die. The struggle to convert and become holy is a daily, hourly, minute by minute, second by second struggle. The stronger our spiritual life through prayer and the sacraments, the easier it actually becomes, but it takes only a moment of carelessness to throw us down like the most low-down sinner!
21. As we examine our consciences, and a good examination book is a great help—it’s remarkable how easily we forget the many ways we fail—we need to rouse sorrow in hearts, to make ourselves realize how we have failed our good God. It is sometimes salutary to go back and remember a failing of the past [as St. John XXIII did]—to help ourselves realize from how far we have come, and where we would be without grace. At the same time, priests will sometimes discourage this for fear that we may become scrupulous.
What Is Scrupulosity?
22. In Catholic moral teaching, scrupulosity defines the spiritual and psychological state of a person who erroneously believes he is guilty of mortal sin and is therefore seldom in a state of grace. A scrupulous person has difficulty making choices and decisions even though he desires above all else to please God and to follow God’s law. For a scrupulous person, it isn’t that he doesn’t “carefully attend to the sacred and certain teaching of the Church” (as the Catechism teaches), but that he becomes overwhelmed with the details and nuances that may be present in the decision.
23. An example of the “crooked thinking” of a scrupulous conscience may be helpful. All of us are aware of the need to abstain from all food and beverages for one hour before the reception of Communion at Mass. We are aware that this is one of the conditions the Church expects us to fulfill for the worthy reception of the sacrament. We are also aware that this is nowhere as demanding as the previous prescription for a three-hour fast — or the even older fast from midnight of the night before — that was once part of our spiritual practice. Most of us do not become preoccupied with the prescription because it is so easily followed.
24. This is not the case for a scrupulous person. One hour is sixty minutes fraught with the possibility of making a mistake. There is confusion over what constitutes breaking the fast. For example, does lipstick break the fast? Or say a piece of food is dislodged from your teeth, despite your best efforts at brushing and flossing, and you inadvertently swallow it. Does this action break the fast? Or perhaps the celebrant is a little quicker today than normal and you are not sure you’ve fasted for the entire sixty-minute period. What to do? To receive Communion may well be to risk sacrilege, the deliberate and unworthy reception of the Body of Christ.
Imagine how a person might feel consumed in this way by the doubt, fear, and anxiety of scrupulosity. One author described the experience of scrupulosity as “a thousand frightening fantasies” and yet another author as the “doubting disease.” Despite a person’s best efforts, despite his absolute commitment to the moral teaching of the Church, and despite his desire to serve the Lord, he is unable to arrive at a point of peace, confident that he’s done as much as can reasonably be required.
25. I don’t think scrupulosity afflicts many Catholics today, but if you have a tendency to this disorder—and even the great saint, St. Theresa of Lisieux, suffered from this tendency for several years—it would be best not to revisit previous failings, and not to dwell too long on present failings, but instead to focus on God’s everlasting mercy and readiness to forgive. Above all, despite sincere compunction and grief at our failures, faults, and sins, we should always remember, believe, and depend utterly on the great mercy of God. I love this line from the Miserere, Psalm 50: “In the greatness of Your compassion, wipe out my offense.”
26. As regards venial sin and faults, while it is wholesome to confess them and repent them, remember that they are entirely blotted out by the worthy reception of the Eucharist. In the presence of such great Purity and Holiness which floods your whole being, no little sin or stain can remain—you are made as white as snow!
27. [Catholic Catechism:] 1393 “Holy Communion separates us from sin. The body of Christ we receive in Holy Communion is “given up for us,” and the blood we drink “shed for the many for the forgiveness of sins.” For this reason the Eucharist cannot unite us to Christ without at the same time cleansing us from past sins and preserving us from future sins: For as often as we eat this bread and drink the cup, we proclaim the death of the Lord. If we proclaim the Lord’s death, we proclaim the forgiveness of sins. If, as often as his blood is poured out, it is poured for the forgiveness of sins, I should always receive it, so that it may always forgive my sins. Because I always sin, I should always have a remedy.”
28. 1394 “As bodily nourishment restores lost strength, so the Eucharist strengthens our charity, which tends to be weakened in daily life; and this living charity wipes away venial sins. By giving himself to us Christ revives our love and enables us to break our disordered attachments to creatures and root ourselves in him: Since Christ died for us out of love, when we celebrate the memorial of his death at the moment of sacrifice we ask that love may be granted to us by the coming of the Holy Spirit. We humbly pray that in the strength of this love by which Christ willed to die for us, we, by receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, may be able to consider the world as crucified for us, and to be ourselves as crucified to the world. . . . Having received the gift of love, let us die to sin and live for God.”
29. 1395 “By the same charity that it enkindles in us, the Eucharist preserves us from future mortal sins. The more we share the life of Christ and progress in his friendship, the more difficult it is to break away from him by mortal sin. The Eucharist is not ordered to the forgiveness of mortal sins – that is proper to the sacrament of Reconciliation. The Eucharist is properly the sacrament of those who are in full communion with the Church.”
HELPFUL TIPS & REMINDERS
30. + The Daily Examination of Conscience is usually included with Night Prayer and covers only the events of the current day.
31. + Little booklets with a rather complete Examination of Conscience useful for the sacrament of Confession are available over the internet or at Catholic gift stores. Here are some helpful sites:
32. + At the conclusion of Confession, before I recite the Act of Contrition, I find it comforting and helpful to conclude, “For these sins and for all the sins and faults of my entire life, even those I may have forgotten, I am heartily sorrow.” In our nervousness, we do sometimes forget a venial sin we meant to confess.
33. + What if you forgot to confess a mortal sin? Full Question – I recently went to confession, received absolution, and did my penance. Subsequently I remembered something I did years ago that I never confessed. Am I absolved of that one as well? If the sin was mortal, does that need to be addressed specifically?
So long as you intended to confess all your mortal sins and otherwise make a good confession, then the sacrament was valid, and you were forgiven all your mortal sins. The fact that afterward you remembered another one does not mean that you are in a state of mortal sin.
The Code of Canon Law states, “A member of the Christian faithful is obliged to confess in kind and in number all grave sins committed after baptism and not yet directly remitted through the keys of the Church nor acknowledged in individual confession, of which one is conscious after diligent examination of conscience” (CIC 988:1). Since you remembered this grave sin, you should mention it in your next confession. Catholic Staff
34. + What 3 conditions are necessary for a sin to be called mortal sin?
There are three conditions that make an act a mortal sin: An act of grave matter that is… Committed with full knowledge and… Deliberate consent.