Voices Online Edition
Volume XVII, No. 4
Penance. Penalty. Repentance. Penitence. Punishment. These words -- all related in meaning and sharing a common linguistic root, are missing from the working vocabulary of most contemporary Christians -- and the meaning of these words is utterly ignored in "feel-good" versions of Christianity. "My God is a god of love", we often hear -- as if love and repentance are contradictory.
Forgiveness is constantly enjoined on those who have suffered an injury by another person. But forgiveness loses its meaning as a true reconciling act if repentance of the transgressor is missing. "Love means never having to say your sorry" is an attractive sentimental falsehood. In fact, it describes a disordered, one-sided relationship between persons. This cant phrase from a popular sixties movie puts all the burden and responsibilities of love on the one who suffers harm from another. This amounts to blaming the victim -- the one who is sinned against -- and is patently unjust.
While one must be open to forgiving and extending mercy to those injured, no true reconciliation can take place unless the one who causes the injury -- the sinner -- is 1) truly remorseful; 2) asks for forgiveness; 3) resolves never to do it again; and 4) actively makes recompense and does whatever possible to rectify the injury he caused. The true repentance of the offender is a requirement -- a fundamental requirement -- of just love. The one who is injured is obliged to forgive the penitent. And both thus rejoice in love reconciled -- as we see in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15).
This is the moral law that is contained in sacramental Confession and penance, where the One sinned against is God. The moral law also underlies the secular law of justice that requires recompense and punishment for criminal offenses that not only injure individuals but tear the fabric of society.
This moral law of love is the basis of Church doctrine concerning sexuality and all relationships between persons. It is this law, too, that requires fidelity to vows from priests and laity, forbids homosexual activity (the Bible calls it sodomy), and that names all sexual offense against children a crime that "cries to heaven for vengeance".
The moral law is unchangeable. It is God's law, and thus it is the foundation of Church governance, of canon law's procedures to assure that the Church and her people can rely on the complete fidelity and honesty of the priests and bishops who are their spiritual and moral guides. Canon law also provides for discipline and just penalties -- including removal from office -- for priests and bishops who transgress the moral law.
Church law exists to provide just application of the moral law, not the other way around. Without a clear and unswerving commitment to the Church's moral teaching, justice and reconciliation are impossible -- and the Church's voice is stilled.
Just as restoring a broken relationship between persons depends upon both true repentance and forgiveness, as required by both love and justice, restoring trust in the Church as an institution depends upon how firmly these fundamental principles of the moral law are upheld -- and this, in turn, depends upon the clear resolve of Church authorities to uphold it.
What is required of us, who are members of a Church whose mission of salvation to the world has been so damaged by unspeakable crimes against the law of love?
How can we help to restore the Church's integrity and people's confidence in her? I think we know the answer. Our duty is to remain faithful -- truly faithful -- to Christ and to His Bride, the Church. We must not shrink from personal public witness to the Truth that is embodied in the Church. And we do well to remind ourselves that our personal sins, even if they are not dramatic, scandalous, or criminal, also damage her integrity.
We must witness to Christ's truth. And we must fortify ourselves for this duty with the strength that comes from the Sacraments of the Church. Confession and penance. Holy Communion. We must pray more and fast more and study more. We must be willing to accept our full responsibility for setting an example for others -- our children, our friends and families.
In October, Pope John Paul II issued an apostolic letter Rosarium Virginae Mariae (The Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary). He stressed that this meditative form of prayer must always be centered on Jesus Christ, and added five new focal points for meditation, Mysteries of Light (or luminous mysteries), on the earthly ministry of Our Lord, the Light of the World. On the same day, the pope proclaimed a Year of the Rosary beginning October 16.
Earlier, the Congregation for Divine Worship issued a lengthy Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy, reaffirming the value of traditional personal and family devotions. In this issue of Voices you will find an excerpt from the Directory on the liturgical seasons of Advent and Christmastide. We are grateful that the Holy See has emphasized this, as WFF has long been committed to encouraging families to assume their role as the "domestic Church" -- in evangelizing its own members as well as the world. (Our web site's Liturgical Calendar is one example.)
This Advent, the penitential season when we prepare our hearts and our world to receive the Messiah, Our Savior, may each of us accept our full responsibility for His Church -- and all her children -- with renewed courage, with hope, and with joy.
Sincerely yours in Christ,
Helen Hull Hitchcock
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