"It is one's whole existence that becomes penitential, that is to say, directed toward a continuous striving for what is better. But doing penance is something authentic and effective only if it is translated into deeds and acts of penance" -- John Paul II
Glade Park, CO (Catholic Online) -- As Catholics pray Sunday Morning Prayer found in the Liturgy of the Hours -- the official prayer of the Church -- during Advent, millions of faithful recite together in communion the following Scripture reading: "It is now the hour for you to wake from sleep, for our salvation is closer than when we first accepted the faith. The night is far spent; the day draws near. Let us cast off deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light" (Rom 13:11-12). This particular passage, which is repeated each Sunday during the season of Advent, reminds us of the need for repentance and conversion in preparation for the coming of Christ.
Advent is a season in which we look ahead to Christ who has both come and is coming. It is a time when the words, "Come, Lord Jesus!" reverberate within the depths of our hearts, draw tears of joy from our eyes, and echo throughout the unfathomable reaches of the human soul as we wait in hope. It is a season in which a forward journey is begun in trusting preparation, patiently listening in the quiet of the desert for the soft breath of the Christ Child, whose tender magnificence unceasingly draws us with love into the mysterious life of God Incarnate.
O my dove in the clefts of the rock, in the secret recesses of the cliff, Let me see you, let me hear your voice, For your voice is sweet, and you are lovely -- Song of Songs 2:14
Yet if our participation in Advent is to reach its fullest potential, it is necessary to explore deeply the Christian process of preparation, an endeavor of holiness that includes ongoing repentance and conversion, for Christ began his mission with the words, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Mt 4:17). Christ therefore calls us to conversion, a call which "continues to resound in the lives of Christians," and which is an "uninterrupted task for the whole Church" who "follows constantly the path of penance and renewal" (see CCC No. 1427).
Repentance: The Radical Reorientation Of One's Whole Life
The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that Christ calls us to conversion and penance. However, this call to conversion and penance does not "aim first at outward works," such as fasting and mortification, "but at the conversion of the heart, interior conversion. Without this, such penances remain sterile and false; however, interior conversion urges expression in visible signs, gestures and works of penance" (CCC No. 1430).
This interior repentance that takes place is "a radical reorientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away from evil, with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed. At the same time it entails the desire and resolution to change one's life, with hope in God's mercy and trust in the help of his grace. This conversion of heart is accompanied by a salutary pain and sadness which the Fathers called animi cruciatus (affliction of spirit) and compunctio cordis (repentance of heart)" (CCC No. 1431).
In the Parable of the Lost Son recorded in Luke's gospel (15:11-32), our Lord Jesus Christ reveals the place penance holds in the heart of the truly repentant sinner. After having "squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation," the Lost Son comes to his senses, realizes it is with his father that security, wholeness and true freedom will be restored, and thus firmly resolves to gather himself up, go to his father, and say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you." As the desire for penance floods the Lost Son's heart, he decides to say to his father: "I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers." In these words is revealed something of the human condition: the mystery of contrition as it is interwoven within the process of repentance and conversion, and the restorative healing that, by divine grace, flourishes within the truly penitent sinner who rushes ahead into the arms of the merciful God.
Thus we see that there is an inseparable relationship between repentance, penance and renewal. One does not truly exist without the others. Heartfelt repentance draws us into a wholly new way of life with Christ, a state in which, by God's grace, a radical change takes place at the very center of our being, and, as a result, we set out on a new path of love marked by the desire for penance. In living out such a journey, which is one in Christ, the Christian life is characterized by visible signs of penance, which leads into further growth and renewal, a state in which the regenerative and healing grace of God continues to reorientate the person, reshaping his views, attitudes and entire being. It would appear impossible to undergo true repentance and conversion without both experiencing a desire for penance as well as manifesting visible signs of it.
Penance: When It Is Authentic And Effective
John Paul II explains in his apostolic exhortation Reconciliation and Penance that the "term and the very concept of penance are very complex." If penance is linked with the "metanoia (profound spiritual transformation) which the synoptics refer to, it means the inmost change of heart under the influence of the word of God and in the perspective of the kingdom.
"But penance also means changing one's life in harmony with the change of heart, and in this sense doing penance is completed by bringing forth fruits worthy of penance: It is one's whole existence that becomes penitential, that is to say, directed toward a continuous striving for what is better. But doing penance is something authentic and effective only if it is translated into deeds and acts of penance. In this sense penance means, in the Christian theological and spiritual vocabulary, asceticism, that is to say, the concrete daily effort of a person, supported by God's [grace], [to] lose his or her own life for Christ as the only means of gaining it; an effort to put off the old man and put on the new; an effort to overcome in oneself what is of the flesh in order that what is spiritual may prevail; a continual effort to rise from the things of here below to the things of above, where Christ is. Penance is therefore a conversion that passes from the heart to deeds and then to the Christian's whole life" (RAP, 4).
Advent: To Prepare And To Acknowledge
To cry out, "Come, Lord Jesus!" in sincerity from the depths of our being is made possible only by acknowledging the reality of who we are. It is therefore, at the same time, to exclaim, "I am a sinner: O God, my Savior, treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers." John Paul II explains that this acknowledgement is an essential first step in returning to the Father:
"To acknowledge one's sin, indeed -- penetrating still more deeply into the consideration of one's own personhood -- to recognize oneself as being a sinner, capable of sin and inclined to commit sin, is the essential first step in returning to God. . . . In effect, to become reconciled with God presupposes and includes detaching oneself consciously and with determination from the sin into which one has fallen. It presupposes and includes, therefore, doing penance in the fullest sense of the term: repenting, showing this repentance, adopting a real attitude of repentance -- which is the attitude of the person who starts out on the road of return to the Father" (RAP, 13).
The Desire To Obtain Forgiveness: Conviction And The Sacrament Of Penance
We read of determined conviction in the parable of the Lost Son: after coming to his senses, the son tells himself, "I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, 'Father, I have sinned . . .'" This is precisely what Catholics do in bringing themselves to the feet of Mercy in the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, as they contritely confess their sins to Christ through his ordained minister, the Catholic priest. Penitent Christians therefore "get up," they "go to" Christ, saying, "I confess to almighty God . . ." (see Rite For Reconciliation Of Individual Penitents, No. 44).
For Christians the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation is necessary in order to lead a fruitful life of holiness in full communion with Christ's Mystical Body, the Church: "Sin is before all else an offense against God, a rupture of communion with him. At the same time it damages communion with the Church. For this reason conversion entails both God's forgiveness and reconciliation with the Church, which are expressed and accomplished liturgically by the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation" (CCC No. 1440). John Paul II further explains that the sacrament of Penance is the primary way of obtaining forgiveness of grave sin:
"The first conviction is that for a Christian the sacrament of penance is the primary way of obtaining forgiveness and the remission of serious sin committed after baptism. Certainly the Savior and his salvific action are not so bound to a sacramental sign as to be unable in any period or area of the history of salvation to work outside and above the sacraments. But in the school of faith we learn that the same Savior desired and provided that the simple and precious sacraments of faith would ordinarily be the effective means through which his redemptive power passes and operates. It would therefore be foolish, as well as presumptuous, to wish arbitrarily to disregard the means of grace and salvation which the Lord has provided and, in the specific case, to claim to receive forgiveness while doing without the sacrament which was instituted by Christ precisely for forgiveness" (RAP, 31).
Utilizing the principle of Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi ("as we pray, so we believe"), let us this Advent, in ardent preparation, reflect on the following prayer taken from Chapter IV of the Rite of Penance and Reconciliation, for within it is contained the meaning of repentance, conversion, penance and renewal:
Father of mercy, like the prodigal son I return to you and say: "I have sinned against you and am no longer worthy to be called your son."
Christ Jesus, Savior of the world, I pray with the repentant thief to whom you promised paradise: "Lord, remember me in your kingdom."
Holy Spirit, fountain of love, I call on you with trust: "Purify my heart, and help me to walk as a child of the light."
F. K. Bartels is a Catholic writer who knows his Catholic faith is one of the greatest gifts a man could ever have. He is a contributing writer for Catholic Online. Visit him also at catholicpathways.com
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