Penitence is something deeply ingrained in Catholic Christianity. It is fair to say the idea of “Catholic Guilt” is older than anyone who might be reading this. It may not always have been quite the caricature it is now seen to be, but guilt for sins committed is an immanently healthy sense borne of a well-formed conscience. Unfortunately, that “well-formed” part is what has passed from the collective consciousness in wide swaths of the Church today.

We have addressed, in the past, the tremendously important distinction to be drawn between guilt and shame, but it is certainly a topic worth revisiting. If you are inclined to read those reflections from previous bulletins, those articles can be found in the bulletins from February 14 and 28, and March 13, all in 2016.

To think that the tension between guilt, shame, and penitence has somehow evaporated since roughly the same time three years ago (also a Lectionary cycle year C, incidentally) would be highly naïve. However, more than guilt or shame, our focus this weekend is penitence, given that the next portion of the Mass in our ongoing syllabus on the Eucharist and the Holy Mass is the Penitential Act (at least, that is its technical name, since the Missal of 2010 came into effect).

As I read the text of the prayer we recite together at Mass, the Confiteor (Latin for “I confess”), what strikes me is not a sense of being browbeaten or that somehow I am being scolded, but that the voice of the Church is one of humility – humility is the Church’s prescription for sin-sickness. It isn’t that “I” am rotten, but that I have greatly sinned.

Has the Church thus put in our mouths words that are not true in every way? Hardly. Am I wrong to admit before God and neighbor (that is “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault”) that in my misdeeds or my missed deeds I have sinned? Am I somehow telling my pew-mates something they did not know? Or should an onlooker be in any way shocked?

Moreover, is this admission news to God, to whom the prayer is addressed?

Humility is the voice of truth about one’s own story, one’s place in the universe. It is truly right – out of simple honesty – that we ask for help, seeking the intercession of the heroes of our race, all those in God’s very presence by the salvation brought about by Christ.

The voice of Christ in the priest’s response should not surprise us. “May God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us to everlasting life.”

It would seem we have a great deal of difficulty accepting the words of our psalm response today. The Lord is indeed “kind and merciful.” Therefore, we have even greater difficulty identifying with the words: “Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all my being bless his holy name…and forget not all his benefits…He pardons all your iniquities, heals all your ills. He redeems your life from destruction, crowns you with kindness and compassion. Merciful and gracious is the Lord, slow to anger and abounding in kindness.” (Psalm 103:1-4, 8-9)

A right response to the Penitential Act is to rejoice in blessing the Lord with our greatest praise and to honor him with a life lived well in love for God and others!

God does not pay us back for our evils when we repent. Instead he places our sins as far away from us as one pole is from the other, having compassion on us as a tender father. Oh what greater cause for joy and glory could there be?

David Dunst
Director of Music and Liturgy

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