Sunday, 21 March 2010
5th Sunday Lent, Year C, Shaftesbury
Jn 8: 1-11
You’ll sometimes hear non-Catholics say that forgiveness is too easy for us Catholics: we just go to the priest, confess, and we’re forgiven –the implication is that we don’t really need to be sorry. Conversely, as a priest I sometimes come across people who don't believe they CAN be forgiven –and they don’t believe it because it seems too easy. Part of the answer to both of these is to note what TRUE sorrow, true ‘contrition’, really involves, and that’s what I want to say a bit about today. Because solemn Church teaching very clearly lays out what is involved in true sorrow, defined especially at the Council of Trent.
Firstly, being sorry means realising that there is something be need to be sorry for, recognising that we have sinned. And true sorrow, when we recognise our sin, true sorrow responds with hatred of that sin. Hatred because we recognise that the sin is ugly, or, more perfectly: hatred of sin because we recognise that sin offends our loving God.
Hatred of our sin means that we don’t want to keep sinning. Thus contrition, true sorrow, also involves what the Church calls a “firm purpose of amendment” –we have to intend to change. If someone does not intend to change then they are not truly sorry. We have this expressed in today’s Gospel, when Our lord did not simply forgive the woman caught in adultery but said to her, “Go and sin no more”(Jn 8:11).
This includes the resolution to remove oneself from those temptations we call "occasions of sin".
The Church also teaches us that contrition involves the desire and intention to confess our sins. Thinking back to last’s week’s Gospel again, we heard an example of this in the Prodigal son, not only planning what he needed to confess, but then confessing. Wanting to be forgiven, being sorry for our sins, involves the intention to come to the sacrament of forgiveness in Confession.
Lastly, I want to mention an aspect of true sorrow that is often neglected, and I think it is because it is so often neglected that people often think that forgiveness seems too cheap, too cheap to be REAL -when we realise what this aspect costs we perhaps better realise that forgiveness is true:
The last aspect of true sorrow is the desire to make “satisfaction” for our sins. To take a simple example of the need for satisfaction: if a child breaks a jug of milk in a tantrum; the mother might then say she forgives the child; but the milk and broken jug still need to be cleaned up. ‘Satisfaction’ is the remedying of the effects of our sin, even though the guilt of the sin is forgiven. For us as Christians, the “eternal” satisfaction for our sins was paid by Christ on the cross. But there is still what is called the "temporal satisfaction" that we each need to pay for us our sins –and this varies with every sin, but if we do not intend to make such satisfaction than we are NOT sorry. For example, if a thief says that he is sorry but does not intend to return what he has stolen, then his sorrow is not real. In the Gospel we have the example of the tax collector Zaccheus (Lk 19) who when he converted to Jesus said that he would repay all the people he had cheated of their money –such is true sorrow. Similarly, but in less direct ways, an adulterer must want to make amends to his or her spouse. And, for each of our sins we must want to make amends, and this is what true sorrow means, and this is what true forgiveness depends on.
Sometimes this takes a long time, years, to make amends for our sins, but true sorrow WANTS to make up the wrong we have done to others –is HAPPY doing it, knowing that the Father accepts the sinner back.
My last part of this last point is that this satisfaction also includes the need to make satisfaction to God –because we have offended HIM by sinning. When we do works of penance and self-denial, when we offer little sacrifices, these are some of the ways we seek to make satisfaction to Him. And now, during Lent, our Lenten prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, are all called “expressions” of contrition (CCC 1434).
Back to where I began: people often don’t believe in forgiveness because it seems too easy, and it seems too easy because people often don’t realise what true sorrow entails. Knowing what it entails helps us know that it is real. It entails: hatred for the sin we have committed, resolution not to do the sin again, resolution to avoid the occasions that lead us near that sin, it entails the desire to be reconciled by confessing our sins, and lastly, the desire to make up the damage of our sins, to make “satisfaction”.
A summary of these points is found on this week’s newsletter as follows:
Today’s Gospel reminds us that true contrition (sorrow) involves more than just words, it involves:
• Detestation of the sins we have committed;
• The resolution not to sin again, what is called a “firm purpose of amendment”. This is why Jesus not only forgave the woman caught in adultery but told her to “Go and sin no more”(Jn 8:11);
• The resolution to avoid “occasions of sin” (as part of a firm purpose of amendment);
• The resolution to be reconciled to God by confessing our sins in the Sacrament of Confession;
• The resolution to make “satisfaction” for our sins. For example, a thief who does not intend to pay back what he has stolen is not truly sorry, thus, as St Augustine says, “The sin is not forgiven unless what has been taken away is restored”. In the Gospels, the tax collector Zacchaeus demonstrated this when he said that he would repay all the people he had cheated of money (Lk 19). The type of satisfaction we need to do for our sins depends on the sin: satisfaction to a spouse you have been impatient to will be less specific than repaying stolen money, but true sorrow still seeks to make satisfaction to those we have offended.
To read more please look at the Catechism of the Council of Trent www.catecheticsonline.com/Trent-Index.php and search “Sacrament of Penance”.