Saturday, December 31, 2011

Firm Purpose and Hope

Before 2011 gets away from me, I want to respond again to the request of my Canadian friend to write more on the Sacrament of Penance. I do so gladly and specifically I want to offer a few thoughts on that which is required of us if our confession is to be truly sincere or, should I say, honestly contrite. We cannot be forgiven of grave or mortal sin if we are not sorry, if we do not turn to the Lord and genuinely ask His forgiveness through the ministry of His Church. This sorrow has to come forth somehow in the dialogue which is so characteristic of auricular confession. We are to display to our Father Confessor, or rather, we as penitents, manifestly, should be seized by a "firm purpose of amendment". That would be our resolve to change our ways, to not commit that sin again.

The dynamics of the confessional (some people are very nervous in Confession; some may seem defensive, but more often their tone arises either from ignorance or from an embarrassed pride that does not want to accept the fact that they have once again fallen and done so grievously) make it hard for the priest to judge whether some people are sorry enough to want sincerely to change their ways. This is perhaps the most difficult part of the priest's office as judge (the image of a "physician of souls" can be helpful as long as Father himself does not deny or ignore his role as a judge in Christ's stead). This sacrament "works" if the penitent is sorry for his or her sins confessed. The only way to establish this as fact is if the "doctor and the judge" perceives sorrow (whether out of love or out of fear, it does not matter), but sorrow which is displayed in the penitent's readiness to turn away from sin.

The issue about firm purpose of amendment comes to the fore especially or precisely for penitents with a certain habit of sin. I can remember in catechism and in spiritual conferences in the seminary when we were young, Father would always advise that in the face of a habit of sin it was important not to despair, not to excuse ourselves, but in all humility to seek forgiveness promptly, again and again in the Sacrament of Penance, attentive always to our confessor's advice and counsel. Father wanted us to live in hope of growth in holiness, of growth in virtue, of breaking free from our miserable failing or failings. The legendary stories of the firm but effective help which St. Pio of Pietralcina (Padre Pio) gave to sinners in the confessional is worth remembering. I also remember hearing poor Bernard Haering criticize Padre Pio for harshness; Haering's own approach of excusing failings did not convince me even at age 22. In Christ, the victory over personal sin must also be possible, sin is not simply covered over, but genuinely forgiven, and our lives are transformed through the aid of the sacraments He entrusted to His Church.

Many adults suffer from a sense of desperation in the face of repeated and habitual failings; they can even sincerely doubt their own contrition, as they doubt their only handle upon or gauge of that true sorrow, namely, their firm purpose of amendment. The old advice to keep trying, to never give up, and to genuinely strive to be wise by avoiding the near occasions of sin, is still the best advice. Ultimately, it is the way we witness to the true nature of hope in our lives. Hope in God is ultimately trust in His promises. The victory is indeed His, if we but seek Him in all things.

An Irish priest friend of mine, who took the pledge as a young man at confirmation and has never touched alcohol all his long life, recounted how in his early years he went around with a team, including a reformed alcoholic, to give talks on the evils of drink. His respected colleague would occasionally fall off the wagon and invariably, even in the middle of the night, would come still not yet sober seeking confession from Father and the Lord's forgiveness. He was a determined man and if no one responded to the rectory door in the wee hours, he would go under Father's window and shout, usually waking the whole house before Father himself awoke and went down to console the man. Sorrow and fear of damnation were certainly present. Faith in the power of the Sacrament of Penance was evident as well. Father certainly admonished the man to come back for confession as soon as he was sober. No doubt on that occasion "the judge" could also be assured of a firm purpose of amendment from his penitent.

We honestly do our best; we live in hope of the Son of Man, like us in all things but sin, Who took on our humanity and offers us a share in His Divine Life. The sinner should find refuge in the Lord and the priest cannot be over eager to make the Sacrament of Penance available. Our immediate act of contrition when we fail is a sine qua non. Confession and Absolution is what distinguishes us from the quiet desperation of a world which has not yet know the Wonder Counselor, Father Forever, Prince of Peace, born for us and for us given.

PROPERANTES ADVENTUM DIEI DEI

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