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Guilt — Repentance — Reconciliation

This week, we again examine how we can come to appreciate more fully and to receive more regularly the Sacrament of Penance. In the past two weeks, we discussed the frequency of Confession and the formation of our conscience as well as our concept of God, sin and fear. This week we will explore guilt, repentance and reconciliation. If you would like to read or re-read past columns, please visit www.arlingtondiocese.org.

Let us explore the concept of guilt first. Guilt is a feeling or an emotion that we experience when we have done wrong. The common reaction to intense guilt is often a desire to be punished. We feel badly or shameful and we would like to hide. We desire a kind of release. This sense of guilt is certainly connected to the concepts of God, sin and fear.

In the past, people often had a narrow concept of God solely as a judge; guilt was very present in people's lives. Perhaps, for many, that sense of guilt was heavy or oppressive and this led them eventually to the confessional. They craved a release from sin. While obviously this is good, the motivation for some could be too focused on self. Why? Because the person was more concerned with the release from guilt than with a genuine sorrow for their offense against the Lord and others. Now, in today's world, it seems that the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction. The atmosphere in which we live stresses independence and human freedom so much so that the sense of sin is weakened and people find it difficult to acknowledge the reality or seriousness of sin, or, consequently, any kind of guilt. We have convinced ourselves that nothing is actually sinful. It is clear that one extreme is no better than the other.

For Catholics, balance is the key. Guilt can be a healthy reaction if it is genuine and it leads to true sorrow, not just an emotional reaction. Genuine guilt flows from an understanding of what sin really is. Sin is the free decision to turn away from God and others. Let us remember, however, that some things are not sinful and therefore are not cause for guilt. For example, spontaneous feelings or reactions such as impatience: for these one should not feel guilty. We must adopt a sense of responsibility, saying, "I am answerable for what I choose to do." Responsibility implies a conscious, free decision. It is just as unhealthy to deny real guilt as it is to indulge in false guilt.

True guilt leads us to sorrow and repentance, not to remorse. In Scripture we see the example of Judas who sinned and had feelings of remorse, but not of true contrition. Saint Peter, on the other hand, sinned and experienced true guilt that led to sorrow. Remorse is a selfish and proud reaction - "me" is the focal point. True sorrow is the realization that we have offended God and others - contrition. True contrition, sorrow for our sins, leads to repentance: a radical change of heart (metanoia), the desire to change, to reform.

Again, if we had a narrow definition of sin, there was not as deep a realization of what repentance really meant. At the present time, there is a lack of appreciation for repentance in modern society, but as Christians, we must acquire the true spirit of repentance and help others to do so as well. We must be honest with ourselves, recognize our sinfulness and place our hope in God's mercy. This hope is truly of God, for God loves each and every one of us. Pope Benedict describes this hope in his encyclical, Spe Salvi, "This great hope can only be God, who encompasses the whole of reality and who can bestow upon us what we, by ourselves, cannot attain. The fact that it comes to us as a gift is actually part of hope. God is the foundation of hope: not any god, but the God who has a human face and who has loved us to the end, each one of us and humanity in its entirety" (no. 31). We must, like Saint Paul, "set our hope on the living God" (1 Tim 4:10). As the Catechism teaches us, "God must give man a new heart" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1432).

The good news is that when we have true sorrow, we can move towards reconciliation, which means a "coming back into the circle" or a new unity. Since sin and sorrow are always two-fold - against God and the Church - so reconciliation is also two-fold. The Second Vatican Council in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, reminds us that sin not only injures or severs our relationship with God, but it also wounds our relationship with the Church. "Those who approach the sacrament of Penance obtain pardon from the mercy of God for the offence committed against Him and are at the same time reconciled with the Church, which they have wounded by their sins, and which by charity, example, and prayer seeks their conversion" (Lumen Gentium, 11). Reconciliation with God then is also reconciliation with the Church.

It is important to understand how and why reconciliation is two-fold and why the participation of the priest is essential in the celebration of the Sacrament of Penance. The priest is the visible sign of God and of the Church, the Community of His Disciples; when he grants absolution we are reconciled with God and with the Church. We have sinned against both (God and the Church), so we must be reconciled with both. As the Catechism states, "Forgiveness of sin brings reconciliation with God, but also with the Church" (Catechism, no. 1462). I repeat, the priest is the visible sign of both.

How important is our understanding of basic concepts! Once God is seen as the One Who loves, forgives and is just, and once we understand what sin truly is, then guilt assumes a healthy perspective, sorrow and repentance become effective and operative, and reconciliation with God and the Church can really happen.

So my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, let us recognize our sins for what they are and express true contrition for our offenses against God and the Church. With this spirit of sorrow, let us hope in God, Who offers us reconciliation - reconciliation brought about by Him, through the priest, in the Sacrament of Penance!

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2009