By Cardinal Justin Rigali
In a book which he wrote about his famous father, Enrico Caruso, Jr. described the atmosphere in the villa where Caruso lived and worked. The mood of the place was always determined by what the great tenor was doing. If he was sleeping, everyone was quiet. When he awoke, his enthusiasm for life was infectious and everyone seemed to rejoice with him. If his southern personality was expressed in anger, everyone in the villa trembled!
We don’t have to live with Enrico Caruso to know how the mood, words and actions of one person can affect an entire home. This can likewise be true of a place of business. One person can affect the entire atmosphere of a place and either raise it up with joy and enthusiasm or lower it with tension and anger.
This is also true of the community or family which we know as the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ. The actions of one member can either build up the Church of Christ through virtue and fidelity or weaken it by sin. It is mysterious how the actions of a human person can affect Christ’s Mystical Body but such is the power of human freedom that God not only allows us to make free choices but also allows our choices to build up or weaken the Church he has founded. This is why we can say that sin has both a personal and social aspect.
In the Exhortation, which followed the Synod of Bishops that had discussed the Sacrament of Penance, Pope John Paul II wrote: “By virtue of a human solidarity which is as mysterious and intangible as it is real and concrete, each inspanidual’s sin in some way affects others. There is no sin, not even the most intimate and secret one, the most strictly inspanidual one, that exclusively concerns the person committing it. With greater or lesser harm, every sin has repercussions on the ecclesial body and the whole human family. In this sense every sin can be considered a social sin” (Reconciliation and Penance, 2 [December 1984]).
The Sacrament of Penance
The Sacrament of Penance is always a vital part of our Christian lives but we highlight it in a special way during this Lenten season. This great Sacrament of God’s mercy has always manifested both the personal and communal aspects of sin and forgiveness. However, it has done this in different ways down through the centuries.
In the early centuries of the Church, there was a role given to what is called public penance. This was a penance performed in the midst of the community to highlight the truth which we have been discussing, namely the social as well as the personal aspect of sin. Public penance was not imposed upon everyone and it depended on the nature of the sin.
Saint Augustine wrote, concerning public penance: “If the sin is not only grevious in itself but involves scandal given to others, and if the bishop judges that it will be useful to the Church, let not the sinner refuse to do penance in the sight of many or even of the people at large, let the sinner not resist, nor through shame add to the mortal wound a greater evil” (Sermon 151, n. 3).
It was the confessor who would determine the necessity and the extent of the public penance imposed upon a penitent. This was done not to cause shame to the penitent but to highlight the communal nature of sin and the weakening of the Body of Christ caused by it. These periods of public penance often took place during the Lenten season, with the penance beginning on Ash Wednesday and ending with a formal ceremony of reconciliation on Holy Thursday. This practice of public penance gradually changed.
Although public penance was once a part of the celebration of the Sacrament, we must not confuse the manner of celebrating the Sacrament of Penance with the Sacrament itself. Penance is the Sacrament which Christ established to bring about the forgiveness of sins committed after Baptism. The Church is given the power to dispense the mercy of Jesus in this Sacrament. The priest, who acts in the person of Jesus, forgives sins in the name of the Church.
In this way, the public nature of forgiveness continues to be represented when this Sacrament is celebrated. It is the priest who, as the minister of the Sacrament in the name of the Church, also represents the public life of the Church. In this very private and intimate Sacrament, in which inspanidual sin is confessed and forgiven, there is still a public role exercised through the ministry of the priest, who represents the entire Church.
In his Encyclical on the Mystical Body of Christ, Pope Pius XII beautifully expressed this mystery. He wrote: “As Jesus hung on the Cross, he not only satisfied the justice of the Eternal Father, but he also won for us, his brothers and sisters, an unending flow of graces. It was possible for him personally, immediately, to impart these graces but He wished to do so only through a visible Church that would be formed by the union of people, and thus, through the Church, every inspanidual would perform a work of collaboration with Him in dispensing the graces of Redemption. The Word of God willed to make use of our nature, when in excruciating agony, he would redeem mankind. In much the same way, throughout the centuries, he makes use of the Church that the work begun might endure.
“Jesus Christ wishes to be helped by the members of his Body. This is not because he is indigent and weak, but rather because he has so willed it for the greater glory of His unspotted Spouse.
“Dying on the Cross, Christ left to the Church the immense treasury of the Redemption. Toward this she contributed nothing. But, when those graces come to be distributed, not only does Christ share this task of sanctification with his Church, but he wants it, in a way, to be due to her action” (Mystici Corporis, 44).
A life beyond
We have all heard the word “supernatural.” This means something which goes beyond or above the natural. In our natural understanding of what is public and what is private or personal, we tend to think in physical or visible terms. If we can see something, it is public. If something is hidden or known to us alone, it is personal. The Christian life, however, is a great reality which is real while not always being physical.
In the Sacrament of Penance, we may see just the priest and the penitent. However, because we are dealing with an action of God’s grace, given through the Church, we are actually dealing with something public and communal.
The sin of the inspanidual, which may be known to that person alone, has an effect on the entire community, thereby giving it a communal aspect. The forgiveness of God transmitted by the priest in Confession is an action involving the Church. It is through the ministry of the Church that the inspanidual sinner is reconciled to God and the family of believers.
Once this reconciliation has taken place, the inspanidual is able to go out once again and fulfill his or her communal role in building up the Church of Christ.
In speaking to the Bishops of the United States on their ad limina visit to the See of Peter, Pope John Paul II described this unity this way: “Only when the faithful recognize sin in their own lives are they ready to understand reconciliation and to open their hearts to penance and personal conversion. Only then are they able to contribute to the renewal of society, since personal conversion is also the only way that leads to the lasting renewal of society. This personal conversion, by spanine precept, is intimately linked to the Sacrament of Penance” (Address, 15 April 1983).
Jesus wishes us to have a relationship with Him which is real and living. He has given us dramatic signs of His love. However, in order to live that life fully, we must go beyond what is natural and visible. We live that life in union with the community of the Church which He founded and which, according to His plan, is the dispenser of that life.
When we sin, we weaken the entire Body of the Church and when we are sorry and ask forgiveness in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we receive forgiveness from Christ but through that same Church. This is the wonderful plan that God has designed for our salvation.
12 March 2009