No rule can be laid down here, as in regard to holy communion, concerning the time to be employed in preparation. The reality of our contrition, not the length of our previous preparation, is what is of true importance. However, a few minutes are not enough. “Noe was a hundred years building the ark,” says St. Thomas Aquinas, “and thinkest thou in a brief moment to construct the ark which is to save thee from temporal and eternal perdition?”
In order to receive the Sacrament of Penance worthily, we must do as follows:
Since we sin in our heart, by our lips, and in our actions, we must atone for it by the sorrow which is felt in the heart, expressed by the lips, accomplished in our actions. We must do as the prodigal did: as soon as he experienced the gracious operation of the Holy Ghost, he thought over his misdeeds, and acknowledged them (examination of conscience). He saw how ungrateful he had been towards his father, and was truly grieved at heart (contrition). He deter mined to return to his father and begin a fresh life at home (resolution of amendment). He went back to his father, fell at his feet, confessed his fault and implored forgiveness (confession). He said he would no longer take the place of a son, but of a servant (satisfaction). The father fell on his neck and kissed him (absolution). Then followed a joyous repast (communion).
1, We must examine our conscience, i.e., we must carefully consider what sins we have committed and not yet confessed.
We must make as careful a scrutiny as if we were immediately to appear before the judgment seat of God. If our examination is insufficient, the Sacrament of Penance may conduce to our damnation, rather than to our salvation. Yet we must not bo over-anxious, as some scrupulous persons are, for God does not require from us what is out of our power. The examination of conscience is most important, for by it we learn to know ourselves, and this is the be ginning of all improvement. One can no more acknowledge and overcome a fault of which one is not aware, than one can cure a malady of the existence of which one is ignorant. Most men are wanting in self-knowledge. There are many who search into the secrets of nature, who observe the course of the stars and the laws of motion, but who know nothing about themselves, and never look into their own heart. They are to be commiserated, despite their learning and their fame, because they pay no heed to their most glaring faults. The Creator has placed a book in the hands of every man, his conscience; study this book diligently, for of all your library it is the only one which you can take with you into eternity. Self-knowledge leads to the knowledge of God.
Before examination of conscience let us invoke the aid of the Holy Spirit, that He may enlighten us.
We can find a thing that is in a dark room much more quickly if we bring a light with us; and it is the same when we search out our sins. When the sun shines into a room we notice a thousand motes which were unobservable before; so the soul, when illuminated by the Spirit of God, sees the slightest imperfections. Self-knowledge is a gift of God, which we can obtain by prayer alone. The eye sees everything but itself; it is the same with our spiritual sight; it is quick in discerning the faults of others, and slow to see its own. It is well to examine one’s conscience in solitude, for there the Holy Spirit speaks to the heart (Osee ii. 14).
When examining our conscience we must put aside self-love and earnestly endeavor to acquaint ourselves with our faults.
Many sick people will not allow that there is anything serious the matter with them, and sinners often do the same. This arises from self-love, and self-complacency, on account of the advantages they imagine themselves to possess, both natural and acquired. Some even count their faults as virtues; they think arrogance to be manliness, deceitfulness to be prudence, etc., like some mothers who are so infatuated about their children that they think all their faults to be praiseworthy qualities. In examining his conscience, let a man look on himself as his own enemy; enemies have a sharp eye for one another’s feelings.
In examining our conscience, it is well to go through the Ten Commandments, the precepts of the Church, and the deadly sins.
Children may ask themselves: (1), Have I forgotten my prayers or been inattentive at them? (2), Have I uttered the name of God, or spoken of holy things irreverently, or said any bad words? (3), Have I done servile work on Sundays or holy-days of obligation? have I missed hearing Mass, or behaved badly in church? or eaten meat on Fridays? (4), Have I been rude or disobedient to my pa rents? (5), Have I been unkind to others, struck them, or led them to do wrong? provoking them to anger? (6), Have I indulged any thought, or spoken any words or done any deeds of impurity? (7), Have I ever taken what was not mine, and if so, given it back to the owner? have I injured or deceived any one? (8), Have I told a falsehood, accused any one wrongly, abused any one, or told of his faults? (9 and 10), Have I coveted another person’s goods? or been proud, given way to anger, or greediness, or been idle at school or at work?
In regard to mortal sins, we must remember how often we have been guilty of them.
All the mortal sins of which the penitent is conscious after a diligent examination of himself, must needs be enumerated in confession (Council of Trent, 11, 5, 7). If the exact number of times cannot be remembered the approximate number must at least be stated.
It is not necessary, though it is advisable, to examine one’s self in regard to venial sins.
Venial sins, though rightly and profitably declared in confession, may be omitted without guilt (Council of Trent, 14, 5). The most usual defect in the examination of conscience is that the penitent keeps back certain shameful sins, and is careful to search out slight er ones. Such persons are like the Pharisees, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel (Matt. xxiii. 24). Hence it is that many do not benefit at all from frequent confession. .How many apparently pious people will take their sins with them to eternity!
We must also consider whether there are circumstances which alter or aggravate the sin we confess.
All those circumstances which change the quality and nature of the sin are to be explained in confession (Council of Trent, 14, 5). For instance, if a man has taken another’s goods by violence, it is not enough to say: “I stole” for robbery with violence and theft are two different sins. If anything was stolen in a church, this must also be mentioned.
We ought to examine our conscience every evening in order to render our examination easier before confession.
If a man will not do the necessary repairs of his house as they are wanted, it will become dilapidated and require thorough renovation; so it is with the soul, if its condition is not continually seen to and amended. If a master looks through his steward’s accounts daily, they do not get into disorder, and we must do the same with our conscience if we would keep it right. Daily examination is very profit able; it guards us from falling into mortal sin. If a merchant makes up his debit and credit account every day, he is not liable to get deeply into debt. Daily examination keeps our conscience pure, and conduces to moral perfection. St. Ignatius asserts it to be more important than prayer. If a king knew that his enemies were concealed in a certain quarter of his dominions, he would assuredly search out their hiding-place and frustrate their schemes. You have foes within you, your unruly passions; search them out daily, and vanquish them with the sword of sorrow. It is not enough merely to gain a knowledge of our faults, we ought earnestly to deplore them and endeavor to overcome them by good resolutions.
2. We must truly repent of our sins, that is, we must grieve from our heart that we have offended God by them, and the thought of offending Him must be abhorrent to us.
As instances of true contrition, we may mention Magdalen, who fell at Our Lord’s feet weeping (Luke vii.); St. Peter, who after he had denied Christ, went out and wept bitterly (Matt. xxvi. 75); David, who when the prophet Nathan had awakened him to a sense of sin, lay upon the ground and did neither eat nor drink (2 Kings xii.), but cried: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to Thy great mercy; and according to the multitude of Thy tender mercies blot out my iniquity. A contrite and humbled heart, O God, Thou will not despise” (Ps. 1.). Repentance, unless accompanied by trust in God’s mercy, would be despair. Remember Judas repentance. True contrition is also sorrow of soul. An external action alone, such as the recitation of a certain formula of prayer, wailing like that of the Jewish women, rending of garments (Joel ii. 13), do not constitute repentance. Exterior grief without inward grief is mere hypocrisy. But interior heartfelt contrition shows itself exteriorly, for we mortals can rarely prevent all outward manifestation of what we feel inwardly. True repentance has reference to God; hence we call it supernatural, because it proceeds from faith in an unseen, supernatural world. Sorrow for sin because of its disastrous consequences is no true contrition; it is a natural sentiment, without merit before God. The cruel King Antiochus Epiphanus bewailed his wicked deeds when he was eaten by worms; but not because he had offended God (2 Mach. ix. 13). In like manner a gambler, a drunkard, a criminal who is arrested, may regret his folly when he perceives the evil resulting from it. Temporal calamities may be the occasion, but not the motive of our sorrow. True repentance implies profound detestation of sin, or a complete abandonment of sin; it is more a matter of the will than of the feeling. “If,” says St. Augustine, “that which formerly caused thee joy and pleasure, now fills thy soul with bitterness, and that which formerly thou didst enjoy is now a torture to thee, then know that thy repentance is real.” That is true conversion when a man turns to God with his whole heart, and detaches himself completely from earthly things. Penance is worth less if it produces no amendment. To him who is truly penitent, the thought of offending God is abhorrent. Repentance is not real if every evil affection without exception is not given up. What does it profit thee to break every other chain, if one remains, binding thee to hell? (St. Augustine.)
True contrition often manifests itself in tears.
It was so in the case of Magdalen in Simon’s house (Luke vii. 38), and of St. Peter when he had denied Our Lord (Matt. xxvi. 75). The apostle’s sorrow was lifelong; it is said that his tears made two furrows on his cheeks. Penitential tears are not indispensable, but they are very efficacious; they render forgiveness more sure. The tears of the penitent are the most forcible language he can use; they compel God to forgive him. Penitential tears wash away the stains of sin; they are a kind of baptism, only the cleansing waters come from within, not from without. They enlighten the mind, as rain clears the sky. The more we weep for sin the more clearly we perceive its turpitude, and our tears lead to a fundamental amendment of life. As medicinal springs heal bodily sickness, so tears cure the maladies of the soul. They bring interior consolation; they refresh the soul as dew does the plant. The tears of the penitent give joy to the angels and drive away the devils; they have much the same effect on them as holy water has.
The means of awakening true contrition is to reflect that by our sins we have grievously offended the infinite majesty of God, and have displeased our loving Father, our greatest Benefactor.
Contemplate the myriad stars in the firmament of heaven, con sider the countless number of human beings upon earth, the innumerable hosts of spirits in the realms of space, and thence conclude how infinite is the divine greatness. And you have offended this sovereign Lord! Consider furthermore the greatness of your heavenly Father’s love for you, in that He gave what was dearest to Him, His only begotten Son for you. How shameful to offend so loving a father! Remember also all that the Son of God suffered in your stead. Consider too, the innumerable benefits which throughout your life you have received from God; health, food, clothing, etc., all these things are His gifts, which, when He sees fit, He withdraws from the ungrateful; how instead of showing your thankfulness to God, you have often grieved Him, and repaid His benefits with ingratitude.
The contrition which arises from the love of God is called perfect contrition. Perfect contrition reconciles man with God immediately, before the Sacrament of Penance be actually received (Council of Trent, 14, 4).
Let us suppose that a father sends his two boys into a town to make some purchases. They loiter and play on the way, and are late by several hours. On reaching home, they are frightened; one of them begins to cry, because he is afraid he will be whipped for his negligence; the other boy cries because he knows he has vexed his father. The second boy is an example of perfect contrition, the first of imperfect. He only has perfect contrition who is sorry for his sin because he has thereby offended God. Of this we find examples in David, St. Peter, Magdalen, the publican in the Temple; all these transgressors were speedily forgiven. Perfect contrition is, as may be gathered from Our Lord’s words to Magdalen (Luke vii. 47), as a matter of fact, nothing more or less than fervent charity towards God, the operation of the Holy Spirit dwelling in man; and he in whom the Holy Spirit dwells, possesses sanctifying grace and is free from mortal sin. The least degree of perfect contrition suffices instantly to cancel the debt of sin (St. Thomas Aquinas). And if one who is not in mortal sin awakens perfect contrition, the effect is to increase sanctifying grace and remit the temporal punishment due to sin. Perfect contrition is accompanied by the desire of confession; yet it is not necessary to go to confession at once; it is enough to do so when the precept of the Church enjoins this upon one. In fact, it is not indispensable to perfect contrition that the desire for confession should be explicit; it is enough that the penitent should be ready to go to confession when the obligation arises.
We should make an act of perfect contrition from time to time in the course of our life, particularly in the hour of death, or if our life is in danger.
If, in travelling by land or sea, we should perceive an accident to be imminent, let our first thought be to make an act of perfect contrition, and our reconciliation with God will be complete. It happened once that the father of a family broke a blood-vessel. A messenger was instantly dispatched to summon a priest, but meanwhile the youngest child, who had recently made his first communion, perceiving that his father’s life was fast ebbing away, took a crucifix from the wall, and holding it before the dying man’s eyes, repeated aloud an act of perfect contrition. Tears filled the father’s eyes; he expired before the priest came, but he was safe for all eternity. It is probable that at the time of the Deluge, and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrha, some persons were saved from eternal perdition by an act of perfect contrition. If you should have the misfortune to offend God grievously, make an act of contrition immediately. Do not go to rest at night, or begin the day’s work, or start on a journey, without in this manner making your salvation sure. It is no difficult matter to awaken true contrition, if one has a good will. Under the Old Dispensation it was the only means of obtaining remission of sin; and every Christian is bound, under pain of mortal sin, to make an act of perfect contrition in the hour of death, in case he is conscious of sin and cannot go to confession again. Only those find it hard who neglect all the ordinances of religion; they are like a clock which will not go, even when wound up by sanctifying grace, because the works are rusty from disuse, A special interposition of Providence, or a miracle of grace is needed to enable such persons to awaken perfect contrition. Cardinal Franzelin was so impressed with the immense value of perfect contrition, that he declared were he to go as a preacher from land to land, it should be the principal theme of his discourses.
The consideration that we must expect the just judgments of God on account of our sins, also disposes us to true contrition.
Remember the punishment of the rebel angels, of our first parents, of the population of Sodom, of Noe’s contemporaries, etc. Reflect upon the awful pains of hell. And even if you do escape hell, there is the fire of purgatory to be endured; there the least punishment far exceeds all that one can suffer on earth, even the tortures inflicted on the martyrs. None but great saints have been exempted from this chastisement. How then can you expect to elude it? How terrible a thing it is to offend God!
The contrition which arises from fear of God is called attrition, or imperfect contrition. When the contrition of the penitent is imperfect, forgiveness of sin is only obtained through sacerdotal absolution.
The contrition of the Ninivites was imperfect, when, smitten with fear at the preaching of Jonas, they did penance (Council of Trent, 14, 4). The penitent who is actuated by fear alone, retains a certain attachment to sin, though he may abstain from the outward act. Hence his repentance is less efficacious. Imperfect contrition is like a tiny spark, which must be fanned by confession and the priest’s absolution, before it consumes the chaff of sin,
Confession without contrition does not obtain the divine forgiveness,
Whoso goes to confession without sorrow of mind, detestation of sins committed, and the purpose of not sinning in future, but merely from force of habit and not from consciousness of sin, derives no benefit from the act. The husbandman who scatters seed on untilled soil, labors in vain; in like manner the words of absolution are in efficacious in regard to one whose heart is unprepared, and who will not renounce sin. Confession without contrition is like a gun loaded without shot, an ear of corn empty of grain; it is like the barren fig tree Our Lord cursed; for on the tree of penance, confession is but the leaves, while contrition is the fruit. St. John Chrysostom compares the man who goes to confession without contrition to an actor in a play. From the story of the prodigal we gather that confession alone is not everything; the father scarcely heeded what his son said, but as soon as he perceived his heart was changed, he hardly let him finish speaking, but clasped him in his arms.
3. We must make a firm resolution, that is, we must steadfastly determine with the help of God to desist from all sin, and to avoid the occasions of sin for the future.
The purpose of amendment is an essential part of true contrition (Council of Trent, 14, 4). The resolution to sin no more arises out of contrition, as water issues from a spring. So long as the will retains its attachment to sin, neither mortal nor venial sin can be remitted. All men are not thus resolute, for many do not adhere to their resolutions. They act like a woman, who, when her husband dies, makes a terrible outcry, extolling loudly the excellent qualities of the deceased, and protesting vehemently that she will never marry again; but in a very short time, oblivious of her asseverations, she gives her hand to another man. Those who in time of illness or of adversity form good resolutions, but do not carry them out, are like the wolf who retreats to the wood when he hears the dogs bark and the shepherds cry out, but remains a wolf nonetheless. A good resolution is like a nail driven fast into a wall; but the resolutions of too many resemble a nail badly knocked in, which falls out as soon as anything is hung upon it. The way to hell is paved with good resolutions, which have not been carried out. All men will not determine to renounce every sin. St. Sebastian promised to heal the proconsul if he would destroy all the idols in Rome; the pro consul did this, with the exception of a little idol of gold, an heir loom in his family, which he concealed. The saint consequently could not cure him, and he told him the reason. Many sinners do the same; there is one darling sin which they will not give up, and therefore they cannot break away from the devil and become the friends of God; for God’s sake everything must be renounced. The penitent must also seriously avoid all occasions of sin. The man who merely dislikes his neighbor, contents himself with eschewing his company; but if he has a thoroughgoing hatred for him, he gets rid of everything that can remind him of him; he holds aloof from his friends and relatives, he destroys his portrait, the presents he has received from him, etc. Thus must the penitent act who has a real detestation of sin; he must avoid all and everything that leads to sin, or that reminds him of sin. Those who wish to do better, but will not avoid the occasion of sin, are like one who sweeps away the cobweb, but does not kill the spider; thus a fresh web is soon spun. Or he is like a gardener who cuts off the weeds and does not root them up; in a little time they are greener than ever. Too often sinners who confess their sins but will not give up the occasion of sin transgress more deeply than before. If you would keep the flies from your table, you must remove the sweet dishes that attract them; so if you would keep free from sin, you must keep far from you the occasions of sin. Good resolutions are no use without the divine assistance, any more than the corn can fructify without rain and sunshine. Hence we must not trust to our own strength, but in the grace of God.
Our resolution should have reference to one particular sin, and that the one to which we are most attached.
It is impossible to carry out many resolutions at a time. To attempt this is like endeavoring to roll several large stones up hill all at once; we shall succeed with none. It is enough if we set our selves resolutely to overcome one fault, for in doing so we shall combat all the others, just as while curbing one restive horse, we check the others who are harnessed with it. If we did but root out one vice every year, we should soon become perfect men.
4. We are under the obligation of confessing our sins, that is, we must secretly to the priest enumerate all the mortal sins of which we are conscious, accurately, simply and humbly; with the number of times we have committed them, besides all that is necessary to make known the nature of the sin (Council of Trent, 14, 5, 7).
It is not necessary, but it is salutary and profitable to confess venial sins.
If a mortal sin has been forgotten in confession, it must be mentioned the next time.
Confession must be made secretly, that is, we must speak in so low a tone that no one near, besides the priest, shall hear what is said. Confession must be accurate. Specific: We should avoid the use of general terms; for instance, it is not right to say: I have transgressed the Third, Fifth or Seventh Commandment; I have not loved God with my whole heart; I have sinned in thought, word and deed. Such phrases are unmeaning. Yet, while entering into particulars, everything should be told as briefly as possible, every superfluous detail being avoided. Any one who has been accessory to our sin is not to be mentioned by name. Simple: Ambiguous expressions, attempts at self-justification, cannot be allowed in confession; the penitent must be simple and candid, as a crystal is clear and transparent. To seek to justify one’s self is to act like our first parents in paradise, who shifted the blame from their own shoulders, and were punished more severely for it. “Accuse thyself, and God will excuse thee; excuse thyself and God will accuse thee” (St. Augustine). Humble: The penitent must not take offense if the confessor reproves or questions him. In the confessional the priest is in the place of God, the penitent is but a miserable sinner. King Louis IX once said to a priest, who timidly addressed him as “Your Majesty”; “I am not a king here, nor are you a subject; I am a child, and you are a father.” The Empress Constantia once sent for the Abbot Joachim, and wanted him to hear her confession while she remained seated on her throne. But the abbot said: “If thou art to be in the place of Magdalen, and I in that of Christ, thou must leave thy throne and kneel at my feet; otherwise I will go away at once.” If the priest perceives that the confession is not entire and complete, he asks questions; just as the customs officer, if he thinks that a traveller has articles on which duty has to be paid, does not satisfy himself with yes or no, but searches his luggage. If the penitent is unable to speak, for instance, if he is deaf and dumb, or extremely ill, he must make his confession by signs, or the deaf-mute may make it in writing. Absolution can never be given to any one at a distance, though it is besought by letter or by a messenger. It is enough if all mortal sins are confessed. For if the beams are burned away, the planks will probably be consumed with them, but the reverse is not the case. Unfortunately, people are too apt to confess venial and conceal mortal sins. Yet it is profitable to confess venial sins, for thereby a portion of the temporal penalty is cancelled, and greater peace of mind is acquired, since in regard to some sins we cannot decide with certainty whether they are mortal or venial. Those who cannot accuse themselves of any mortal sin, must at least confess some venial sins, or a sin of their past life, otherwise they cannot receive absolution. All mortal sins must be declared, unless under exceptional circumstances, such as the penitent being at the point of death, in imminent danger (on a sinking ship), too ill to speak more than a few words, or in a hospital where his confession may be over heard. In such cases an incomplete confession is permissible. All the mortal sins of which we are conscious must, as has been said, be enumerated in confession; yet it may occur that one is forgotten; if so, it must be mentioned next time, and we need not distress our selves if we do not remember it until after communion, for our confession was not sacrilegious. We must also declare as nearly as possible how often any mortal sin has been committed.
5. Satisfaction must be made: i.e., we must perform the penance enjoined upon us by the confessor.
The debt of temporal punishment is in no wise remitted by the Sacrament of Penance. For God is not more merciful than He is just; therefore works of penance are imposed on the penitent, whereby he may discharge the debt of temporal punishment due to his sins. Works of penance are not only for the punishing or avenging of past sins, they are also a medicine. The sinner is like a wounded warrior; it is not enough to extract the bullet from the wound; bandages and balsam must be applied to heal it. The priest does not merely deliver the penitent from the guilt of sin. he enjoins on him suitable and salutary satisfaction, which shall act as a remedy against relapse. As a rule, he imposes on him penances exactly opposed to his evil propensities; almsdeeds on the avaricious, fasting on the intemperate, and so forth. Nothing is more efficacious in eradicating sin than prayer, almsgiving, and fasting, because the concupiscence of the eyes, the concupiscence of the flesh, and the pride of life, are overcome by the practice of the opposite virtues.
The confessor generally enjoins upon the penitent, prayer, alms-deeds, and fasting, as works of penance, in order that he may thereby discharge the temporal penalties, and weaken the power of evil tendencies (Council of Trent, 14, 8).
In former times most rigorous penances were imposed; e.g., fasting on bread and water, abstinence from meat and wine, the non-reception of holy communion, and the like. These penances were not for a few days, they lasted months and even years, nay, many were lifelong. Some penitents withdrew to the desert to live a life of penance, as did St. Mary of Egypt. Nor were these penances only imposed for grievous sins, but for comparatively slight transgressions, such as the omission of Mass, neglect of the rule of fasting, misbehavior in church, etc. Nowadays the penances imposed are very different; they bear no possible proportion to the punishment we have merited. It is well therefore to undertake some voluntary penances, that we may not suffer in purgatory hereafter, as will be shown presently.
The confessor also directs reparation to be made for any injury that has been done, and the suppression of all that may cause scandal.
He obliges those who have stolen other people’s goods to make restitution; those who have wronged others by slander to retract their words and make an apology. He deals gently with the penitent, and does not require from him what he cannot or will not perform.
The works of penance imposed by the confessor ought to be conscientiously performed in union with the satisfaction of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
By the performance of our sacramental penance (that enjoined by the priest), we discharge more of our debt than by works voluntarily undertaken. The former have the virtue of obedience; they would lose their value if they were knowingly altered, therefore they must be done with scrupulous exactitude. If they cannot be per formed, this must be told to the priest in the next confession. They must also be performed without delay, for they have no efficacy in remitting sin or earning grace unless the penitent is in a state of grace, and this is most certain immediately after confession. Still there is no obligation to say one’s penance before approaching holy communion, but we must not put off saying it until there is a danger of our forgetting it. Whoso neglects to perform his sacramental penance loses many graces, and violates the obedience he owes to the priest as God’s representative; but he does not thereby render his confession invalid. He is like a sick man who, when the physician has gene, will not take the medicine he prescribed. He shows moreover, that lie does not think seriously of amending his life. All our works of penance are of themselves without merit; they derive their sufficiency from the merit of the satisfaction made by Christ. For this reason the Church concludes all her petitions with the words: Per Dominum nostrum Jesum Christum. Our works cannot, nevertheless, be dispensed with, for Christ has only merited for us what was beyond our reach; He has opened heaven to us again, it behooves us through the satisfaction we make to appropriate to ourselves what He merited for us. We know that only if we suffer with Him shall we also be glorified with Him (Rom. viii. 17).
We should, besides, make satisfaction by punishments voluntarily undertaken of ourselves; and also by bearing patiently the temporal scourges inflicted of God (Council of Trent, 14, 9).
We ought to perform voluntary penances as well as those enjoined on us. The man who owes a thousand dollars does not deem himself out of debt when he has paid three or four hundred; he cannot rest until the whole debt is paid off. So we must labor continually to discharge our debt. Divine justice can only be satisfied by long and continuous penance. “Chastise thyself,” says St. Augustine, “if thou wouldst not have God chastise thee.” By a little labor here we can avert great pains hereafter. The whole life of the Christian ought to be a perpetual penance (Council of Trent, 14, 9). “Attach no credit,” says St. John of the Cross, “to the man who decries penance, although he may have the gift of miracles.” While we do penance, we may count upon the assistance of grace. Patience under suffering is an effectual means of making satisfaction; the merit of suffering does not consist in the amount we bear, but the manner in which we bear it. Comparatively slight afflictions borne patiently will have far more value as expiation for sin than much greater works under taken of our own free will. Happy those to whom it is given to expiate their sins on earth, for the fires of purgatory are infinitely worse than anything we suffer here, and they do not contribute to our future felicity; they are simply punitive, not meritorious. Another most profitable means of making satisfaction is the willing acceptance of death at the hand of God. Since Christ died for us, death is not now regarded so much in the light of a chastisement, and by nothing can we merit so greatly as by accepting it willingly.
The works of penance which we perform and the sufferings we bear patiently do not only cancel the temporal punishment due to our sins, but they contribute to the increase of our eternal happiness.
The satisfaction we make here obtains not only pardon from God, but also a reward. All suffering is the penalty of sin, but by God’s mercy it is also a ladder whereby we may ascend to heaven. How vast is the mercy and loving kindness of God!
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