RECONCILIATION AND PENANCE
OF JOHN PAUL II
TO THE BISHOPS
CLERGY AND FAITHFUL
ON RECONCILIATION AND PENANCE
IN THE MISSION OF THE CHURCH TODAY
ORIGIN AND MEANING OF THE
1. To speak of reconciliation and
penance is for the men and women of our time an invitation to
rediscover, translated into their own way of speaking, the very words
with which our savior and teacher Jesus Christ began his preaching:
"Repent, and believe in the Gospel,"(1) that is to say, accept the good
news of love, of adoption as children of God and hence of brotherhood.
Why does the church put forward once more this
subject and this invitation?
The concern to know better and to understand
modern man and the contemporary world, to solve their puzzle and reveal
their mystery, to discern the ferments of good and evil within them, has
long caused many people to direct at man and the world a questioning
gaze. It is the gaze of the historian and sociologist, philosopher and
theologian, psychologist and humanist, poet and mystic: Above all, it is
the gaze, anxious yet full of hope, of the pastor.
In an exemplary fashion this is shown on every
page of the important pastoral constitution of the Second Vatican
Spes on the church in the modern world, particularly in its wide-ranging
and penetrating introduction. It is likewise shown in certain documents
issued through the wisdom and charity of my esteemed predecessors, whose
admirable pontificates were marked by the historic and prophetic event
of that ecumenical council.
In common with others, the pastor too can
discern among the various unfortunate characteristics of the world and
of humanity in our time the existence of many deep and painful
A Shattered World
2. These divisions are seen in the
relationships between individuals and groups, and also at the level of
larger groups: nations against nations and blocs of opposing countries
in a headlong quest for domination. At the root of this alienation it is
not hard to discern conflicts which, instead of being resolved through
dialogue, grow more acute in confrontation and opposition.
Careful observers, studying the elements that
cause division, discover reasons of the most widely differing kinds:
from the growing disproportion between groups, social classes
and-countries, to ideological rivalries that are far from dead; from the
opposition between economic interests to political polarization; from
tribal differences to discrimination for social and religious reasons.
Moreover, certain facts that are obvious to all constitute as it were
the pitiful face of the division of which they are the fruit and
demonstrate its seriousness in an inescapably concrete way. Among the
many other painful social phenomena of our times one can noted.
- The trampling upon the basic rights of the
human person, the first of these being the right to life and to a
worthy quality of life, which is all the more scandalous in that it
coexists with a rhetoric never before known on these same rights.
- Hidden attacks and pressures against the
freedom of individuals and groups, not excluding the freedom which
is most offended against and threatened: the freedom to have,
profess and practice one's own faith.
- The various forms of discrimination:
racial, cultural, religious, etc.
- Violence and terrorism.
- The use of torture and unjust and unlawful
methods of repression.
- The stockpiling of conventional or atomic
weapons, the arms race with the spending on military purposes of
sums which could be used to alleviate the undeserved misery of
peoples that are socially and economically depressed.
- An unfair distribution of the world's
resources and of the assets of civilization, which reaches its
highest point in a type of social organization whereby the distance
between the human conditions of the rich and the poor becomes ever
greater.(2) The overwhelming power of this division makes the world
in which we live a world shattered(3) to its very foundations.
Moreover, the church-without identifying
herself with the world or being of the world-is in the world and is
engaged in dialogue with the world.(4) It is therefore not surprising if
one notices in the structure of the church herself repercussions and
signs of the division affecting human society. Over and above the
divisions between the Christian communions that have afflicted her for
centuries, the church today is experiencing within herself sporadic
divisions among her own members, divisions caused by differing views or
options in the doctrinal and pastoral field.(5) These divisions too can
at times seem incurable.
However disturbing these divisions may seem at
first sight, it is only by a careful examination that one can detect
their root: It is to be found in a wound in man's inmost self. In the
light of faith we call it sin: beginning with original sin, which all of
us bear from birth as an inheritance from our first parents, to the sin
which each one of us commits when we abuse our own freedom.
Longing for Reconciliation
3. Nevertheless, that same inquiring gaze, if
it is discerning enough, detects in the very midst of division an
unmistakable desire among people of good will and true Christians to
mend the divisions, to heal the wounds and to re-establish at all levels
an essential unity. This desire arouses in many people a real longing
for reconciliation even in cases where there is no actual use of this
Some consider reconciliation as an impossible
dream which ideally might become the lever for a true transformation of
society. For others it is to be gained by arduous efforts and therefore
a goal to be reached through serious reflection and action. Whatever the
case, the longing for sincere and consistent reconciliation is without a
shadow of doubt a fundamental driving force in our society, reflecting
an irrepressible desire for peace. And it is as strongly so as the
factors of division, even though this is a paradox.
But reconciliation cannot be less profound than
the division itself. The longing for reconciliation and reconciliation
itself will be complete and effective only tot he extent that they
reach-in order to heal it-that original wound which is the root of all
other wounds: namely sin.
The Synod's View
4. Therefore every institution or organization
concerned with serving people and saving them in their fundamental
dimensions must closely study reconciliation in order to grasp more
fully its meaning and significance and in order to draw the necessary
The church of Jesus Christ could not fail to
make this study. With the devotion of a mother and the understanding of
a teacher, she earnestly and carefully applies herself to detecting in
society not only the signs of division but also the no less eloquent and
significant signs of the quest for reconciliation. For she knows that
she especially has been given the ability and assigned the mission to
make known the true and profoundly religious meaning of reconciliation
and its full scope. She is thereby already helping to clarify the
essential terms of the question of unity and peace.
My predecessors constantly preached
reconciliation and invited to reconciliation the whole of humanity and
every section and portion of the human community that they saw wounded
and divided.(6) And I myself, by an interior impulse which-I am
certain-was obeying both an inspiration from on high and the appeals of
humanity, decided to emphasize the subject of reconciliation and to do
this in two ways, each of them solemn and exacting. In the first place,
by convoking the Sixth General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops; in the
second place, by making reconciliation the center of the jubilee year
called to celebrate the 1,950th anniversary of the redemption.(7) Having
to assign a theme to the synod, I found myself fully in accord with the
one suggested by many of my brothers in the episcopate, namely, the
fruitful theme of reconciliation in close connection with the theme of
The term and the very concept of penance are
very complex. If we link penance with the metanoia 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.(9) 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:(10) 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
lose his or her own life for Christ as the only means of gaining it;(11)
an effort to put off the old man and put on the new;(12) an effort to
overcome in oneself what is of the flesh in order that what is
spiritual(13) may prevail; a continual effort to rise from the things of
here below to the things of above, where Christ is.(14) Penance is
therefore a conversion that passes from the heart to deeds and then to
the Christian's whole life.
In each of these meanings penance is closely
connected with reconciliation, for reconciliation with God, with oneself
and with others implies overcoming that radical break which is sin. And
this is achieved only through the interior transformation or conversion
which bears fruit in a person s life through acts of penance.
The basic document of the synod (also called
the lineamenta), which was prepared with the sole purpose of presenting
the theme while stressing certain fundamental aspects of it, enabled the
ecclesial communities throughout the world to reflect for almost two
years on these aspects of a question-that of conversion and
reconciliation-which concerns everyone. It also enabled them to draw
from it a fresh impulse for the Christian life And Apostolate, That
reflection was further deepened in the more immediate preparation for
the work of the synod, thanks to the instrumentum laboris which was sent
in due course to the bishops and their collaborators. After that, the
synod fathers, assisted by all those called to attend the actual
sessions, spent a whole month assiduously dealing with the theme itself
and with the numerous and varied questions connected with it. There
emerged from the discussions, from the common study and from the
diligent and accurate work done, a large and precious treasure which the
final propositions sum up in their essence.
The synod's view does not ignore the acts of
reconciliation (some of which pass almost unobserved in their daily
ordinariness) which, though in differing degrees, serve to resolve the
many tensions, to overcome the many conflicts and to conquer the
divisions both large and small by restoring unity. But the synod's main
concern was to discover in the depth of these scattered acts the hidden
root- reconciliation so to speak at the source," which takes place in
people's hearts and minds.
The church's charism and likewise her unique
nature vis-a-vis reconciliation, at whatever level it needs to be
achieved, lie in the fact that she always goes back to that
reconciliation at the source. For by reason of her essential mission,
the church feels an obligation to go to the roots of that original wound
of sin in order to bring healing and to re-establish, so to speak, an
equally original reconciliation which will be the effective principle of
all true reconciliation. This is the reconciliation which the church had
in mind and which she put forward through the synod.
Sacred Scripture speaks to us of this
reconciliation, inviting us to make every effort to attain it.(15) But
Scripture also tells us that it is above all a merciful gift of God to
humanity.(16) The history of salvation-the salvation of the whole of
humanity as well as of every human being of whatever period-is the
wonderful history of a reconciliation: the reconciliation whereby God,
as Father, in the blood and the cross of his Son made man, reconciles
the world to himself and thus brings into being a new family of those
who have been reconciled.
Reconciliation becomes necessary because there
has been the break of sin from which derive all the other forms of break
within man and about him. Reconciliation, therefore, in order to be
complete necessarily requires liberation from sin, which is to be
rejected in its deepest roots. Thus a close internal link unites
conversion and reconciliation. It is impossible to split these two
realities or to speak of one and say nothing of the other.
The synod at the same time spoke about the
reconciliation of the whole human family and of the conversion of the
heart of every individual, of his or her return to God: It did so
because it wished to recognize and proclaim the fact that there can be
no union among people without an internal change in each individual.
Personal conversion is the necessary path to harmony between
individuals.(17) When the church proclaims the good news of
reconciliation or proposes achieving it through the sacraments, she is
exercising a truly prophetic role, condemning the evils of man in their
infected source, showing the root of divisions and bringing hope in the
possibility of overcoming tensions and conflict and reaching
brotherhood, concord and peace at all levels and in all sections of
human society. She is changing a historical condition of hatred and
violence into a civilization of love. She is offering to everyone the
evangelical and sacramental principle of that reconciliation at the
source, from which comes every other gesture or act of reconciliation,
also at the social level.
It is this reconciliation, the result of
conversion, which is dealt with in the present apostolic exhortation.
For, as happened at the end of the three previous assemblies of the
synod, this time too the fathers who had taken part presented the
conclusions of the synod's work to the bishop of Rome, the universal
pastor of the church and the head of the College of Bishops, in his
capacity as president of the synod. I accepted as a serious and welcome
duty of my ministry the task of drawing from the enormous abundance of
the synod in order to offer to the people of God, as the fruit of the
same synod, a doctrinal and pastoral message on the subject of penance
and reconciliation. In the first part I shall speak of the church in the
carrying out of her mission of reconciliation, in the work of the
conversion of hearts in order to bring about a renewed embrace between
man and God, man and his brother, man and the whole of creation. In the
second part there will be indicated the radical cause of all wounds and
divisions between people, and in the first place between people and God:
namely sin. Afterward I shall indicate the means that enable the church
to promote and encourage full reconciliation between people and God and,
as a consequence, of people with one another.
The document which I now entrust to the sons
and daughters of the church and also to all those who, whether they are
believers or not, look to the church with interest and sincerity, is
meant to be a fitting response to what the synod asked of me. But it is
also-and I wish to say this dearly as a duty to truth and
justice-something produced by the synod itself. For the contents of
these pages come from the synod: from its remote and immediate
preparation, from the instrumentum laboris, from the interventions in
the Synod Hall and the circuli minores, and especially from the
sixty-three propositions. Here we have the result of the joint work of
the fathers, who included the representatives of the Eastern churches,
whose theological, spiritual and liturgical heritage is so rich and
venerable, also with regard to the subject that concerns us here.
Furthermore, it was the Council of the Synod Secretariat which
evaluated, in two important sessions, the results and orientations of
the synod assembly just after it had ended, which highlighted the
dynamics of the already mentioned propositions and which then indicated
the lines considered most suitable for the preparation of the present
document. I am grateful to all those who did this work and, in fidelity
to my mission, I wish here to pass on the elements from the doctrinal
and pastoral treasure of the synod which seem to me providential for
people's lives at this magnificent yet difficult moment in history.
It is appropriate-and very significant-to do
this while there remains fresh in people's minds the memory of the Holy
Year, which was lived in the spirit of penance, conversion and
reconciliation. May this exhortation, entrusted to my brothers in the
episcopate and to their collaborators, the priests and deacons, to men
and women religious, and to all men and women of upright conscience, be
a means of purification, enrichment and deepening in personal faith. May
it also be a leaven capable of encouraging the growth in the midst of
the world of peace and brotherhood, hope and joy-values which spring
from the Gospel as it is accepted, meditated upon and lived day by day
after the example of Mary, mother of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom
it pleased God to reconcile all things to himself.(18)
CONVERSION AND RECONCILIATION: THE CHURCH'S TASK AND COMMITMENT
A PARABLE OF RECONCILIATION
5. At the beginning of this
apostolic exhortation there comes into my mind that extraordinary
passage in St. Luke, the deeply religious as well as human substance of
which I have already sought to illustrate in a previous document.(19) I
refer to the parable of the prodigal son.(20)
From the Brother Who Was Lost...
"There was a man who had two sons; the younger
of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of property that
falls to me,' " says Jesus as he begins the dramatic story of that young
man: the adventurous departure from his father's house, the squandering
of all his property in a loose and empty life, the dark days of exile
and hunger, but even more of lost dignity, humiliation and shame and
then nostalgia for his own home, the courage to go back, the father's
welcome. The father had certainly not forgotten his son, indeed he had
kept unchanged his affection and esteem for him. So he had always waited
for him, and now he embraces him and he gives orders for a great feast
to celebrate the return of him who" was dead, and is alive; he was lost,
and is found."
This prodigal son is man every human being:
bewitched by the temptation to separate himself from his Father in order
to lead his own independent existence; disappointed by the emptiness of
the mirage which had fascinated him; alone, dishonored, exploited when
he tries to build a world all for himself sorely tried, even in the
depths of his own misery, by the desire to return to communion with his
Father. Like the father in the parable, God looks out for the return of
his child, embraces him when he arrives and orders the banquet of the
new meeting with which the reconciliation is celebrated.
The most striking element of the parable is the
father's festive and loving welcome of the returning son: It is a sign
of the mercy of God, who is always willing to forgive. Let us say at
once: Reconciliation is principally a gift of the heavenly Father.
... To the Brother Who Stayed at Home
6. But the parable also brings into the picture
the elder brother, who refuses to take his place at the banquet. He
rebukes his younger brother for his dissolute wanderings, and he rebukes
his father for the welcome given to the prodigal son while he himself, a
temperate and hard-working person, faithful to father and home, has
never been allowed-he says to have a celebration with his friends. This
is a sign that he does not understand the father's goodness. To the
extent that this brother, too sure of himself and his own good
qualities, jealous and haughty, full of bitterness and anger, is not
converted and is not reconciled with his father and brother, the banquet
is not yet fully the celebration of a reunion and rediscovery.
Man every human being-is also this elder
brother. Selfishness makes him jealous, hardens his heart, blinds him
and shuts him off from other people and from God. The loving kindness
and mercy of the father irritate and enrage him; for him the happiness
of the brother who has been found again has a bitter taste.(21) From
this point of view he too needs to be converted in order to be
The parable of the prodigal son is above all
the story of the inexpressible love of a Father-God-who offers to his
son when he comes back to him the gift of full reconciliation. But when
the parable evokes, in the figure of the elder son, the selfishness
which divides the brothers, it also becomes the story of the human
family: It describes our situation and shows the path to be followed.
The prodigal son, in his anxiety for conversion, to return to the arms
of his father and to be forgiven, represents those who are aware of the
existence in their inmost hearts of a longing for reconciliation at all
levels and without reserve, and who realize with an inner certainty that
this reconciliation is possible only if it derives from a first and
fundamental reconciliation-the one which brings a person back from
distant separation to filial friendship with God, whose infinite mercy
is clearly known. But if the parable is read from the point of view of
the other son, it portrays the situation of the human family, divided by
forms of selfishness. It throws light on the difficulty involved in
satisfying the desire and longing for one reconciled and united family.
It therefore reminds us of the need for a profound transformation of
hearts through the rediscovery of the Father's mercy and through victory
over misunderstanding and over hostility among brothers and sisters.
In the light of this inexhaustible parable of
the mercy that wipes out sin, the church takes up the appeal that the
parable contains and grasps her mission of working, in imitation of the
Lord, for the conversion of hearts and for the reconciliation of people
with God and with one another-these being two realities that are
AT THE SOURCES OF RECONCILIATION
In the Light of Christ the Reconciler
7. As we deduce from the parable of the
prodigal son, reconciliation is a gift of God, an initiative on his
part. But our faith teaches us that this initiative takes concrete form
in the mystery of Christ the redeemer, the reconciler and the liberator
of man from sin in all its forms. St. Paul likewise does not hesitate to
sum up in this task and function the incomparable mission of Jesus of
Nazareth, the word and the Son of God made man.
We too can start with this central mystery of
the economy of salvation, the key to St. Paul's Christology. "If while
we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son,"
writes St. Paul, "much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be
saved by his life. Not only so, but we also rejoice in God through our
Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received our
reconciliation."(22) Therefore, since "God was in Christ reconciling the
world to himself," Paul feels inspired to exhort the Christians of
Corinth: "Be reconciled to God."(23)
This mission of reconciliation through death on
the cross is spoken of in another terminology by the evangelist John,
when he observes that Christ had to die " to gather into one the
children of God who are scattered abroad."(24)
But it is once more St. Paul who enables us to
broaden our vision of Christ's work to cosmic dimensions when he writes
that in Christ the Father has reconciled to himself all creatures, those
in heaven and those on earth.(25) It can rightly be said of Christ the
redeemer that "in the time of wrath he was taken in exchange"(26) and
that, if he is "our peace,"(27) he is also our reconciliation.
With every good reason his passion and death,
sacramentally renewed in the eucharist, are called by the liturgy the
"sacrifice of reconciliation":(28) reconciliation with God and with the
brethren, since Jesus teaches that fraternal reconciliation must take
place before the sacrifice is offered.(29)
Beginning with these and other significant
passages in the New Testament, we can therefore legitimately relate all
our reflections on the whole mission of Christ to his mission as the one
who reconciles. Thus there must be proclaimed once more the church's
belief in Christ's redeeming act, in the paschal mystery of his death
and resurrection, as the cause of man's reconciliation in its twofold
aspect of liberation from sin and communion of grace with God.
It is precisely before the sad spectacle of the
divisions and difficulties in the way of reconciliation between people
that I invite all to look to the mysterium crucis as the loftiest drama
in which Christ perceives and suffers to the greatest possible extent
the tragedy of the division of man from God, so that he cries out in the
words of the psalmist: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"(30)
and at the same time accomplishes our reconciliation. With our eyes
fixed on the mystery of Golgotha we should be reminded always of that
"vertical" dimension of division and reconciliation concerning the
relationship between man and God, a dimension which in the eyes of faith
always prevails over the "horizontal" dimension, that is to say, over
the reality of division between people and the need for reconciliation
between them For we know that reconciliation between people is and can
only be the fruit of the redemptive act of Christ, who died and rose
again to conquer the kingdom of sin, to re- establish the covenant with
God and thus break down the dividing wall which sin had raised up
The Reconciling Church
8. But, as Pope St. Leo said, speaking of
Christ's passion, "Everything that the Son of God did and taught for the
reconciliation of the world we know not only from the history of his
past actions, but we experience it also in the effectiveness of what he
accomplishes in the present."(32) We experience the reconciliation which
he accomplished in his humanity in the efficacy of the sacred mysteries
which are celebrated by his church, for which he gave his life and which
he established as the sign and also the means of salvation.
This is stated by St. Paul when he writes that
God has given to Christ's apostles a share in his work of
reconciliation. He says: "God...gave us the ministry of
reconciliation...and the message of reconciliation."(33)
To the hands and lips of the apostles, his
messengers, the Father has mercifully entrusted a ministry of
reconciliation, which they carry but in out in a singular way by virtue
of the power to act "in persona Christi. " But the message of
reconciliation has also been entrusted to the whole community of
believers, to the whole fabric of the church, that is to say, the task
of doing everything possible to witness to reconciliation and to bring
it about in the world.
It can be said that the Second Vatican Council
too, in defining the church as a "sacrament-a sign and instrument, that
is, of communion with God and of unity among all people," and in
indicating as the church's function that of obtaining "full unity in
Christ" for the "people of the present day...drawn ever more closely
together by social, technical and cultural bonds,"(34) recognized that
the church must strive above all to bring all people to full
In intimate connection with Christ's mission,
one can therefore sum up the church's mission, rich and complex as it
is, as being her central task of reconciling people: with God, with
themselves, with neighbor, with the whole of creation; and this in a
permanent manner since, as I said on another occasion, "the church is
also by her nature always reconciling."(35)
The church is reconciling inasmuch as she
proclaims the message of reconciliation as she has always done
throughout her history, from the apostolic Council of Jerusalem(36) down
to the latest synod and the recent jubilee of the redemption. The
originality of this proclamation is in the fact that for the church
reconciliation is closely linked with conversion of heart: This is the
necessary path to understanding among human beings.
The church is also reconciling inasmuch as she
shows man the paths and offers the means for reaching this fourfold
reconciliation. The paths are precisely those of conversion of heart and
victory over sin, whether this latter is selfishness or injustice,
arrogance or exploitation of others, attachment to material goods or the
unrestrained quest for pleasure. The means are those of faithful and
loving attention to God's word; personal and community prayer; and in
particular the sacraments, true signs and instruments of reconciliation,
among which there excels, precisely under this aspect, the one which we
are rightly accustomed to call the sacrament of reconciliation or
penance and to which we shall return later on.
The Reconciled Church
9. My venerable predecessor Paul VI commendably
highlighted the fact that the church, in order to evangelize, must begin
by showing that she herself has been evangelized, that is to say, that
she is open to the full and complete proclamation of the good news of
Jesus Christ in order to listen to it and put it into practice.(37) I
too, by bringing together in one document the reflections of the fourth
general assembly of the synod, have spoken of a church that is
catechized to the extent that she carries out catechesis.(38)
I now do not hesitate to resume the comparison,
insofar as it applies to the theme I am dealing with, in order to assert
that the church, if she is to be reconciling, must begin by being a
reconciled church. Beneath this simple and indicative expression lies
the conviction that the church, in order ever more effectively to
proclaim and propose reconciliation to the world, must become ever more
genuinely a community of disciples of Christ (even though it were only
"the little flock" of the first days), united in the commitment to be
continually converted to the Lord and to live as new people in the
spirit and practice of reconciliation.
To the people of our time, so sensitive to the
proof of concrete living witness, the church is called upon to give an
example of reconciliation particularly within herself. And for this
purpose we must all work to bring peace to people's minds, to reduce
tensions, to overcome divisions and to heal wounds that may have been
inflicted by brother on brother when the contrast of choices in the
field of what is optional becomes acute; and on the contrary we must try
to be united in what is essential for Christian faith and life, in
accordance with the ancient maxim: In what is doubtful, freedom; in what
is necessary, unity; in all things, charity.
It is in accordance with this same criterion
that the church must conduct her ecumenical activity. For in order to be
completely reconciled, she knows that she must continue the quest for
unity among those who are proud to call themselves Christians but who
are separated from one another, also as churches or communions, and from
the church of Rome. The latter seeks a unity which, if it is to be the
fruit and expression of true reconciliation, is meant to be based
neither upon a disguising of the points that divide nor upon compromises
which are as easy as they are superficial and fragile. Unity must be the
result of a true conversion of everyone, the result of mutual
forgiveness, of theological dialogue and fraternal relations, of prayer
and of complete docility to the action of the Holy Spirit, who is also
the Spirit of reconciliation.
Finally, in order that the church may say that
she is completely reconciled, she feels that it is her duty to strive
ever harder, by promoting the "dialogue of salvation,"(39) to bring the
Gospel to those vast sections of humanity in the modern world that do
not share her faith, but even, as a result of growing secularism, keep
their distance from her and oppose her with cold indifference when they
do not actually hinder and persecute her. She feels the duty to say once
more to everyone in the words of St. Paul: "Be reconciled to God."(40)
At any rate, the church promotes reconciliation
in the truth, knowing well that neither reconciliation nor unity is
possible outside or in opposition to the truth.
GOD'S INITIATIVE AND THE CHURCH'S MINISTRY
10. The church, as a reconciled
and reconciling community, cannot forget that at the source of her gift
and mission of reconciliation is the initiative, full of compassionate
love and mercy, of that God who is love(41) and who out of love created
human beings;(42) and he created them so that they might live in
friendship with him and in communion with one another.
Reconciliation Comes from God
God is faithful to his eternal
plan even when man, under the impulse of the evil one(43) and carried
away by his own pride, abuses the freedom given to him in order to love
and generously seek what is good, and refuses to obey his Lord and
Father. God is faithful even when man, instead of responding with love
to God's love, opposes him and treats him like a rival, deluding himself
and relying on his own power, with the resulting break of relationship
with the one who created him. In spite of this transgression on man's
part, God remains faithful in love. It is certainly true that the story
of the Garden of Eden makes us think about the tragic consequences of
rejecting the Father, which becomes evident in man's inner disorder and
in the breakdown of harmony between man and woman, brother and
brother.(44) Also significant is the gospel parable of the two brothers
who, in different ways, distance themselves from their father and cause
a rift between them. Refusal of God's fatherly love and of his loving
gifts is always at the root of humanity's divisions.
But we know that God, "rich in mercy,"(45) like
the father in the parable, does not close his heart to any of his
children. He waits for them, looks for them, goes to meet them at the
place where the refusal of communion imprisons them in isolation and
division. He calls them to gather about his table in the joy of the
feast of forgiveness and reconciliation.
This initiative on God's part is made concrete
and manifest in the redemptive act of Christ, which radiates through the
world by means of the ministry of the church.
For, according to our faith, the word of God
became flesh and came to dwell in the world; he entered into the history
of the world) summing it up and recapitulating it in himself.(46) He
revealed to us that God is love, and he gave us the new commandment" of
love,(47) at the same time communicating to us the certainty that the
path of love is open for all people, so that the effort to establish
universal brotherhood is not a vain one.(48) By conquering through his
death on the cross evil and the power of sin, by his loving obedience,
he brought salvation to all and became "reconciliation for all. In him
God reconciled man to himself.
The church carries on the proclamation of
reconciliation which Christ caused to echo through the villages of
Galilee and all Palestine(49) and does not cease to invite all humanity
to be converted and to believe in the good news. She speaks in the name
of Christ, making her own the appeal of St. Paul which we have already
recalled: "We are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through
us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God."(50)
Those who accept this appeal enter into the
economy of reconciliation and experience the truth contained in that
other affirmation of St. Paul, that Christ "is our peace, who has made
us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility..., so
making peace" that he "might reconcile us both to God."(51) This text
directly concerns the overcoming of the religious division between
Israel-as the chosen people of the Old Testament-and the other peoples,
all called to form part of the new covenant. Nevertheless it contains
the affirmation of the new spiritual universality desired by God and
accomplished by him through the sacrifice of his Son, the word made man,
without limits or exclusions of any sort, for all those who are
converted and who believe in Christ. We are all therefore called to
enjoy the fruits of this reconciliation desired by God: every individual
and every people.
The Church, the Great Sacrament of
11. The church has the mission of proclaiming
this reconciliation and as it were of being its sacrament in the world.
The church is the sacrament, that is to say, the sign and means of
reconciliation in different ways which differ in value but which all
come together to obtain what the divine initiative of mercy desires to
grant to humanity.
She is a sacrament in the first place by her
very existence as a reconciled community which witnesses to and
represents in the world the work of Christ.
She is also a sacrament through her service as
the custodian and interpreter of sacred Scripture, which is the good
news of reconciliation inasmuch as it tells each succeeding generation
about God's loving plan and shows to each generation the paths to
universal reconciliation in Christ.
Finally she is a sacrament by reason of the
seven sacraments which, each in its own way, " make the church. "(52)
For since they commemorate and renew Christ's paschal mystery, all the
sacraments are a source of life for the church and in the church's hands
they are means of conversion to God and of reconciliation among people.
Other Means of Reconciliation
12 The mission of reconciliation is proper to
the whole church, also and especially to that church which has already
been admitted to the full sharing in divine glory with the Virgin Mary,
the angels and the saints, who contemplate and adore the thrice-holy God
The church in heaven, the-church on earth and the church in purgatory
are mysteriously united in this cooperation with Christ in reconciling
the world to God.
The first means of this salvific action is that
of prayer. It is certain that the Blessed Virgin, mother of Christ and
of the church,(53) and the saints, who have now reached the end of their
earthly journey and possess God's glory, sustain by their intercession
their brethren who are on pilgrimage through the world, in the
commitment to conversion, to faith, to getting up again after every
fall, to acting in order to help the growth of communion and peace in
the church and in the world. In the mystery of the communion of saints,
universal reconciliation is accomplished in its most profound form,
which is also the most fruitful for the salvation of all.
There is yet another means: that of preaching.
The church, since she is the disciple of the one teacher Jesus Christ,
in her own turn as mother and teacher untiringly exhorts people to
reconciliation. And she does not hesitate to condemn the evil of sin, to
proclaim the need for conversion, to invite and ask people to "let
themselves be reconciled." In fact, this is her prophetic mission in
today's world, just as it was in the world of yesterday. It is the same
mission as that of her teacher and head, Jesus. Like him, the church
will always carry out this mission with sentiments of merciful love and
will bring to all people those words of forgiveness and that invitation
to hope which come from the cross.
There is also the often so difficult and
demanding means of pastoral action aimed at bringing back every
individual-whoever and wherever he or she may be-to the path, at times a
long one, leading back to the Father in the communion of all the
Finally there is the means of witness, which is
almost always silent. This is born from a twofold awareness on the part
of the church: that of being in herself "unfailingly holy,"(54) but also
the awareness of the need to go forward and "daily be further purified
and renewed, against the day when Christ will present her to himself in
all her glory without spot or wrinkle," for, by reason of her sins,
sometimes "the radiance of the church's face shines less brightly" in
the eyes of those who behold her.(55) This witness cannot fail to assume
two fundamental aspects. This first aspect is that of being the sign of
that universal charity which Jesus Christ left as an inheritance to his
followers, as a proof of belonging to his kingdom. The second aspect is
translation into ever new manifestations of conversion and
reconciliation both within the church and outside her, by the overcoming
of tensions, by mutual forgiveness, by growth in the spirit of
brotherhood and peace which is to be spread throughout the world. By
this means the church will effectively be able to work for the creation
of what my predecessor Paul VI called the "civilization of love."
THE LOVE THAT IS GREATER THAN SIN
The Tragedy of Man
13. In the words of St. John the
apostle, "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth
is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will
forgive our sins."(56) Written at the very dawn of the church, these
inspired words introduce better than any other human expression the
theme of sin, which is intimately connected with that of reconciliation.
These words present the question of sin in its human dimension: sin as
an integral part of the truth about man. But they immediately relate the
human dimension to its divine dimension, where sin is countered by the
truth of divine love, which is just, generous and faithful, and which
reveals itself above all in forgiveness and redemption. Thus St. John
also writes a little further on that "whatever accusations (our
conscience) may raise against us, God is greater than our
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. For
example, this is the experience of David, who "having done what is evil
in the eyes of the Lord" and having been rebuked by the prophet
Nathan,(58) exclaims: "For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever
before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned and done what is evil
in your sight."(59) Similarly, Jesus himself puts the following
significant words on the lips and in the heart of the prodigal son:
"Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you."(60)
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. This is a general law and one which each
individual must follow in his or her particular situation. For it is not
possible to deal with sin and conversion only in abstract terms.
In the concrete circumstances of sinful
humanity, in which there can be no conversion without the acknowledgment
of one's own sin, the church's ministry of reconciliation intervenes in
each individual case with a precise penitential purpose. That is, the
church's ministry intervenes in order to bring the person to the
"knowledge of self"-in the words of St. Catherine of Siena(61)-to the
rejection of evil, to the re-establishment of friendship with God, to a
new interior ordering, to a fresh ecclesial conversion. Indeed, even
beyond the boundaries of the church and the community of believers, the
message and ministry of penance are addressed to all men and women,
because all need conversion and reconciliation.(62)
In order to carry out this penitential ministry
adequately, we shall have to evaluate the consequences of sin with "eyes
enlightened"(63) by faith. These consequences of sin are the reasons for
division and rupture not only within each person, but also within the
various circles of a person's life: in relation to the family, to the
professional and social environment, as can often be seen from
experience; it is confirmed by the passage in the Bible about the city
of Babel and its tower.(64) Intent on building what was to be at once a
symbol and a source of unity, those people found themselves more
scattered than before, divided in speech, divided among themselves,
incapable of consensus and agreement.
Why did the ambitious project fail? Why did
"the builders labor in vain?"(65) They failed because they had set up as
a sign and guarantee of the unity they desired a work of their own hands
alone and had forgotten the action of the Lord. They had attended only
to the horizontal dimension of work and social life, forgetting the
vertical dimension by which they would have been rooted in God, their
creator and Lord, and would have been directed toward him as the
ultimate goal of their progress.
Now it can be said that the tragedy of humanity
today, as indeed of every period in history, consists precisely in its
similarity to the experience of Babel.
THE MYSTERY OF SIN
14 If we read the passage in the Bible on the
city and tower of Babel in the new light offered by the Gospel and if we
compare it with the other passage on the fall of our first parents, we
can draw from it valuable elements for an understanding of the mystery
of sin. This expression, which echoes what St. Paul writes concerning
the mystery of evil,(66) helps us to grasp the obscure and intangible
element hidden in sin. Clearly sin is a product of man's freedom. But
deep within its human reality there are factors at work which place it
beyond the merely human, in the border area where man's conscience, will
and sensitivity are in contact with the dark forces which, according to
St. Paul, are active in the world almost to the point of ruling it.(67)
Disobedience to God
A first point which helps us to understand sin
emerges from the biblical narrative on the building of the tower of
Babel: The people sought to build a city, organize themselves into a
society and to be strong and powerful without God, if not precisely
against God.(68) In this sense the story of the first sin in Eden and
the story of Babel, in spite of notable differences in content and form,
have one thing in common: In both there is an exclusion of God through
direct opposition to one of his commandments, through an act of rivalry,
through the mistaken pretension of being "like him."(69) In the story of
Babel the exclusion of God is presented not so much under the aspect of
opposition to him as of forgetfulness and indifference toward him, as if
God were of no relevance in the sphere of man's joint projects. But in
both cases the relationship to God is severed with violence. In the case
of Eden there appears in all its seriousness and tragic reality that
which constitutes the ultimate essence and darkness of sin: disobedience
to God, to His law, to the mural norm that he has given man, inscribing
it in his heart and confirming and perfecting it through revelation.
Exclusion of God, rupture with God,
disobedience to God: Throughout the history of mankind this has been and
is, in various forms, sin. It can go as far as a very denial of God and
his existence: This is the phenomenon called atheism.
It is the disobedience of a person who, by a
free act, does not acknowledge God's sovereignty over his or her life,
at least at that particular moment in which he or she transgresses God's
Division Between Brothers
15. In the biblical narratives mentioned above,
man's rupture with God leads tragically to divisions between brothers.
In the description of the "first sin," the
rupture with Yahweh simultaneously breaks the bond of friendship that
had united the human family. Thus the subsequent pages of Genesis show
us the man and the woman as it were pointing an accusing finger at each
other.(70) Later we have the brother hating his brother and finally
taking his life.(71)
According to the Babel story, the result of sin
is the shattering of the human family, already begun with the first sin
and now reaching its most extreme form on the social level.
No one wishing to investigate the mystery of
sin can ignore this link between cause and effect. As a rupture with
God, sin is an act of disobedience by a creature who rejects, at least
implicitly, the very one from whom he came and who sustains him in life.
It is therefore a suicidal act. Since by sinning man refuses to submit
to God, his internal balance is also destroyed and it is precisely
within himself that contradictions and conflicts arise. Wounded in this
way, man almost inevitably causes damage to the fabric of his
relationship with others and with the created world. This is an
objective law and an objective reality, verified in so many ways in the
human psyche and in the spiritual life as well as in society, where it
is easy to see the signs and effects of internal disorder.
The mystery of sin is composed of this twofold
wound which the sinner opens in himself and in his relationship with his
neighbor. Therefore one can speak of personal and social sin: From one
point of view, every sin is personal; from another point of view, every
sin is social insofar as and because it also has social repercussions.
Personal Sin and Social Sin
16. Sin, in the proper sense, is always a
personal act, since it is an act of freedom on the part of an individual
person and not properly of a group or community. This individual may be
conditioned, incited and influenced by numerous and powerful external
factors. He may also be subjected to tendencies, defects and habits
linked with his personal condition. In not a few cases such external and
internal factors may attenuate, to a greater or lesser degree, the
person's freedom and therefore his responsibility and guilt. But it is a
truth of faith, also confirmed by our experience and reason, that the
human person is free. This truth cannot be disregarded in order to place
the blame for individuals' sins on external factors such as structures,
systems or other people. Above all, this would be to deny the person's
dignity and freedom, which are manifested-even though in a negative and
disastrous way-also in this responsibility for sin committed. Hence
there is nothing so personal and untransferable in each individual as
merit for virtue or responsibility for sin.
As a personal act, sin has its first and most
important consequences in the sinner himself: that is, in his
relationship with God, who is the very foundation of human life; and
also in his spirit, weakening his will and clouding his intellect.
At this point we must ask what was being
referred to by those who during the preparation of the synod and in the
course of its actual work frequently spoke of social sin.
The expression and the underlying concept in
fact have various meanings.
To speak of social sin means in the first place
to recognize that, by virtue of human solidarity which is as mysterious
and intangible as it is real and concrete, each individual's sin in some
way affects others. This is the other aspect of that solidarity which on
the religious level is developed in the profound and magnificent mystery
of the communion of saints, thanks to which it has been possible to say
that "every soul that rises above itself, raises up the world." To this
law of ascent there unfortunately corresponds the law of descent.
Consequently one can speak of a communion of sin, whereby a soul that
lowers itself through sin drags down with itself the church and, in some
way, the whole world. In other words, there is no sin, not even the most
intimate and secret one, the most strictly individual one, that
exclusively concerns the person committing it. With greater or lesser
violence, with greater or lesser harm, every sin has repercussions on
the entire ecclesial body and the whole human family. According to this
first meaning of the term, every sin can undoubtedly be considered as
Some sins, however, by their very matter
constitute a direct attack on one's neighbor and more exactly, in the
language of the Gospel, against one's brother or sister. They are an
offense against God because they are offenses against one's neighbor.
These sins are usually called social sins, and this is the second
meaning of the term. In this sense social sin is sin against love of
neighbor, and in the law of Christ it is all the more serious in that it
involves the Second Commandment, which is "like unto the first."(72)
Likewise, the term social applies to every sin against justice in
interpersonal relationships, committed either by the individual against
the community or by the community against the individual. Also social is
every sin against the rights of the human person, beginning with the
right to nd including the life of the unborn or against a person's
physical integrity. Likewise social is every sin against others'
freedom, especially against the supreme freedom to believe in God and
adore him; social is every sin against the dignity and honor of one's
neighbor. Also social is every sin against the common good and its
exigencies in relation to the whole broad spectrum of the rights and
duties of citizens. The term social can be applied to sins of commission
or omission-on the part of political, economic or trade union leaders,
who though in a position to do so, do not work diligently and wisely for
the improvement and transformation of society according to the
requirements and potential of the given historic moment; as also on the
part of workers who through absenteeism or non-cooperation fail to
ensure that their industries can continue to advance the well-being of
the workers themselves, of their families and of the whole of society.
The third meaning of social sin refers to the
relationships between the various human communities. These relationships
are not always in accordance with the plan of God, who intends that
there be justice in the world and freedom and peace between individuals,
groups and peoples. Thus the class struggle, whoever the person who
leads it or on occasion seeks to give it a theoretical justification, is
a social evil. Likewise obstinate confrontation between blocs of
nations, between one nation and another, between different groups within
the same nation all this too is a social evil. In both cases one may ask
whether moral responsibility for these evils, and therefore sin, can be
attributed to any person in particular. Now it has to be admitted that
realities and situations such as those described, when they become
generalized and reach vast proportions as social phenomena, almost
always become anonymous, just as their causes are complex and not always
identifiable. Hence if one speaks of social sin here, the expression
obviously has an analogical meaning. However, to speak even analogically
of social sins must not cause us to underestimate the responsibility of
the individuals involved. It is meant to be an appeal to the consciences
of all, so that each may shoulder his or her responsibility seriously
and courageously in order to change those disastrous conditions and
Having said this in the clearest and most
unequivocal way, one must add at once that there is one meaning
sometimes given to social sin that is not legitimate or acceptable even
though it is very common in certain quarters today.(74) This usage
contrasts social sin and personal sin, not without ambiguity, in a way
that leads more or less unconsciously to the watering down and almost
the abolition of personal sin, with the recognition only of social gilt
and responsibilities. According to this usage, which can readily be seen
to derive from non-Christian ideologies and systems-which have possibly
been discarded today by the very people who formerly officially upheld
them-practically every sin is a social sin, in the sense that blame for
it is to be placed not so much on the moral conscience of an individual,
but rather on some vague entity or anonymous collectivity such as the
situation, the system, society, structures or institutions.
Whenever the church speaks of situations of sin
or when the condemns as social sins certain situations or the collective
behavior of certain social groups, big or small, or even of whole
nations and blocs of nations, she knows and she proclaims that such
cases of social sin are the result of the accumulation and concentration
of many personal sins. It is a case of the very personal sins of those
who cause or support evil or who exploit it; of those who are in a
position to avoid, eliminate or at least limit certain social evils but
who fail to do so out of laziness, fear or the conspiracy of silence,
through secret complicity or indifference; of those who take refuge in
the supposed impossibility of changing the world and also of those who
sidestep the effort and sacrifice required, producing specious reasons
of higher order. The real responsibility, then, lies with individuals.
A situation-or likewise an institution, a
structure, society itself-is not in itself the subject of moral acts.
Hence a situation cannot in itself be good or bad.
At the heart of every situation of sin are
always to be found sinful people. So true is this that even when such a
situation can be changed in its structural and institutional aspects by
the force of law or-as unfortunately more often happens by the law of
force, the change in fact proves to be incomplete, of short duration and
ultimately vain and ineffective-not to say counterproductive if the
people directly or indirectly responsible for that situation are not
Mortal and Venial
17. But here we come to a further dimension in
the mystery of sin, one on which the human mind has never ceased to
ponder: the question of its gravity. It is a question which cannot be
overlooked and one which the Christian conscience has never refused to
answer. Why and to what degree is sin a serious matter in the offense it
commits against God and in its effects on man? The church has a teaching
on this matter which she reaffirms in its essential elements, while
recognizing that it is not always easy in concrete situations to define
clear and exact limits.
Already in the Old Testament, individuals
guilty of several kinds of sins - sins committed deliberately,(75) the
various forms of impurity,(76) idolatry,(77) the worship of false gods
(78) - were ordered to be "taken away from the people," which could also
mean to be condemned to death.(79) Contrasted with these were other sins
especially sins committed through ignorance, that were forgiven by means
of a sacrificial offering.(80)
In reference also to these texts, the church
has for centuries spoken of mortal sin and venial sin. But it is above
all the New Testament that sheds light on this distinction and these
terms. Here there are many passages which enumerate and strongly reprove
sins that are particularly deserving of condemnation.(81) There is also
the confirmation of the Decalogue by Jesus himself.(82) Here I wish to
give special attention to two passages that are significant and
In a text of his First Letter, St. John speaks
of a sin which leads to death (pros thanaton), as opposed to a sin which
does not lead to death (me pros thanaton).(83) Obviously, the concept of
death here is a spiritual death. It is a question of the loss of the
true life or "eternal life," which for John is knowledge of the Father
and the Son,(84) and communion and intimacy with them. In that passage
the sin that leads to death seems to be the denial of the Son(85) or the
worship of false gods.(86) At any rate, by this distinction of concepts
John seems to wish to emphasize the incalculable seriousness of what
constitutes the very essence of sin, namely the rejection of God. This
is manifested above all in apostasy and idolatry: repudiating faith in
revealed truth and making certain created realities equal to God,
raising them to the status of idols or false gods.(87) But in this
passage the apostle's intention is also to underline the certainty that
comes to the Christian from the fact of having been "born of God"
through the coming of the Son: The Christian possesses a power that
preserves him from falling into sin; God protects him, and "the evil one
does not touch him." If he should sin through weakness or ignorance, he
has confidence in being forgiven, also because he is supported by the
joint prayer of the community.
In another passage of the New Testament, namely
in St. Matthew's Gospel,(88)Jesus himself speaks of a "blasphemy against
the Holy Spirit" that " will not be forgiven" by reason of the fact that
in its manifestation, it is an obstinate refusal to be converted to the
love of the Father of mercies.
Here of course it is a question of external
radical manifestations: rejection of God, rejection of his grace and
therefore opposition to the very source of salvation(89)-these are
manifestations whereby a person seems to exclude himself voluntarily
from the path of forgiveness. It is to be hoped that very few persist to
the end in this attitude of rebellion or even defiance of God. Moreover,
God in his merciful love is greater than our hearts, as St. John further
teaches us,(90) and can overcome all our psychological and spiritual
resistance. So that, as St. Thomas writes, "considering the omnipotence
and mercy of God, no one should despair of the salvation of anyone in
But when we ponder the problem of a rebellious
will meeting the infinitely just God, we cannot but experience feelings
of salutary "fear and trembling," as St. Paul suggests.(92) Moreover,
Jesus' warning about the sin "that will not be forgiven" confirms the
existence of sins which can bring down on the sinner the punishment of
In the light of these and other passages of
sacred Scripture, doctors and theologians, spiritual teachers and
pastors have divided sins into mortal and venial. St. Augustine, among
others, speaks of letalia or mortifera crimina, contrasting them with
venialia, levia or quotidiana.(93) The meaning which he gives to these
adjectives was to influence the successive magisterium of the church.
After him, it was St. Thomas who was to formulate in the clearest
possible terms the doctrine which became a constant in the church.
In defining and distinguishing between mortal
and venial sins, St. Thomas and the theology of sin that has its source
in him could not be unaware of the biblical reference and therefore of
the concept of spiritual death. According to St. Thomas, in order to
live spiritually man must remain in communion with the supreme principle
of life, which is God, since God is the ultimate end of man'
s being and acting.
Now sin is a disorder perpetrated by the human being against this
life-principle. And when through sin, the soul commits a disorder that
reaches the point of turning away form its ultimate end God to which it
is bound by charity, then the sin is mortal; on the other hand, whenever
the disorder does not reach the point of a turning away from God, the
sin is venial."(94) For this reason venial sin does not deprive the
sinner of sanctifying grace, friendship with God, charity and therefore
eternal happiness, whereas just such a deprivation is precisely the
consequence of mortal sin.
Furthermore, when sin is considered from the
point of view of the punishment it merits, for St. Thomas and other
doctors mortal sin is the sin which, if unforgiven, leads to eternal
punishment; whereas venial sin is the sin that merits merely temporal
punishment (that is, a partial punishment which can be expiated on earth
or in purgatory).
Considering sin from the point of view of its
matter, the ideas of death, of radical rupture with God, the supreme
good, of deviation from the path that leads to God or interruption of
the journey toward him (which are all ways of defining mortal sin) are
linked with the idea of the gravity of sin's objective content. Hence,
in the church's doctrine and pastoral action, grave sin is in practice
identified with mortal sin.
Here we have the core of the church's
traditional teaching, which was reiterated frequently and vigorously
during the recent synod. The synod in fact not only reaffirmed the
teaching of the Council of Trent concerning the existence and nature of
mortal and venial sins,(95) but it also recalled that mortal sin is sin
whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full
knowledge and deliberate consent. It must be added-as was likewise done
at the synod-that some sins are intrinsically grave and mortal by reason
of their matter. That is, there exist acts which, per se and in
themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong
by reason of their object. These acts, if carried out with sufficient
awareness and freedom, are always gravely sinful.(96)
This doctrine, based on the Dccalogue and on
the preaching of the Old Testament, and assimilated into the kerygma of
the apostles and belonging to the earliest teaching of the church, and
constantly reaffirmed by her to this day, is exactly verified in the
experience of the men and women of all times. Man knows well by
experience that along the road of faith and justice which leads to the
knowledge and love of God in this life and toward perfect union with him
in eternity, he can cease to go forward or can go astray without
abandoning the way of God; and in this case there occurs venial sin.
This however must never be underestimated, as though it were
automatically something that can be ignored or regarded as "a sin of
For man also knows, through painful experience,
that by a conscious and free act of his will he can change course and go
in a direction opposed to God's will, separating himself from God
(aversio a Deo), rejecting loving communion with him, detaching himself
from the life principle which God is and consequently choosing death.
With the whole tradition of the church, we call
mortal sin the act by which man freely and consciously rejects God, his
law, the covenant of love that God offers, preferring to turn in on
himself or to some created and finite reality, something contrary to the
divine will (conversio ad creaturam). This can occur in a direct and
formal way in the sins of idolatry, apostasy and atheism; or in an
equivalent way as in every act of disobedience to God's commandments in
a grave matter. Man perceives that this disobedience to God destroys the
bond that unites him with his life principle: It is a mortal sin, that
is, an act which gravely offends God and ends in turning against man
himself with a dark and powerful force of destruction.
During the synod assembly some fathers proposed
a threefold distinction of sins, classifying them as venial, grave and
mortal. This threefold distinction might illustrate the fact that there
is a scale of seriousness among grave sins. But it still remains true
that the essential and decisive distinction is between sin which
destroys charity and sin which does not kill the supernatural life:
There is no middle way between life and death.
Likewise, care will have to be taken not to
reduce mortal sin to an act of " fundamental option"-as is commonly said
today-against God, intending thereby an explicit and formal contempt for
God or neighbor. For mortal sin exists also when a person knowingly and
willingly, for whatever reason, chooses something gravely disordered. In
fact, such a choice already includes contempt for the divine law, a
rejection of God's love for humanity and the whole of creation; the
person turns away from God and loses charity. Thus the fundamental
orientation can be radically changed by individual acts. Clearly there
can occur situations which are very complex and obscure from a
psychological viewpoint and which have an influence on the sinner's
subjective culpability. But from a consideration of the psychological
sphere one cannot proceed to the construction of a theological category,
which is what the "fundamental option" precisely is, understanding it in
such a way that it objectively changes or casts doubt upon the
traditional concept of mortal sin.
While every sincere and prudent attempt to
clarify the psychological and theological mystery of sin is to be
valued, the church nevertheless has a duty to remind all scholars in
this field of the need to be faithful to the word of God that teaches us
also about sin. She likewise has to remind them of the risk of
contributing to a further weakening of the sense of sin in the modern
The Loss of the Sense of Sin
18. Over the course of generations, the
Christian mind has gained from the Gospel as it is read in the ecclesial
community a fine sensitivity and an acute perception of the seeds of
death contained in sin, as well as a sensitivity and an acuteness of
perception for identifying them in the thousand guises under which sin
shows itself. This is what is commonly called the sense of sin.
This sense is rooted in man's moral conscience
and is as it were its thermometer. It is linked to the sense of God,
since it derives from man's conscious relationship with God as his
Creator, Lord and Father. Hence, just as it is impossible to eradicate
completely the sense of God or to silence the conscience completely, so
the sense of sin is never completely eliminated.
Nevertheless, it happens not infrequently in
history, for more or less lengthy periods and under the influence of
many different factors, that the moral conscience of many people becomes
seriously clouded. "Have we the right idea of conscience?"-I asked two
years ago in an address to the faithful" Is it not true that modern man
is threatened by an eclipse of conscience? By a deformation of
conscience? By a numbness or 'deadening' of conscience,"(97) Too many
signs indicate that such an eclipse exists in our time. This is all the
more disturbing in that conscience, defined by the council as "the most
secret core and sanctuary of a man,"(98) is "strictly related to human
freedom.... For this reason conscience, to a great extent, constitutes
the basis of man's interior dignity and, at the same time, of his
relationship to God."(99) It is inevitable therefore that in this
situation there is an obscuring also of the sense of sin, which is
closely connected with the moral conscience, the search for truth and
the desire to make a responsible use of freedom. When the conscience is
weakened the sense of God is also obscured, and as a result, with the
loss of this decisive inner point of reference, the sense of sin is
lost. This explains why my predecessor Pius XI, one day declared, in
words that have almost become proverbial, that "the sin of the century
is the loss of the sense of sin."(100)
Why has this happened in our time. A glance at
certain aspects of contemporary culture can help us to understand the
progressive weakening of the sense of sin, precisely because of the
crisis of conscience and crisis of the sense of God already mentioned.
"Secularism" is by nature and definition a
movement of ideas and behavior which advocates a humanism totally
without God, completely centered upon the cult of action and production
and caught up in the heady enthusiasm of consumerism and pleasure
seeking, unconcerned with the danger of "losing one's soul." This
secularism cannot but undermine the sense of sin. At the very most, sin
will be reduced to what offends man. But it is precisely here that we
are faced with the bitter experience which I already alluded to in my
first encyclical namely, that man can build a world without God, but
this world will end by turning against him."(101) In fact, God is the
origin and the supreme end of man, and man carries in himself a divine
seed.(102) Hence it is the reality of God that reveals and illustrates
the mystery of man. It is therefore vain to hope that there will take
root a sense of sin against man and against human values, if there is no
sense of offense against God, namely the true sense of sin.
Another reason for the disappearance of the
sense of sin in contemporary society is to be found in the errors made
in evaluating certain findings of the human sciences. Thus on the basis
of certain affirmations of psychology, concern to avoid creating
feelings of guilt or to place limits on freedom leads to a refusal ever
to admit any shortcoming. Through an undue extrapolation of the criteria
of the science of sociology, it finally happens-as I have already
said-that all failings are blamed upon society, and the individual is
declared innocent of them. Again, a certain cultural anthropology so
emphasizes the undeniable environmental and historical conditioning and
influences which act upon man, that it reduces his responsibility to the
point of not acknowledging his ability to perform truly human acts and
therefore his ability to sin.
The sense of sin also easily declines as a
result of a system of ethics deriving from a certain historical
relativism. This may take the form of an ethical system which
relativizes the moral norm, denying its absolute and unconditional
value, and as a consequence denying that there can be intrinsically
illicit acts independent of the circumstances in which they are
performed by the subject. Herein lies a real "overthrowing and downfall
of moral values," and "the problem is not so much one of ignorance of
Christian ethics," but ignorance "rather of the meaning, foundations and
criteria of the moral attitude."(103) Another effect of this ethical
turning upside down is always such an attenuation of the notion of sin
as almost to reach the point of saying that sin does exist, but no one
knows who commits it.
Finally the sense of sin disappears when-as can
happen in the education of youth, in the mass media and even in
education within the family-it is wrongly identified with a morbid
feeling of guilt or with the mere transgression of legal norms and
The loss of the sense of sin is thus a form or
consequence of the denial of God: not only in the form of atheism but
also in the form of secularism. If sin is the breaking, off of one's
filial relationship to God in order to situate one's life outside of
obedience to him, then to sin is not merely to deny God. To sin is also
to live as if he did not exist, to eliminate him from one's daily life.
A model of society which is mutilated or distorted in one sense or
another, as is often encouraged by the mass media, greatly favors the
gradual loss of the sense of sin. In such a situation the obscuring or
weakening of the sense of sin comes from several sources: from a
rejection of any reference to the transcendent in the name of the
individual's aspiration to personal independence; from acceptance of
ethical models imposed by general consensus and behavior, even when
condemned by the individual conscience; from the tragic social and
economic conditions that oppress a great part of humanity, causing a
tendency to see errors and faults only in the context of society;
finally and especially, from the obscuring of the notion of God's
fatherhood and dominion over man's life.
Even in the field of the thought and life of
the church certain trends inevitably favor the decline of the sense of
sin. For example, some are inclined to replace exaggerated attitudes of
the past with other exaggerations: From seeing sin everywhere they pass
to not recognizing it anywhere; from too much emphasis on the fear of
eternal punishment they pass to preaching a love of God that excludes
any punishment deserved by sin; from severity in trying to correct
erroneous consciences they pass to a kind of respect for conscience
which excludes the duty of telling the truth. And should it not be added
that the confusion caused in the consciences of many of the faithful by
differences of opinions and teachings in theology, preaching, catechesis
and spiritual direction on serious and delicate questions of Christian
morals ends by diminishing the true sense of sin almost to the point of
eliminating it altogether? Nor can certain deficiencies in the practice
of sacramental penance be overlooked. These include the tendency to
obscure the ecclesial significance of sin and of conversion and to
reduce them to merely personal matters; or vice versa, the tendency to
nullify the personal value of good and evil and to consider only their
community dimension. There also exists the danger, never totally
eliminated, of routine ritualism that deprives the sacrament of its full
significance and formative effectiveness.
The restoration of a proper sense of sin is the
first way of facing the grave spiritual crisis looming over man today.
But the sense of sin can only be restored through a clear reminder of
the unchangeable principles of reason and faith which the moral teaching
of the church has always upheld.
There are good grounds for hoping that a
healthy sense of sin will once again flourish, especially in the
Christian world and in the church. This will be aided by sound
catechetics, illuminated by the biblical theology of the covenant, by an
attentive listening and trustful openness to the magisterium of the
church, which; never ceases to enlighten consciences, and by an ever
more careful practice of the sacrament of penance.
19. In order to understand sin we have had to
direct our attention to its nature as made known to us by the revelation
of the economy of salvation: This is the mysterium iniquitatis. But in
this economy sin is not the main principle, still less the victor. Sin
fights against another active principle which-to use a beautiful and
evocative expression of St. Paul-we can call the mysterium or
sacramentum pietatis. Man's sin would be the winner and in the end
destructive, God's salvific plan would remain incomplete or even totally
defeated, if this mysterium pietatis were not made part of the dynamism
of history in order to conquer man's sin.
We find this expression in one of St. Paul's
pastoral letters, the First Letter to Timothy. It appears unexpectedly,
as if by an exuberant inspiration. The apostle had previously devoted
long paragraphs of his message to his beloved disciple to an explanation
of the meaning of the ordering of the community (the liturgical order
and the related hierarchical one). Next he had spoken of the role of the
heads of the community, before turning to the conduct of Timothy himself
in the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth."
Then at the end of the passage suddenly, but with a profound purpose, he
evokes the element which gives meaning to everything that he has
written: "Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of our
Without in the least betraying the literal
sense of the text, we can broaden this magnificent theological insight
of St. Paul into a more complete vision of the role which the truth
proclaimed by him plays in the economy of salvation: "Great indeed," we
repeat with him, "is the mystery of our religion," because it conquers
But what is the meaning of this expression, in
It Is Christ Himself
20. It is profoundly significant that when Paul
presents this mysterium pietatis he simply transcribes, without making a
grammatical link with what he has just written,(105) three lines of a
Christological hymn which-in the opinion of authoritative scholars- has
used in the Greek-speaking Christian communities.
In the words of that hymn, full of theological
content and rich in noble beauty, those first-century believers
professed their faith in the mystery of Christ, whereby:
- He was made manifest in the reality of
human flesh and was constituted by the Holy Spirit as the Just One
who offers himself for the unjust.
- He appeared to the angels, having been
made greater than them, and he was preached to the nations as the
bearer of salvation.
- He was believed in, in the world, as the
one sent by the Father, and by the same Father assumed into heaven
The mystery or sacrament of pietas, therefore,
is the very mystery of Christ. It is, in a striking summary, the mystery
of the incarnation and redemption, of the full passover of Jesus, the
Son of God and son of Mary: the mystery of his passion and death, of his
resurrection and glorification. What St. Paul in quoting the phrases of
the hymn wished to emphasize was that this mystery is the hidden vital
principle which makes the church the house of God, the pillar and
bulwark of the truth. Following the Pauline teaching, we can affirm that
this same mystery of God's infinite loving kindness toward us is capable
of penetrating to the hidden roots of our iniquity! in order to evoke in
the soul a movement of conversion, in order to redeem it and set it on
course toward reconciliation.
St. John too undoubtedly referring to this
mystery, but in his own characteristic language which differs from St.
Paul's, was able to write that "anyone born of God does not sin, but he
who was born of God keeps him, and the evil one does not touch
him."(107) In this Johannine affirmation there is an indication of hope,
based on the divine promises: The Christian has received the guarantee
and the necessary strength not to sin. It is not a question therefore of
a sinlessness acquired through one's own virtue or even inherent in man,
as the Gnostics thought. It is a result of God's action. In order not to
sin the Christian has knowledge of God, as St. John reminds us in this
same passage. But a little before he had written: "No one born of God
commits sin; for God's seed abides in him."(108) If by "God's seed" we
understand, as some commentators suggest, Jesus the Son of God, then we
can say that in order not to sin or in order to gain freedom from sin
the Christian has within himself the presence of Christ and the mystery
of Christ, which is the mystery of God's loving kindness.
The Effort of the Christian
21. But there is another aspect to the
mysterium pietatis: The loving kindness of God toward the Christian must
be matched by the piety of the Christian toward God. In this second
meaning of the word, piety (eusebeia) means precisely the conduct of the
Christian who responds to God's fatherly loving kindness with his own
In this sense too we can say with St. Paul that
"great indeed is the mystery of our religion. In this sense too piety,
as a force for conversion and reconciliation, confronts iniquity and
sin. In this case too the essential aspects of the mystery of Christ are
the object of piety in the sense that the Christian accepts the mystery,
contemplates it and draws from it the spiritual strength necessary for
living according to the Gospel. Here too one must say that "no one born
of God commits sin"; but the expression has an imperative sense:
Sustained by the mystery of Christ as by an interior source of spiritual
energy, the Christian,being a child of God, is warned not to sin and
indeed receives the commandment not to sin but to live in a manner
worthy of "the house of God, that is, the church of the living
Toward a Reconciled Life
22. Thus the word of Scripture, as it reveals
to us the mystery of pietas, opens the intellect to conversion and
reconciliation, understood not as lofty abstractions but as concrete
Christian values to be achieved in our daily lives.
Deceived by the loss of the sense of sin and at
times tempted by an illusion of sinlessness which is not at all
Christian, the people of today too need to listen again to St. John's
admonition, as addressed to each one of them personally: "If we say we
have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us,"(110) and
indeed, "the whole world is in the power of the evil one."(111) Every
individual therefore is invited by the voice of divine truth to examine
realistically his or her conscience and to confess that he or she has
been brought forth in iniquity, as we say in the Miserere psalm."(112)
Nevertheless, though threatened by fear and
despair, the people of today can feel uplifted by the divine promise
which opens to them the hope of full reconciliation.
The mystery of pietas, on God's part, is that
mercy in which our Lord and Father-I repeat it again-is infinitely
rich.(113) As I said in my encyclical on the subject of divine
mercy,(114) it is a love more powerful than sin, stronger than death.
When we realize that God's love for us does not cease in the face of our
sin or recoil before our offenses, but becomes even mere attentive and
generous; when we realize that this love went so far as cause the
passion and death of the Word made flesh who consented to redeem us at
the price of his own blood, then we exclaim in gratitude: "Yes, the Lord
is rich in mercy,n and even: "The Lord is mercy."
The mystery of pietas is the path opened by
divine mercy to a reconciled life.
THE PASTORAL MINISTRY OF PENANCE AND RECONCILIATION
Promoting Penance and
23. To evoke conversion and
penance in man's heart and to offer him the gift of reconciliation is
the specific mission of the church as she continues the redemptive work
of her divine founder. It is not a mission which consists merely of a
few theoretical statements and the putting forward of an ethical ideal
unaccompanied by the energy with which to carry it out. Rather it seeks
to express itself in precise ministerial functions directed toward a
concrete practice of penance and reconciliation.
We can call this ministry, which is founded on
and illumined by the principles of faith which we have explained and
which is directed toward precise objectives and sustained by adequate
means, the pastoral activity of penance and reconciliation. Its point of
departure is the church's conviction that man, to whom every form of
pastoral activity is directed but principally that of penance and
reconciliation, is the man marked by sin whose striking image is to be
found in King David. Rebuked by the prophet Nathan, David faces squarely
his own iniquity and confesses: "I have sinned against the Lord,"(115)
and proclaims: "I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before
me."(116) But he also prays: "Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be
clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow,"(117) and he receives
the response of the divine mercy: "The Lord has put away your sin; you
shall not die."(118)
The church thus finds herself face to face with
man-with the whole human world-wounded by sin and affected by sin in the
innermost depths of his being. But at the same time he is moved by an
unrestrainable desire to be freed from sin and, especially if he is a
Christian, he is aware that the mystery of pietas, Christ the Lord, is
already acting in him and in the world by the power of the redemption.
The church's reconciling role must therefore be
carried out in accordance with that intimate link which closely connects
the forgiveness and remission of the sin of each person with the
fundamental and full reconciliation of humanity which took place with
the redemption. This link helps us to understand that, since sin is the
active principle of division-division between man and the nature created
by God-only conversion from sin is capable of bringing about a profound
and lasting reconciliation wherever division has penetrated.
I do not need to repeat what I have already
said about the importance of this "ministry of reconciliation,"(119) and
of the pastoral activity whereby it is carried out in the church's
consciousness and life. This pastoral activity would be lacking an
essential aspect of its being and failing in an indispensable function
if the "message of reconciliation"(120) were not proclaimed with clarity
and tenacity in season and out of season, and if the gift of
reconciliation were not offered to the world. But it is worth repeating
that the importance of the ecclesial service of reconciliation extends
beyond the confines of the church to the whole world.
To speak of the pastoral activity of penance
and reconciliation, then, is to refer to all the tasks incumbent on the
church, at all levels, for their promotion. More concretely, to speak of
this pastoral-activity is to evoke all the activities whereby the
church, through each and every one of her members-pastors and faithful,
at all levels and in all spheres, and with all the means at her
disposal, words and actions, teaching and prayer-leads people
individually or as groups to true penance and thus sets them on the path
to full reconciliation.
The fathers of the synod, as representatives of
their brother bishops and as leaders of the people entrusted to them,
concerned themselves with the most practical and concrete elements of
this pastoral activity. And I am happy to echo their concerns by
associating myself with their anxieties and hopes, by receiving the
results of their research and experiences, and by encouraging them in
their plans and achievements. May they find in this part of the present
apostolic exhortation the contribution which they themselves made to the
synod, a contribution the usefulness of which I wish to extend, through
these pages, to the whole church.
I therefore propose to call attention to the
essentials of the pastoral activity of penance and reconciliation by
emphasizing, with the synod assembly, the following two points:
- The means used and the paths followed by
the church in order to promote penance and reconciliation.
- The sacrament par excellence of penance
THE PROMOTION OF PENANCE AND RECONCILIATION:
WAYS AND MEANS
24. In order to promote penance and
reconciliation, the church has at her disposal two principal means which
were entrusted to her by her founder himself: catechesis and the
sacraments. Their use has always been considered by the church as fully
in harmony with the requirements of her salvific mission and at the same
time as corresponding to the requirements and spiritual needs of people
in all ages. This use can be in forms and ways both old and new, among
which it will be a good idea to remember in particular what we can call,
in the expression of my predecessor Paul VI, the method of dialogue.
25. For the church, dialogue is in a certain
sense a means and especially a way of carrying out her activity in the
The Second Vatican Council proclaims that "the
church, by virtue of her mission to shed on the whole world the radiance
of the gospel message, and to unify under one Spirit all people...
stands forth as a sign of that fraternal solidarity which allows honest
dialogue and invigorates it." The council adds that the church should be
capable of "establishing an ever more fruitful dialogue among all those
who compose the one people of God" and also of "establishing a dialogue
with human society."(122)
My predecessor Paul VI devoted to dialogue a
considerable part of his first encyclical, Ecclesism Suam, in which he
describes it and significantly characterizes it as the dialogue of
The church in fact uses the method of dialogue
in order the better to lead people-both those who through baptism and
the profession of faith acknowledge their membership of the Christian
community and also those who are outside-to conversion and repentance,
along the path of a profound renewal of their own consciences and lives
in the light of the mystery of the redemption and salvation accomplished
by Christ and entrusted to the ministry of his church. Authentic
dialogue, therefore, is aimed above all at the rebirth of individuals
through interior conversion and repentance, but always with profound
respect for consciences and with patience and at the step-by-step pace
indispensable for modern conditions.
Pastoral dialogue aimed at reconciliation
continues to be today a fundamental task of the church in different
spheres and at different levels.
The church in the first place promotes an
ecumenical dialogue, that is, with churches and ecclesial communities
which profess faith in Christ, the Son of God and only savior. She also
promotes dialogue with the other communities of people who are seeking
God and wish to have a relationship of communion with him.
At the basis of this dialogue with the other
churches and Christian communities and with the other religions, and as
a condition of her credibility and effectiveness, there must be a
sincere effort of permanent and renewed dialogue within the Catholic
Church herself. She is aware that, by her nature, she is the sacrament
of the universal communion of charity;(124) but she is equally aware of
the tensions within her, tensions which risk becoming factors of
The heartfelt and determined invitation which
was already extended by my predecessor in preparation for the 1975 Holy
Year(125) is also valid at the present moment. In order to overcome
conflicts and to ensure that normal tensions do not prove harmful to the
unity of the church, we must all apply to ourselves the word of God; we
must relinquish our own subjective views and seek the truth where it is
to be found, namely in the divine word itself and in the authentic
interpretation of that word provided by the magisterium of the church.
In this light, listening to one another, respect, refraining from all
hasty judgments, patience, the ability to avoid subordinating the faith
which unites to the opinions, fashions and ideological choices which
divide-these are all qualities of a dialogue within the church which
must be persevering, open and sincere. Obviously dialogue would not have
these qualities and would not become a factor of reconciliation if the
magisterium were not heeded and accepted.
Thus actively engaged in seeking her own
internal communion, the Catholic Church can address an appeal for
reconciliation to the other churches with which there does not exist
full communion, as well as to the other religions and even to all those
who are seeking God with a sincere heart. This she has been doing for
In the light of the council and of the
magisterium of my predecessors, whose precious inheritance I have
received and am making every effort to preserve and put into effect, I
can affirm that the Catholic Church at every level is committed to frank
ecumenical dialogue, without facile optimism but also without distrust
and without hesitation or delays. The fundamental laws which she seeks
to follow in this dialogue are, on the one hand, the conviction that
only a spiritual ecumenism-namely an ecumenism founded on common prayer
and in a common docility to the one Lord-enables us to make a sincere
and serious response to the other exigencies of ecumenical action.(126)
The other law is the conviction that a certain facile irenicism in
doctrinal and especially dogmatic matters could perhaps lead to a form
of superficial and short-lived coexistence, but it could not lead to
that profound and stable communion which we all long for. This communion
will be reached at the hour willed by divine providence. But in order to
reach it, the Catholic Church, for her part, knows that she must be open
and sensitive to all "the truly Christian endowments from our common
heritage which are to be found among our separated brethren";(127) but
she also knows that she must likewise base a frank and constructive
dialogue upon a clarity regarding her own positions and upon fidelity
and consistency with the faith transmitted and defined in accordance
with the perennial tradition of her magisterium. Notwithstanding the
threat of a certain defeatism and despite the inevitable slowness which
rashness could never correct, the Catholic Church continues with all
other Christian brethren to seek the paths to unity, and with the
followers of the other religions she continues to seek to have sincere
dialogue. May this inter-religious dialogue lead to the overcoming of
all attitudes of hostility, distrust, mutual condemnation and even
mutual invective, which is the precondition for encounter at least in
faith in one God and in the certainty of eternal life for the immortal
soul. May the Lord especially grant that ecumenical dialogue will also
lead to a sincere reconciliation concerning everything that we already
have in common with the other Christian churches- faith in Jesus Christ,
the Son of God made man, our savior and Lord; a listening to the word;
the study of revelation and the sacrament of baptism.
To the extent to which the church is capable of
generating active harmony-unity in variety-within herself and of
offering herself as a witness to and humble servant of reconciliation
with the other churches and ecclesial communities and the other
religions, she becomes, in the expressive definition of St. Augustine, a
"reconciled world."(128) Then she will be able to be a sign of
reconciliation in the world and for the world.
The church is aware of the extreme seriousness
of the situation created by the forces of division and war, which today
constitute a grave threat not only to the balance and harmony of nations
but to the very survival of humanity, and she feels it her duty to offer
and suggest her own unique collaboration for the overcoming of conflicts
and the restoration of concord.
It is a complex and delicate dialogue of
reconciliation in which the church is engaged, especially through the
work of the Holy See and its different organisms. The Holy See already
endeavors to intervene with the leaders of nations and the heads of the
various international bodies or seeks to associate itself with them,
conduct a dialogue with them and encourage them to dialogue with one
another for the sake of reconciliation in the midst of the many
conflicts. It does this not for ulterior motives or hidden interests.
since it has none-but "out of a humanitarian concern,"(129) placing its
institutional structure and moral authority, which are altogether
unique, at the service of concord and peace. It does this in the
conviction that as "in war two parties rise against one another" so "in
the question of peace there are also necessarily two parties which must
know how to commit themselves," and in this "one finds the true meaning
of a dialogue for peace."(130)
The church engages in dialogue for
reconciliation also through the bishops in the competency and
responsibility proper to them, either individually in the direct;on of
their respective local churches or united in their episcopal
conferences, with the collaboration of the priests and of all those who
make up the Christian communities. They truly fulfill their task when
they promote this indispensable dialogue and proclaim the human and
Christian need for reconciliation and peace. In communion with their
pastors, the laity who have as "their own field of evangelizing
activity...the vast and complicated world of politics,
society...economics...(and) international life,"(131) are called upon to
engage directly in dialogue or to work for dialogue aimed at
reconciliation. Through them too the church carries out her reconciling
activity. Thus the fundamental presupposition and secure basis for any
lasting renewal of society and for peace between nations lies in the
regeneration of hearts through conversion and penance.
It should be repeated that, on the part of the
church and her members, dialogue, whatever form it takes (and these
forms can be and are very diverse since the very concept of dialogue has
an analogical value) can never begin from an attitude of indifference to
the truth. On the contrary, it must begin from a presentation of the
truth, offered in a calm way, with respect for the intelligence and
consciences of others. The dialogue of reconciliation can never replace
or attenuate the proclamation of the truth of the Gospel, the precise
goal of which is conversion from sin and communion with Christ and the
church. It must be at the service of the transmission and realization of
that truth through the means left by Christ to the church for the
pastoral activity of reconciliation, namely catechesis and penance.
26. In the vast area in which the church has
the mission of operating through dialogue, the pastoral ministry of
penance and reconciliation is directed to the members of the body of the
church principally through an adequate catechesis concerning the two
distinct and complementary realities to which the synod fathers gave a
particular importance and which they emphasized in some of the
concluding propositions: These are penance and reconciliation.
Catechesis is therefore the first means to be used.
At the basis of the synod's very opportune
recommendation is a fundamental presupposition; What is pastoral is not
opposed to what is doctrinal. Nor can pastoral action prescind from
doctrinal content, from which in fact it draws its substance and real
validity. Now if the church is the pillar and bulwark of the truth'(132)
and is placed in the world as mother and teacher, how could she neglect
the task of teaching the truth which constitutes a path of life?
From the pastors of the church one expects,
first of all, catechesis on reconciliation. This must be founded on the
teaching of the Bible, especially the New Testament, on the need to
rebuild the covenant with God in Christ the redeemer and reconciler. And
in the light of this new communion and friendship, and as an extension
of it, it must be founded on the teaching concerning the need to be
reconciled with one's brethren, even if this means interrupting the
offering of the sacrifice.(133) Jesus strongly insists on this theme of
fraternal reconciliation: for example, when he invites us to turn the
other cheek to the one who strikes us, and to give our cloak too to the
one who has taken our coat,(134) or when he instills the law of
forgiveness: forgiveness which each one receives in the measure that he
or she foresee forgiveness to be offered even to enemies,(136)
forgiveness to be granted seventy times seven times,(137) which means in
practice without any limit. On these conditions, which are realizable
only in a genuinely evangelical climate, it is possible to have a true
reconciliation between individuals, families, communities, nations and
peoples. From these biblical data on reconciliation there will naturally
derive a theological catechesis, which in its synthesis will also
integrate the elements of psychology, sociology and the other human
sciences which can serve to clarify situations, describe problems
accurately and persuade listeners or readers to make concrete
The pastors of the church are also expected to
provide catechesis on penance. Here too the richness of the biblical
message must be its source. With regard to penance this message
emphasizes particularly its value for conversion, which is the term that
attempts to translate the word in the Greek text, metanoia,(138) which
literally means to allow the spirit to be overturned in order to make it
turn toward God. These are also the two fundamental elements which
emerge from the parable of the son who was lost and found: his "coming
to himself"(139) and his decision to return to his father. There can be
no reconciliation unless these attitudes of conversion come first, and
catechesis should explain them with concepts and terms adapted to
people's various ages and their differing cultural, moral and social
This is a first value of penance and it extends
into a second: Penance also means repentance. The two meanings of
metanoia appear in the significant instruction given by Jesus: "If your
brother repents (returns to you), forgive him; and if he sins against
you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times and says, 'I
repent,' you must forgive him."(140) A good catechesis will show how
repentance, just like conversion, is far from being a superficial
feeling but a real overturning of the soul.
A third value is contained in penance, and this
is the movement whereby the preceding attitudes of conversion and
repentance are manifested externally: This is doing penance. This
meaning is clearly perceptible in the term metanoia, as used by John the
Baptist in the texts of the synoptics.(141) To do penance means above
all to restablish the balance and harmony broken by sin, to change
direction even at the cost of sacrifice.
A catechesis on penance, therefore, and one
that is as complete and adequate as possible, is absolutely essential at
a time like ours when dominant attitudes in psychology and social
behavior are in such contrast with the threefold value just illustrated.
Contemporary man seems to find it harder than ever to recognize his own
mistakes and to decide to retrace his steps and begin again after
changing course. He seems very reluctant to say "I repent" or "I am
sorry." He seems to refuse instinctively and often irresistibly anything
that is penance in the sense of a sacrifice accepted and carried out for
the correction of sin. In this regard I would like to emphasize that the
church's penitential discipline, even though it has been mitigated for
some time, cannot be abandoned without grave harm both to the interior
life of individual Christians and of the ecclesial community and also to
their capacity for missionary influence. It is not uncommon for
non-Christians to be surprised at the negligible witness of true penance
on the part of Christ's followers. It is clear, however, that Christian
penance will only be authentic if it is inspired by love and not by mere
fear; if it consists in a serious effort to crucify the " old man " so
that the " new" can be born by the power of Christ; if it takes as its
model Christ, who though he was innocent chose the path of poverty,
patience, austerity and, one can say, the penitential life.
As the synod recalled, the pastors of the
church are also expected to provide catechesis on conscience and its
formation. This too is a very relevant topic in view of the fact that in
the upheavals to which our present culture is subjected this interior
sanctuary, man's innermost self, his conscience, is too often attacked,
put to the test, confused and obscured. Valuable guidelines for a wise
catechesis on conscience can be found both in the doctors of the church
and in the theology of the Second Vatican Council, and especially in the
documents on the church in the modern world(142) and on religious
liberty.(143) Along these same lines, Pope Paul VI often reminded us of
the nature and role of conscience in our life.(144) I myself, following
his footsteps, miss no opportunity to throw light on this most lofty
element of man's greatness and dignity,(145) this "sort of moral sense
which leads us to discern what is good and what is evil...like an inner
eye, a visual capacity of the spirit, able to guide our steps along the
path of good." And I have reiterated the need to form one's conscience,
lest it become "a force which is destructive of the true humanity of the
person, rather than that holy place where God reveals to him his true
On other points too, of no less relevance for
reconciliation, one looks to the pastors of the church for catechesis.
On the sense of sin, which, as I have said, has
become considerably weakened in our world.
On temptation and temptations: The Lord Jesus
himself, the Son of God, "who in every respect has been tempted as we
are, yet without sin,"(147) allowed himself to be tempted by the evil
one(148) in order to show that, like himself, his followers too would be
subjected to temptation, and in order to show how one should behave when
subjected to temptation. For those who beseech the Father not to be
tempted beyond their own strength(149) and not to succumb to
temptation,(150) and for those who do not expose themselves to occasions
of sin, being subjected to temptation does not mean that they have
sinned; rather it is an opportunity for growing in fidelity and
consistency through humility and watchfulness.
Catechesis is also expected on fasting: This
can be practiced in old forms and new as a sign of conversion,
repentance and personal mortification and, at the same time, as a sign
of union with Christ crucified and of solidarity with the starving and
Catechesis on almsgiving: This is a means of
making charity a practical thing by sharing what one possesses with
those suffering the consequences of poverty.
Catechesis on the intimate connection which
links the overcoming of divisions in the world with perfect communion
with God and among people, which is the eschatological purpose of the
Catechesis on the concrete circumstances in
which reconciliation has to be achieved (in the family, in the civil
community, in social structures) and particularly catechesis on the four
reconciliations which repair the four fundamental rifts; reconciliation
of man with God, with self, with the brethren and with the whole of
Nor can the church omit, without serious
mutilation of her essential message, a constant catechesis on what the
traditional Christian language calls the four last things of man: death,
judgment (universal and particular), hell and heaven. In a culture which
tends to imprison man in the earthly life at which he is more or less
successful, the pastors of the church are asked to provide a catechesis
which will reveal and illustrate with the certainties of faith what
comes after the present life: beyond the mysterious gates of death, an
eternity of joy in communion with God or the punishment of separation
from him. Only in this eschatological vision can one realize the exact
nature of sin and feel decisively moved to penance and reconciliation.
Pastors who are zealous and creative never lack
opportunities for imparting this broad and varied catechesis, taking
into account the different degrees of education and religious formation
of those to whom they speak. Such opportunities are often given by the
biblical readings and the rites of the Mass and the sacraments, as also
by the circumstances of their celebration. For the same purpose many
initiatives can be taken such as sermons, lectures, discussions,
meetings, courses of religious education, etc., as happens in many
places. Here I wish to point out in particular the importance and
effectiveness of the old-style popular missions for the purposes of such
catechesis. If adapted to the peculiar needs of the present time, such
missions can be, today as yesterday, a useful instrument of religious
education also regarding penance and reconciliation.
In view of the great relevance of
reconciliation based on conversion in the delicate field of human
relationships and social interaction at all levels, including the
international level, catechesis cannot fail to inculcate the valuable
contribution of the church's social teaching. The timely and precise
teaching of my predecessors from Pope Leo XIII onward, to which was
added the substantial contribution the pastoral constitution Gaudium
Spes of the Second Vatican Council and the contributions of the
different episcopates elicited by various circumstances in their
respective countries, has made up an ample and solid body of doctrine.
This regards the many different needs inherent in the life of the human
community, in relationships between individuals, families, groups in
their different spheres and in the very constitution of a society that
intends to follow the moral law, which is the foundation of
At the basis of this social teaching of the
church there is obviously to be found the vision which the church draws
from the word of God concerning the rights and duties of individuals,
the family and the community; concerning the value of liberty and the
nature of justice, concerning the primacy of charity, concerning the
dignity of the human person and the exigencies of the common good to
which politics and the economy itself must be directed. Upon these
fundamental principles of the social magisterium, which confirm and
repropose the universal dictates of reason and of the conscience of
peoples, there rests in great part the hope for a peaceful solution to
many social conflicts and, in short, the hope for universal
27. The second divinely instituted means which
the church offers for the pastoral activity of penance and
reconciliation is constituted by the sacraments.
In the mysterious dynamism of the sacraments,
so rich in symbolism and content, one can discern one aspect which is
not always emphasized: Each sacrament, over and above its own proper
grace, is also a sign of penance and reconciliation. Therefore in each
of them it is possible to relive these dimensions of the spirit.
Baptism is of course a salvific washing which,
as St Peter says, is effective "not as a removal of dirt from the body
but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience."(151) It is death,
burial and resurrection with the dead, buried and risen Christ.(152) It
is a gift of the Holy Spirit through Christ.(153) But this essential and
original constituent of Christian baptism, far from eliminating the
penitential element already present in the baptism which Jesus himself
received from John "to fulfill all righteousness,"(154) in fact enriches
it. In other words, it is a fact of conversion and of reintegration into
the right order of relationships with God, of reconciliation with God,
with the elimination of the original stain and the consequent
introduction into the great family of the reconciled.
Confirmation likewise, as a ratification of
baptism and together with baptism a sacrament of initiation, in
conferring the fullness of the Holy Spirit and in bringing the Christian
life to maturity, signifies and accomplishes thereby a greater
conversion of the heart and brings about a more intimate and effective
membership of the same assembly of the reconciled, which is the church
The definition which St. Augustine gives of the
eucharist as "sacramentum pietatis, signum unitatis, vinculum
caritatis"(155) clearly illustrates the effects of personal
sanctification (pietas) and community reconciliation (unitas and
caritas) which derive from the very essence of the eucharistic mystery
as an unbloody renewal of the sacrifice of the cross, the source of
salvation and of reconciliation for all people.
However, it must be remembered that the church,
guided by faith in this great sacrament, teaches that no Christian who
is conscious of grave sin can receive the eucharist before having
obtained God's forgiveness. This we read in the instruction
Eucharisticum Mysterium which, duly approved by Paul VI, fully confirms
the teaching of the Council of Trent: "The eucharist is to be offered to
the faithful also 'as a remedy, which frees us from daily faults and
preserves us from mortal sin' and they are to be shown the fitting way
of using the penitential parts of the liturgy of the Mass. The person
who wishes to receive holy communion is to be reminded of the precept:
Let a man examine himself" (1 Cor 11:28). And the church's custom shows
that such an examination is necessary, because no one who is conscious
of being in mortal sin, however contrite he may believe himself to be,
is to approach the holy eucharist without having first made a
sacramental confession. If this person finds himself in need and has no
means of going to confession, he should first make an act of perfect
The sacrament of orders is intended to give to
the church the pastors who, besides being teachers and guides, are
called to be witnesses and workers of unity, builders of the family of
God, and defenders and preservers of the communion of this family
against the sources of division and dispersion.
The sacrament of matrimony, the exaltation of
human love under the action of grace, is a sign of the love of Christ
for the church. But it is also a sign of the victory which Christ grants
to couples in resisting the forces which deform and destroy love, in
order that the family born from this sacrament may be a sign also of the
reconciled and reconciling church for a world reconciled in all its
structures and institutions.
Finally, the anointing of the sick in the trial
of illness and old age and especially at the Christian's final hour is a
sign of definitive conversion to the Lord and of total acceptance of
suffering and death as a penance for sins. And in this is accomplished
supreme reconciliation with the Father.
However, among the sacraments there is one
which, though it has often been called the sacrament of confession
because of the accusation of sins which takes place in it, can more
appropriately be considered by antonomasia the sacrament of penance, as
it is in fact called. And thus it is the sacrament of conversion and
reconciliation. The recent synod particularly concerned itself with this
sacrament because of its importance with regard to reconciliation.
THE SACRAMENT OF PENANCE AND RECONCILIATION
28. In all its phases and at all its levels the
synod considered with the greatest attention that sacramental sign which
represents and at the same time accomplishes penance and reconciliation.
This sacrament in itself certainly does not contain all possible ideas
of conversion and reconciliation. From the very beginning, in fact, the
church has recognized and used many and varying forms of penance. Some
are liturgical or paraliturgical and include the penitential actin the
Mass, services of atonement and pilgrimages; others are of an ascetical
character, such as fasting. But of all such acts none is more
significant, more divinely efficacious or more lofty and at the same
time easily accessible as a rite than the sacrament of penance.
From its preparatory stage and then in the
numerous interventions during the sessions, in the group meetings and in
the final propositions, the synod took into account the statement
frequently made with varying nuances and emphases, namely: The sacrament
of penance is in crisis. The synod took note of this crisis. It
recommended a more profound catechesis, but it also recommended a no
less profound analysis of a theological, historical, psychological,
sociological and juridical character of penance in general and of the
sacrament of penance in particular. In all of this the synod's intention
was to clarify the reasons for the crisis and to open the way to a
positive solution for the good of humanity. Meanwhile, from the synod
itself the church has received a clear confirmation of its faith
regarding the sacrament which gives to every Christian and to the whole
community of believers the certainty of forgiveness through the power of
the redeeming blood of Christ.
It is good to renew and reaffirm this faith at
a moment when it might be weakening, losing something of its
completeness or entering into an area of shadow and silence, threatened
as it is by the negative elements of the above-mentioned crisis. For the
sacrament of confession is indeed being undermined, on the one hand by
the obscuring of the mortal and religious conscience, the lessening of a
sense of sin, the distortion of the concept of repentance and the lack
of effort to live an authentically Christian life. And on the other
hand, it is being undermined by the sometimes widespread idea that one
can obtain forgiveness directly from God, even in a habitual way,
without approaching the sacrament of reconciliation. A further negative
influence is the routine of a sacramental practice sometimes lacking in
fervor and real spontaneity, deriving perhaps from a mistaken and
distorted idea of the effects of the sacrament.
It is therefore appropriate to recall the
principal aspects of this great sacrament.
"Whose Sins You Shall Forgive"
29. The books of the Old and New Testament
provide us with the first and fundamental fact concerning the Lord's
mercy and forgiveness. In the Psalms and in the preaching of the
prophets, the name merciful is perhaps the one most often given to the
Lord, in contrast to the persistent cliche whereby the God of the Old
Testament is presented above all as severe and vengeful. Thus in the
Psalms there is a long sapiential passage drawing from the Exodus
tradition, which recalls God's kindly action in the midst of his people.
This action, though represented in an anthropomorphic way, is perhaps
one of the most eloquent Old Testament proclamations of the divine
mercy. Suffice it to quote the verse: "Yet he, being compassionate,
forgave their iniquity and did not destroy them; he restrained his anger
often, and did not stir up all his wrath. He remembered that they were
but flesh, a wind that passes and comes not again."(157)
In the fullness of time the Son of God, coming
as the lamb who takes away and bears upon himself the sin of the world
appears as the one who has the power both to judge(159) and to forgive
sins,(160) and who has come not to condemn but to forgive and save.(161)
Now this power to " forgive sins" Jesus confers
through the Holy Spirit upon ordinary men, themselves subject to the
snare of sin, namely his apostles: "Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins
you shall forgive, they are forgiven; whose sins you shall retain, they
are retained."(162) This is one of the most awe-inspiring innovations of
the Gospel! He confers this power on the apostles also as something
which they can transmit-as the church has understood it from the
beginning-to their successors, charged by the same apostles with the
mission and responsibility of continuing their work as proclaimers of
the Gospel and ministers of Christ's redemptive work.
Here there is seen in all its grandeur the
figure of the minister of the sacrament of penance who by very ancient
custom is called the confessor.
Just as at the altar where he celebrates the
eucharist and just as in each one of the sacraments, so the priest, as
the minister of penance, acts "in persona Christi" The Christ whom he
makes present and who accomplishes the mystery of the forgiveness of
sins is the Christ who appears as the brother of man,(163) the merciful
high priest, faithful and compassionate,(164) the shepherd intent on
finding the lost sheep,(165) the physician who heals and comforts,(166)
the one master who teaches the truth and reveals the ways of God,(167)
the judge of the living and the dead,(168) who judges according to the
truth and not according to appearances.(169)
This is undoubtedly the most difficult and
sensitive, the most exhausting and demanding ministry of the priest, but
also one of the most beautiful and consoling. Precisely for this reason
and with awareness also of the strong recommendation of the synod, I
will never grow weary of exhorting my brothers, the bishops and priests,
to the faithful and diligent performance of ministry.(170) Before the
consciences of the faithful, who open up to him with a mixture of fear
and trust, the confessor is called to a lofty task which is one of
service and penance and human reconciliation. It is a task of learning
the weaknesses and falls of those faithful people, assessing their
desire for renewal and their efforts to achieve it, discerning the
action of the Holy Spirit in their hearts, imparting to them a
forgiveness which God alone can grant, "celebrating" their
reconciliation with the Father, portrayed in the parable of the prodigal
son, reinstating these redeemed sinners in the ecclesial community with
their brothers and sisters, and paternally admonishing these penitents
with a firm, encouraging and friendly "Do not sin again."(171)
For the effective performance of this ministry,
the confessor must necessarily have human qualities of prudence,
discretion, discernment and a firmness tempered by gentleness and
kindness. He must likewise have a serious and careful preparation, not
fragmentary but complete and harmonious, in the different branches of
theology, pedagogy and psychology, in the methodology of dialogue and
above all in a living and communicable knowledge of the word of God. But
it is even more necessary that he should live an intense and genuine
spiritual life. In order to lead others along the path of Christian
perfection the minister of penance himself must first travel this path.
More by actions than by long speeches he must give proof of real
experience of lived prayer, the practice of the theological and moral
virtues of the Gospel, faithful obedience to the will of God, love of
the church and docility to her magisterium.
All this fund of human gifts, Christian virtues
and pastoral capabilities has to be worked for and is only acquired with
effort. Every priest must be trained for the ministry of sacramental
penance from his years in the seminary, not only through the study of
dogmatic, moral, spiritual and pastoral theology (which are simply parts
of a whole), but also through the study of the human sciences, training
in dialogue and especially in how to deal with people in the pastoral
context. He must then be guided and looked after in his first
activities. He must always ensure his own improvement and updating by
means of permanent study. What a wealth of grace, true life and
spiritual radiation would be poured out on the church if every priest
were careful never to miss through negligence or various excuses the
appointment with the faithful in the confessional and if he were even
more careful never to go to it unprepared or lacking the necessary human
qualities and spiritual and pastoral preparation!
In this regard I cannot but recall with devout
admiration those extraordinary apostles of the confessional such as St.
John Nepomucene, St. John Vianney, St. Joseph Cafasso and St. Leopold of
Castelnuovo, to mention only the best-known confessors whom the church
has added to the list of her saints. But I also wish to pay homage to
the innumerable host of holy and almost always anonymous confessors to
whom is owed the salvation of so many souls who have been helped by them
in conversion, in the struggle against sin and temptation, in spiritual
progress and, in a word, in achieving holiness. I do not hesitate to say
that even the great canonized saints are generally the fruit of those
confessionals, and not only the saints but also the spiritual patrimony
of the church and the flowering of a civilization permeated with the
Christian spirit! Praise then to this silent army of our brothers who
have served well and serve each day the cause of reconciliation through
the ministry of sacramental penance!
The Sacrament of Forgiveness
30. From the revelation of the value of this
ministry and power to forgive sins, conferred by Christ on the apostles
and their successors, there developed in the church an awareness of the
sign of forgiveness, conferred through the sacrament of penance. It is
the certainty that the Lord Jesus himself instituted and entrusted to
the church-as a gift of his goodness and loving kindness(172) to be
offered to all-a special sacrament for the forgiveness of sins committed
The practice of this sacrament, as regards its
celebration and form, has undergone a long process of development as is
attested to by the most ancient sacramentaries, the documents of
councils and episcopal synods, the preaching of the fathers and the
teaching of the doctors of the church. But with regard to the substance
of the sacrament there has always remained firm and unchanged in the
consciousness of the church the certainty that, by the will of Christ,
forgiveness is offered to each individual by means of sacramental
absolution given by the ministers of penance. It is a certainty
reaffirmed with particular vigor both by the Council of Trent(173) and
by the Second Vatican Council: "Those who approach the sacrament of
penance obtain pardon from God's mercy for the offenses committed
against him, and are, at the same time, reconciled with the church which
they have wounded by their sins and which by charity, by example and by
prayer works for their conversion."(174) And as an essential element of
faith concerning the value and purpose of penance it must be reaffirmed
that our savior Jesus Christ instituted in his church the sacrament of
penance so that the faithful who have fallen into sin after baptism
might receive grace and be reconciled with God (175)
The church's faith in this sacrament involves
certain other fundamental truths which cannot be disregarded. The
sacramental rite of penance, in its evolution and variation of actual
forms, has always preserved and highlighted these truths. When it
recommended a reform of this rite, the Second Vatican Council intended
to ensure that it would express these truths even more clearly,(176) and
this has come about with the new Rite of Penance.(177) For the latter
has made its own the whole of the teaching brought together by the
Council of Trent, transferring it from its particular historical context
(that of a resolute effort to clarify doctrine in the face of the
serious deviations from the church's genuine teaching), in order to
translate it faithfully into terms more in keeping with the context of
our own time.
Some Fundamental Convictions
31. The truths mentioned above, powerfully and
clearly confirmed by the synod and contained in the propositions, can be
summarized in the following convictions of faith, to which are connected
all the other affirmations of the Catholic doctrine on the sacrament of
I. 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. The
renewal of the rites carried out after the council does not sanction any
illusion or alteration in this direction. According to the church's
intention, it was and is meant to stir up in each one of us a new
impulse toward the renewal of our interior attitude; toward a deeper
understanding of the nature of the sacrament of penance; toward a
reception of the sacrament which is more filled with faith, not anxious
but trusting; toward a more frequent celebration of the sacrament which
is seen to be completely filled with the Lord's merciful love.
II. The second conviction concerns the function
of the sacrament of penance for those who have recourse to it. According
to the most ancient traditional idea, the sacrament is a kind of
judicial action; but this takes place before a tribunal of mercy rather
than of strict and rigorous justice, which is comparable to human
tribunals only by analogy namely insofar as sinners reveal their sins
and their condition as creatures subject to sin; they commit themselves
to renouncing and combating sin; accept the punishment (sacramental
penance) which the confessor imposes on them and receive absolution from
But as it reflects on the function of this
sacrament, the church's consciousness discerns in it, over and above the
character of judgment in the sense just mentioned, a healing of a
medicinal character. And this is linked to the fact that the Gospel
frequently presents Christ as healer,(179) while his redemptive work is
often called, from Christian antiquity, medicina salutis. "I wish to
heal, not accuse," St. Augustine said, referring to the exercise of the
pastoral activity regarding penance,(180) and it is thanks to the
medicine of confession that the experience of sin does not degenerate
into despair.(181) The Rite of Penance alludes to this healing aspect of
the sacrament,(182) to which modern man is perhaps more sensitive,
seeing as he does in sin the element of error but even more the element
of weakness and human frailty.
Whether as a tribunal of mercy or a place of
spiritual healing, under both aspects the sacrament requires a knowledge
of the sinner's heart in order to be able to judge and absolve, to cure
and heal. Precisely for this reason the sacrament involves on the part
of the penitent a sincere and complete confession of sins. This
therefore has a raison d'etre not only inspired by ascetical purposes
(as an exercise of humility and mortification), but one that is inherent
in the very nature of the sacrament.
III. The third conviction, which is one that I
wish to emphasize, concerns the realities or parts which make up the
sacramental sign of forgiveness and reconciliation. Some of these
realities are acts of the penitent, of varying importance but each
indispensable either for the validity, the completeness or the
fruitfulness of the sign.
First of all, an indispensable condition is the
rectitude and clarity of the penitent's conscience. People cannot come
to true and genuine repentance until they realize that sin is contrary
to the ethical norm written in their in most being;(183) until they
admit that they have had a personal and responsible experience of this
contrast; until they say not only that "sin exists" but also "I have
sinned"; until they admit that sin has introduced a division into their
consciences which then pervades their whole being and separates them
from God and from their brothers and sisters. The sacramental sign of
this clarity of conscience is the act traditionally called the
examination of conscience, an act that must never be one of anxious
psychological introspection, but a sincere and calm comparison with the
interior moral law, with the evangelical norms proposed by the church,
with Jesus Christ himself, who is our teacher and model of life, and
with the heavenly Father, who calls us to goodness and perfection.(184)
But the essential act of penance, on the part
of the penitent, is contrition, a clear and decisive rejection of the
sin committed, together with a resolution not to commit it again,(185)
out of the love which one has for God and which is reborn with
repentance. Understood in this way, contrition is therefore the
beginning and the heart of conversion, of that evangelical metanoia
which brings the person back to God like the prodigal son returning to
his father, and which has in the sacrament of penance its visible sign
and which perfects attrition. Hence "upon this contrition of heart
depends the truth of penance."(186)
While reiterating everything that the church,
inspired by God's word, teaches about contrition, I particularly wish to
emphasize here just one aspect of this doctrine. It is one that should
be better known and considered. Conversion and contention are often
considered under the aspect of the undeniable demands which they involve
and under the aspect of the mortification which they impose for the
purpose of bringing about a radical change of life. But we all to well
to recall and emphasize the fact that contrition and conversion are even
more a drawing near to the holiness of God, a rediscovery of one's true
identity, which has been upset and disturbed by sin, a liberation in the
very depth of self and thus a regaining of lost joy, the joy of being
saved,(187) which the majority of people in our time are no longer
capable of experiencing.
We therefore understand why, from the earliest
Christian times, in line with the apostles and with Christ, the church
has included in the sacramental sign of penance the confession of sins.
This latter takes on such importance that for centuries the usual name
of the sacrament has been and still is that of confession. The
confession of sins is required, first of all, because the sinner must be
known by the person who in the sacrament exercises the role of judge. He
has to evaluate both the seriousness of the sins and the repentance of
the penitent; he also exercises the role of the healer and must acquaint
himself with the condition of the sick person in order to treat and heal
him. But the individual confession also has the value of a sign: a sign
of the meeting of the sinner with the mediation of the church in the
person of the minister, a sign of the person's revealing of self as a
sinner in the sight of God and the church,.of facing his own sinful
condition in the eyes of God. The confession of sins therefore cannot be
reduced to a mere attempt at psychological self-liberation even though
it corresponds to that legitimate and natural need, inherent in the
human heart, to open oneself to another. It is a liturgical act, solemn
in its dramatic nature, yet humble and sober in the grandeur of its
meaning. It is the act of the prodigal son who returns to his Father and
is welcomed by him with the kiss of peace. It is an act of honesty and
courage. It is an act of entrusting oneself, beyond sin, to the mercy
that forgives.(188) Thus we understand why the confession of sins must
ordinarily be individual not collective, just as sin is a deeply
personal matter. But at the same time this confession in a way forces
sin out of the secret of the heart and thus out of the area of pure
individuality, emphasizing its social character as well, for through the
minister of penance it is the ecclesial community, which has been
wounded by sin, that welcomes anew the repentant and forgiven sinner.
The other essential stage of the sacrament of
penance this time along to the confessor as judge and healer, a figure
of God the Father welcoming and forgiving the one who returns: This is
the absolution. The words which express it and the gestures that
accompany it in the old and in the new Rite of Penance are significantly
simple in their-grandeur. The sacramental formula "I absolve you" and
the imposition of the hand and the Sign of the Cross made over the
penitent show that at this moment the contrite and converted sinner
comes into contact with the power and mercy of God. It is the moment at
which, in response to the penitent, the Trinity becomes present in order
to blot out sin and restore innocence. And the saving power of the
passion, death and resurrection of Jesus is also imparted to the
penitent as the "mercy stronger than sin and offense," as I defined it
in my encyclical Dives in Misericordia. God is always the one who is
principally offended by sin-"Tibi soli peccavi!"-and God alone can
forgive. Hence the absolution that the priest, the minister of
forgiveness, though himself a sinner, grants to the penitent is the
effective sign of the intervention of the Father in every absolution and
the sign of the "resurrection" from "spiritual death" which is renewed
each time that the sacrament of penance is administered. Only faith can
give us certainty that at that moment every sin is forgiven and blotted
out by the mysterious intervention of the Savior.
Satisfaction is the final act which crowns the
sacramental sign of penance. In some countries the act which the
forgiven and absolved penitent agrees to perform after receiving
absolution is called precisely the penance. What is the meaning of this
satisfaction that one makes or the penance that one performs? Certainly
it is not a price that one pays for the sin absolved and for the
forgiveness obtained: No human price can match what is obtained, which
is the fruit of Christ's precious blood. Acts of satisfaction-which,
while remaining simple and humble, should be made to express more
clearly all that they signify-mean a number of valuable things: They are
the sign of the personal commitment that the Christian has made to God
in the sacrament to begin a new life (and therefore they should not be
reduced to mere formulas to be recited, but should consist of acts of
worship, charity, mercy or reparation). They include the idea that the
pardoned sinner is able to join his own physical and spiritual
mortification-which has been sought after or at least accepted-to the
passion of Jesus, who has obtained the forgiveness for him. They remind
us that even after absolution there remains in the Christian a dark area
due to the wound of sin, to the imperfection of love in repentance, to
the weakening of the spiritual faculties. It is an area in which there
still operates an infectious source of sin which must always be fought
with mortification and penance. This is the meaning of the humble but
sincere act of satisfaction.(189)
IV. There remains to be made a brief mention of
other important convictions about the sacrament of penance.
First of all, it must be emphasized that
nothing is more personal and intimate that this sacrament, in which the
sinner stands alone before God with his sin, repentance and trust. No
one can repent in his place or ask forgiveness in his name. There is a
certain solitude of the sinner in his sin, and this can be seen
dramatically represented in Cain with sin "crouching at his door," as
the Book of Genesis says so effectively, and with the distinctive mark
on his forehead;(190) in David, admonished by the prophet Nathan;(191)
or in the prodigal son when he realizes the condition to which he has
reduced himself by staying away from his father and decides to return to
him.(192) Everything takes place between the individual alone and God.
But at the same time one cannot deny the social nature of this
sacrament, in which the whole church-militant, suffering and glorious in
heaven- comes to the aid of the penitent and welcomes him again into her
bosom, especially as it was the whole church which had been offended and
wounded by his sin. As the minister of penance, the priest by virtue of
his sacred office appears as the witness and representative of this
ecclesial nature of the sacrament. The individual nature and ecclesial
nature are two complementary aspects of the sacrament which the
progressive reform of the Rite of Penance, especially that contained in
the Ordo Paenitentiae promulgated by Paul VI, has sought to emphasize
and to make more meaningful in its celebration.
V. Second, it must be emphasized that the most
precious result of the forgiveness obtained in the sacrament of penance
consists in reconciliation with God, which takes place in the inmost
heart of the son who was lost and found again, which every penitent is.
But it has to be added that this reconciliation with God leads, as it
were, to other reconciliations which repair the breaches caused by sin.
The forgiven penitent is reconciled with himself in his inmost being,
where he regains his own true identity. He is reconciled with his
brethren whom he has in some way attacked and wounded. He is reconciled
with the church. He is reconciled with all creation.
As a result of an awareness of this, at the end
of the celebration there arises in the penitent a sense of gratitude to
God for the gift of divine mercy received, and the church invites the
penitent to have this sense of gratitude.
Every confessional is a special and blessed
place from which, with divisions wiped away, there is born new and
uncontaminated a reconciled individual-a reconciled world!
VI. Last, I particularly wish to speak of one
final consideration, one which concerns all of us priests, who are the
ministers of the sacrament of penance.(193) The priest's celebration of
the eucharist and administration of the other sacraments, his pastoral
zeal, his relationship with the faithful his communion with his brother
priests, his collaboration with his bishop, his life of prayer-in a
word, the whole of his priestly existence, suffers an inexorable decline
if by negligence or for some other reason he fails to receive the
sacrament of penance at regular intervals and in a spirit of genuine
faith and devotion. If a priest were no longer to go to confession or
properly confess his sins, his priestly being and his priestly action
would feel its effects very soon and this would also be noticed by the
community of which he was the pastor.
But I also add that even in order to be a good
and effective minister of penance the priest needs to have recourse to
the source of grace and holiness present in this sacrament We priests,
on the basis of our personal experience, can certainly say that the more
careful we are to receive the sacrament of penance and to approach it
frequently and with good dispositions, the better we fulfill our own
ministry as confessors and ensure that our penitents benefit from it.
And on the other hand, this ministry would lose much of its
effectiveness if in some way we were to stop being good penitents. Such
is the internal logic of this great sacrament. It invites all of us
priests of Christ to pay renewed attention to our personal confession.
Personal experience in its turn becomes and
must become today an incentive for the diligent, regular, patient and
fervent exercise of the sacred ministry of penance, to which we are
committed by the very fact of our priesthood and our vocation as pastors
and servants of our brothers and sisters. Also with this present
exhortation I therefore address an earnest invitation to all the priests
of the world, especially to my brothers in the episcopacy and to pastors
of souls, an invitation to make every effort to encourage the faithful
to make use of this sacrament. I urge them to use all possible and
suitable means to ensure that the greatest possible number of our
brothers and sisters receive the "grace that has been given to us"
through penance for the reconciliation of every soul and of the whole
world with God in Christ.
Forms of Celebration
32. Following the suggestions of the Second
Vatican Council, the Ordo Paenitentiae provided three rites which, while
always keeping intact the essential elements, make it possible to adapt
the celebration of the sacrament of penance to particular pastoral
The first form-reconciliation of individual
penitents is the only normal and ordinary way of celebrating the
sacrament, and it cannot and must not be allowed to fall into disuse or
be neglected. The second form-reconciliation of a number of penitents
with individual confession and absolution-even though in the preparatory
acts it helps to give greater emphasis to the community aspects of the
sacrament, is the same as the first form in the culminating sacramental
act, namely individual confession and individual absolution of sins. It
can thus be regarded as equal to the first form as regards the normality
of the rite. The third form however- reconciliation of a number of
penitents with general confession and absolution-is exceptional in
character. It is therefore not left to free choice but is regulated by a
The first form makes possible a highlighting of
the more personal- and essential-aspects which are included in the
penitential process. The dialogue between penitent and confessor, the
sum of the elements used (the biblical texts, the choice of the forms of
"satisfaction," etc.), make the sacramental celebration correspond more
closely to the concrete situation of the penitent. The value of these
elements are perceived when one considers the different reasons that
bring a Christian to sacramental penance: a need for personal
reconciliation and readmission to friendship with God by regaining the
grace lost by sin; a need to check one's spiritual progress and
sometimes a need for a more accurate discernment of one's vocation; on
many other occasions a need and a desire to escape from a state of
spiritual apathy and religious crisis. Thanks then to its individual
character, the first form of celebration makes it possible to link the
sacrament of penance with something which is different but readily
linked with it: I am referring to spiritual direction. So it is
certainly true that personal decision and commitment are clearly
signified and promoted in this first form.
The second form of celebration, precisely by
its specific dimension, highlights certain aspects of great importance:
The word of God listened to in common ha s remarkable effect as compared
to its individual reading and better emphasizes the ecclesial character
of conversion and reconciliation. It is particularly meaningful at
various seasons of the liturgical year and in connection with events of
special pastoral importance. The only point that needs mentioning here
is that for celebrating the second form there should be an adequate
number of confessors present.
It is therefore natural that the criteria for
deciding which of the two forms of celebration to use should be dictated
not by situational and subjective reasons, but by a desire to secure the
true spiritual good of the faithful in obedience to the penitential
discipline of the church.
We shall also do well to recall that, for a
balanced spiritual and pastoral orientation in this regard, great
importance must continue to be given to teaching the faithful also to
make use of the sacrament of penance for venial sins alone, as is borne
out by a centuries-old doctrinal tradition and practice.
Though the church knows and teaches that venial
sins are forgiven in other ways too-for instance, by acts of sorrow,
works of charity, prayer, penitential rites-she does not cease to remind
everyone of the special usefulness of the sacramental moment for these
sins too. The frequent use of the sacrament-to which some categories of
the faithful are in fact held-strengthens the awareness that even minor
sins offend God and harm the church, the body of Christ. Its celebration
then becomes for the faithful "the occasion and the incentive to conform
themselves more closely to Christ and tomake themselves more docile to
the voice of the Spirit."(194) Above all it should be emphasized that
the grace proper to the sacramental celebration has a great remedial
power and helps to remove the very roots of sin.
Attention to the actual celebration,(195) with
special reference to the importance of the word of God which is read,
recalled and explained, when this is possible and suitable, to the
faithful and with them, will help to give fresh life to the practice of
the sacrament and prevent it from declining into a mere formality and
routine. The penitent will be helped rather to discover that he or she
is living a salvific event capable of inspiring fresh life and giving
true peace of heart. This careful attention to the celebration will also
lead the individual churches to arrange special times for the
celebration of the sacrament. It will also be an incentive to teaching
the faithful especially children and young people, to accustom
themselves to keeping to these times except in cases of necessity, when
the parish priest must always show a ready willingness to receive
whoever comes to him.
Celebration of the Sacrament with General
33. The new liturgical regulation and, more
recently, the Code of Canon Law,196 specify the conditions which make it
lawful to use "the rite of reconciliation of a number of penitents with
general confession and absolution." The norms and regulations given on
this point, which are the result of mature and balanced consideration,
must be accepted and applied in such a way as to avoid any sort of
It is opportune to reflect more deeply on the
reasons which order the celebration of penance in one of the first two
forms and permit the use of the third form. First of all, there is the
reason of fidelity to the will of the Lord Jesus, transmitted by the
doctrine of the church, and also the reason of obedience to the church's
laws. The synod repeated in one of its propositions the unchanged
teaching which the church has derived from the most ancient tradition,
and it repeated the law with which she has codified the ancient
penitential practice: The individual and integral confession of sins
with individual absolution constitutes the only ordinary way in which
the faithful who are conscious of serious sin are reconciled with God
and with the church. From this confirmation of the church's teaching it
is clear that every serious sin must always be stated, with its
determining circumstances, in an individual confession.
Then there is a reason of the pastoral order.
While it is true that, when the conditions required by canonical
discipline occur, use may be made of the third form of celebration, it
must not be forgotten that this form cannot become an ordinary one, and
it cannot and must not be used-as the synod repeated-except "in cases of
grave necessity." And there remains unchanged the obligation to make an
individual confession of serious sins before again having recourse to
another general absolution. The bishop therefore, who is the only one
competent in his own diocese to assess whether the conditions actually
exist which canon law lays down for the use of the third form, will give
this judgment with a grave obligation on his own conscience, with full
respect for the law and practice of the church and also taking into
account the criteria and guidelines agreed upon- on the basis of the
doctrinal and pastoral considerations explained above-with the other
members of the episcopal conference. Equally it will always be a matter
of genuine pastoral concern to lay down and guarantee the conditions
that make recourse to the third form capable of producing the spiritual
fruits for which it is meant. The exceptional use of the third form of
celebration must never lead to a lesser regard for, still less an
abandonment of, the ordinary forms nor must it lead to this form being
considered an alternative to the other two forms. It is not in fact left
to the freedom of pastors and the faithful to choose from among these
forms the one considered most suitable. It remains the obligation of
pastors to facilitate for the faithful the practice of integral and
individual confession of sins, which constitutes for them not only a
duty but also an inviolable and inalienable right, besides being
something needed by the soul. For he faithful, the use of the third form
of celebration involves the obligation of following all the norms
regulating its exercise, including that of not having recourse again to
general absolution before a normal integral and individual confession of
sins, which must be made as soon as possible. Before granting absolution
the priest must inform and instruct the faithful about this norm and
about the obligation to observe it.
With this reminder of the doctrine and the law
of the church I wish to instill into everyone the lively sense of
responsibility which must guide us when we deal with sacred things like
the sacraments, which are not our property, or like consciences, which
have a right not to be left in uncertainty and confusion. The sacraments
and consciences, I repeat, are sacred, and both require that we serve
them in truth.
This is the reason for the church's law.
Some More Delicate Cases
34. I consider it my duty to mention at this
point, if very briefly, a pastoral case that the synod dealt
with-insofar as it was able to do so-and which it also considered in one
of the propositions. I am referring to certain situations, not
infrequent today, affecting Christians who wish to continue their
sacramental religious practice, but who are prevented from doing so by
their personal condition, which is not in harmony with the commitments
freely undertaken before God and the church. These are situations which
seem particularly delicate and almost inextricable.
Numerous interventions during the synod,
expressing the general thought of the fathers, emphasized the
coexistence and mutual influence of two equally important principles in
relation to these cases. The first principle is that of compassion and
mercy, whereby the church, as the continuer in history of Christ's
presence and work, not wishing the death of the sinner but that the
sinner should be converted and live,(197) and careful not to break the
bruised reed or to quench the dimly burning wick,(198) ever seeks to
offer, as far as possible, the path of return to God and of
reconciliation with him. The other principle is that of truth and
consistency, whereby the church does not agree to call good evil and
evil good. Basing herself on these two complementary principles, the
church can only invite her children who find themselves in these painful
situations to approach the divine mercy by other ways, not however
through the sacraments of penance and the eucharist until such time as
they have attained the required dispositions.
On this matter, which also deeply torments our
pastoral hearts, it seemed my precise duty to say clear words in the
apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio, as regards the case of the
divorced and remarried,(199) and likewise the case of Christians living
together in an irregular union.
At the same time and together with the synod, I
feel that it is my clear duty to urge the ecclesial communities and
especially the bishops to provide all possible assistance to those
priests who have fallen short of the grave commitments which they
undertook at their ordination and who are living in irregular
situations. None of these brothers of ours should feel abandoned by the
For all those who are not at the present moment
in the objective conditions required by the sacrament of penance, the
church's manifestations of maternal kindness, the support of acts of
piety apart from sacramental ones, a sincere effort to maintain contact
with the Lord, attendance at Mass and the frequent repetition of acts of
faith, hope, charity and sorrow made as perfectly as possible can
prepare the way for full reconciliation at the hour that providence
CONCLUDING EXPRESSION OF HOPE
35. At the end of this document I hear echoing
within me and I desire to repeat to all of you the exhortation which the
first bishop of Rome, at a critical hour of the beginning of the church,
addressed "to the exiles of the dispersion...chosen and destined by God
the Father...: Have unity of spirit, sympathy, love of the brethren, a
tender heart and a humble mind."(200) The apostle urged: "Have unity of
spirit." But he immediately went on to point out the sins against
harmony and peace which must be avoided: "Do not return evil for evil or
reviling for reviling; but on the contrary bless, for to this you have
been called, that you may obtain a blessing." And he ended with a word
of encouragement and hope: "Who is there to harm you if you are zealous
for what is right?"(201)
At an hour of history which is no less
critical, I dare to join my exhortation to that of the prince of the
apostles, the first to occupy this See of Rome as a witness to Christ
and as pastor of the church, and who here "presided in charity" before
the entire world. In communion with the bishops who are the successors
of the apostles and supported by the collegial reflection that many of
them, meeting in the synod, devoted to the topics and problems of
reconciliation, I too wish to speak to you with the same spirit of the
fisherman of Galilee when he said to our brothers and sisters in the
faith, distant in time but so closely linked in heart: "Have unity of
spirit.... Do not return evil for evil.... Be zealous for what is
right."(202) And he added: "It is better to suffer for doing right, if
that should be God's will, than for doing wrong."(203)
This exhortation is completely permeated by
words which Peter had heard from Jesus himself and by ideas which formed
part of his "good news": the new commandment of love of neighbor; the
yearning for and commitment to unity; the beatitudes of mercy and
patience in persecution for the sake of justice; the repaying of evil
with good; the forgiveness of offenses; the love of enemies. In these
words and ideas is the original and transcendent synthesis of the
Christian ethic or, more accurately and more profoundly, of the
spirituality of the new covenant in Jesus Christ.
I entrust to the Father, rich in mercy, I
entrust to the Son of God, made man as our redeemer and reconciler, I
entrust to the Holy Spirit, source of unity and peace, this call of
mine, as father and pastor, to penance and reconciliation. May the most
holy and adorable Trinity cause to spring up in the church and in the
world the small seed which at this hour I plant in the generous soil of
many human hearts.
In order that in the not too distant future
abundant fruits may come from it, I invite you all to join me in turning
to Christ's heart, the eloquent sign of the divine mercy, the
"propitiation for our sins," "our peace and reconciliation,"(204) that
we may draw from it an interior encouragement to hate sin and to be
converted to God, and find in it the divine kindness which lovingly
responds to human repentance.
I likewise invite you to turn with me to the
immaculate heart of Mary, mother of Jesus, in whom "is effected the
reconciliation of God with humanity..., is accomplished the work of
reconciliation, because she has received from God the fullness of grace
in virtue of the redemptive sacrifice of Christ."(205) Truly Mary has
been associated with God, by virtue of her divine motherhood, in the
work of reconciliation.(206)
Into the hands of this mother, whose fiat
marked the beginning of that "fullness of time" in which Christ
accomplished the reconciliation of humanity with God, to her immaculate
heart-to which we have repeatedly entrusted the whole of humanity,
disturbed by sin and tormented by so many tensions and conflicts-I now
in a special way entrust this intention: that through her intercession
humanity may discover and travel the path of penance, the only path that
can lead it to full reconciliation.
To all of you who in a spirit of ecclesial
communion in obedience and faith(207) receive the indications,
suggestions and directives contained in this document and seek to put
them into living pastoral practice, I willingly impart my apostolic
Given in Rome at St. Peter's on December 2,
the first Sunday of Advent, in the year 1984, the seventh of my
1. Mk 1:15.
2. Cf Pope John Paul II, opening speech at the
Third General Conference of the Latin American Episcopate: AAS 71
3. The idea of a "shattered world" is seen in
the works of numerous contemporary writers, both Christian and
non-Christian, witnesses of man's condition in this tormented period of
4. Cf Pastoral Constitution on the Church in
the Modern World Gaudium
Spes, 3, 43 and 44; Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests
Presbyterorum Ordinis, 12; Pope Paul VI, encyclical Ecclesiam Suam: AAS
56 (1964), 609-659.
5. At the very beginning of the church, the
apostle Paul wrote with words of fire about division in the body of the
church, in the famous passage 1 Cor 1:10-16. Years later, St. Clement of
Rome was also to write to the Corinthians, to condemn the wounds inside
that community: cf Letter to the Corinthians, III-VI; LVII: Patres
Apostolici, ed. Funk, I, 103-109;171-173. We know that from the earliest
fathers onward Christ's seamless robe, which the soldiers did not
divide, became an image of the church's unity: cf St. Cyprian, De
EcclesiaeCatholicae Unitate, 7: CCL 3/1, 254f; St. Augustine, In Ioannis
Evangelium Tractatus, 118, 4: CCL 36, 656f; St. Bede theVenerable, In
Marci Evangelium Expositio, IV, 15: CCL 120, 630i In Lucae Evangelium
Expositio, VI, 23: CCL 120, 403; In S. Ioannis Evangelium Expositio, 19:
PL 92, 911f.
6. The encyclical Pacem in Terris, John XXIII's
spiritual testament, is often considered a "social document" and even a
"political message," and in fact it is if these terms are understood in
their broadest sense. As is evident more than twenty years after its
publication, the document is in fact more than a strategy for the
peaceful coexistence of people and nations; it is a pressing reminder of
the higher values without which peace on earth becomes a mere dream. One
of these values is precisely that of reconciliation among people, and
John XXIII often referred to this subject. With regard to Paul VI, it
will sufflce to recall that in calling the church and the world to
celebrate the Holy Year of 1975, he wished "renewal and reconciliation"
to be the central idea of that important event. Nor can one forget the
catechesis which he devoted to this key theme, also in explaining the
7. As I wrote in the bull of indiction of the
Jubilee Year of the Redemption: "This special time, when all Christians
are called upon to realize more profoundly their vocation to
reconciliation with the Father in the Son, will only reach its full
achievement if it leads to a fresh commitment by each and every person
to the service of reconciliation, not only among all the disciples of
Christ but also among all men and women": bull Aperite Portas
Redemptori, 3: AAS 75 (1983), 93.
8. The theme of the synod was, more precisely,
"Reconciliation and Penance in the Mission of the Church."
9. Cf Mt 4:17; Mk 1:15.
10. Cf Lk 3:8.
11. Cf Mt 16:24-26; Mk 8:34-36; Lk 9:23-25.
12. Eph 4:23f.
13. Cf 1 Cor 3:1-20.
14. Cf Col 3:1f.
15. "We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be
reconciled to God": 2 Cor 5:20.
16. "We also rejoice in God through our Lord
Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received our reconciliation": Rom
5:11; cf Col 1:20.
17. The Second Vatican Council noted: "The
dichotomy affecting the modern world is, in fact, a symptom of the
deeper dichotomy that is in man himself. He is the meeting point of many
conflicting forces. In his condition as a created being he is subject to
a thousand shortcomings, but feels untrammeled in his inclinations and
destined for a higher form of life. Torn by a welter of anxieties he is
compelled to choose between them and repudiate some among them. Worse
still, feeble and sinful as he is, he often does the very thing he hates
and does not do what he wants (cf Rom 7:14ff). And so he feels himself
divided, and the result is a host of discords in social life." Gaudium
18. Cf Col 1:19f.
19. Cf Pope John Paul II, encyclical Dives in
Misencordia, 5-6: AAS 72 (1980), 1193-1199.
20. Cf Lk 15:11-32.
21. In the Old Testament, the Book of Jonah is
a wonderful anticipation and figure of this aspect of the parable.
Jonah's sin is that he was "displeased...exceedingly and he was angry"
because God is "a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and
abounding in steadfast love, and repentest of evil. His sin is also that
of pitying a castor oil plant "which came into being in a night and
perished in a night" and not understanding that the Lord pities Niniveh.
cf Jon 4.
22. Cf Rom 5:10f.; cf Col 1:20-22.
23. Cf 2 Cor 5:18, 20.
24. Jn 11:52.
25. Cf Col 1:20.
26. Cf Sir 44:17.
27. Eph 2:14.
28. Eucharistic Prayer 3.
29. Cf Mt 5:23f.
30. Ibid., 27:46; Mk 15:34, Ps 22(21):2.
31. Cf Eph 2:14-16.
32. St. Leo the Great, Tractatus 63 (De
Passione Domini, 12), 6: CCL 138/A, 386.
33. Cf 2 Cor 5:18f.
34. Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen
35. "The church is also by her nature always
reconciling, handing on to others the gift that she herself has
received, the gift of having been forgiven and made one with God": Pope
John Paul II, Homily at Liverpool, May 30, 1982: Insegnamenti, V, 2
36. Cf Acts 15:2-33.
37. Cf Apostolic exhortation Evangelii
Nuntiandi, 13: AAS 68 (1976), 12f.
38. Cf Pope John Paul II, apostolic exhortation
Catechesi Tradendae, 24: AAS 71 (1979), 1297.
39. Cf Pope Paul VI, encyclical, Ecclesiam
Suam: ASS 56 (1964), 609-659.
40. Cf 2 Cor 5:20.
41. Cf 1 Jn 4:8.
42. Cf Wis 11:23-26; Gn 1:27; Ps 8:4-8.
43. Cf Wis 2:24.
44. Cf Gn 3:12f; 4:1-16.
45. Cf Eph 2:4.
46. Cf ibid., 1:10.
47. Jn 13:34.
48. Cf Second Vatican Council Pastoral
Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium
49. Cf Mk 1:15.
50. Cf 2 Cor 5:20.
51. Cf Eph 2:14-16.
52. Cf St. Augustine, De Civitate Dei, XXII 17:
CCL 48, 835f; St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, III pars, q. 64,
art. 2 ad tertium.
53. Cf Pope Paul VI, Allocution at the Closing
of the Third Session of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, November
21, 1964: ASS 56 (1964), 1015-1018.
54. Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic
Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, 39.
55.Ibid., Decree on Ecumenism Unitatis
56.1 Jn 1:8-9.
57. 1 Jn 3:20; cf my reference to this passage
in my address at the general audience of March 14, 1984: Insegnamenti,
VII, 1 (1984) 683.
58. Cf 2 Sm 11-12.
59. Cf Ps 50(51):3-4.
60. Cf Lk 15:18, 21.
61. Lettere, Florence 1970, I, pp.3f; II
Dialogo della Divina Providenza, Rome 1980, passim.
62. Cf Rom 3:23-26.
63. Cf Eph 1:18.
64. Cf Gn 11:1-9.
65. Cf Ps 127 (126):1.
66. Cf 2 1 hes 2:7.
67. Cf Rom 7:7-25; Eph 2:2; 6:12.
68. The terminology used in the Septuagint
Greek translation and in the New Testament for sin is significant. The
most common term for sin is hamartia, with its various derivatives. It
expresses the concept of offending more or less gravely against a norm
or law, or against a person or even a divinity. But sin is also called
adikia, and the concept here is of acting unjustly. The Bible also
speaks of parabasis (transgression), asebeis (impiety) and other
concepts. They all convey the image of sin.
69. Gn 3:5: "And you will be like God, knowing
good and evil"; cf also v. 22.
70. Cf ibid., 3:12.
71. Cf ibid., 4:2-16.
72. The expression from the French writer
Elizabeth Leseur, Journal
Pensees de Chaque Jour, Paris 1918, p. 31.
73. Cf Mt 22:39; Mk 12:31; Lk 10:27f.
74. Cf Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of
the Faith: Instruction on Certain Aspects of the Theology of Liberation
Libertatis Nuntius; August 6, 1984 IV, 14-15: ASS 76 (1984), 885f.
75. Cf Nm 15:30.
76. Cf Lv 18:26-30.
77. Cf ibid., 19:4.
78. Cf ibid., 20:1-7.
79. Cf Ex 21:17.
80. Cf Lv 4:2ff; 5:1ff; Nm 15:22-29.
81. Cf Mt 5:28; 6:23; 12:31f; 15:19; Mk
3:28-30; Rom 1:29-31; 13:13; Jas 4.
82. Cf Mt 5:17; 15:1-10; Mk 10:19; Lk 18:20.
83. Cf 1 Jn 5:16f.
84. Cf 1 Jn 17:3.
85. Cf 1 Jn 2:22.
86. Cf 1 Jn 5:21.
87. Cf 1 Jn 5:16-21.
88. Cf Mt 12:31f.
89. Cf St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae
II-II, q. 14, aa. 1-8.
90. Cf 1 Jn 3:20.
91. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae,
II-II, q. 14, a. 3, ad primum.
92. Cf Phil 2:12.
93. Cf St. Augustine, De Spintu
Littera, XXVIII: CSEL 60, 202f; Enarrat. in ps. 39, 22: CCL 38, 441;
Enchiridion ad Laurentium de Fide
Cantate, XIX, 71: CCL 46, 88; In Ioannis Evangelium Tractatus, 12, 3,14:
CCL 36, 129.
94. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II,
q. 72, a. 5.
95. Cf Council of Trent, Session VI, De
Iustificatione, Chap. 2 and Canons 23, 25, 27: Conciliorum Oecumenicorum
Decreta, Bologna 1973, 671 and 680f (DS 1573, 1575,1577).
96. Cf Council of Trent, Session IV De
Iustificatione, Chapt. 15: Conciliorum Oecumenicorum Decreta, ed. dt.
677 (DS 1544).
97. Pope John Paul II, Angelus Message of March
14, 1982: Insegnamenti V, 1 (1982),861.
99. Pope John Paul II, Angelus Message of March
14, 1982: Insegnamenti V, 1 (1982),860.
100. Pope Pius XII, Radio Message to the U.S.
National Catechetical Congress in Boston (October 26,1946): Discorsi e
Radiomessaggi VIII (1946) 288.
101. Cf Pope John Paul II, encyclical Redemptor
Hominis, 15: AAS 71 (1979), 286-289.
102. Cf Gaudium
Spes, 3; cf 1 Jn 3:9.
103. Pope John Paul II, Address to the Bishops
of the Eastern Region of France (April 1,1982),2: Insegnamenti V, 1
104.1 Tm 3:15f.
105. The text presents a certain difficulty,
since the relative pronoun which opens the literal translation does not
agree with the neuter mysterion. Some late manuscripts have adjusted the
text in order to correct the grammar. But it was Paul's intention merely
to put next to what he had written a venerable text which for him was
106. The early Christian community expresses
its faith in the crucified and glorified Christ, whom the angels adore
and who is the Lord. But the striking element of this message remains
the phrase"manifested in the flesh": that the eternal Son of God became
man is the "great mystery.
107. 1 Jn 5:18f.
108. Ibid., 3:9.
109. 1 Tm 3:15.
110. 1 Jn 1:8.
111. Ibid., 5:19.
112. Cf Ps. 51(50):5.
113. Cf Eph. 2:4.
114 Cf Pope John Paul II, Dives in
Misericordia, 8; 15: AAS 72 (1980), 1203-1207; 1231.
115. 2 Sm 12:13.
116. Ps 51(50):3.
117. Ibid., 51(50):7.
118. 2 Sm 12:13.
119. Cf 2 Cor 5:18.
120. Cf 2 Cor 5:19.
122. Decree on the Pastoral Offlce of Bishops
in the Church Christus Dominus, 13; cf Declaration on Christian
Education Gravissimum Educationis, 8; Decree on the Church's Missionary
Activity Ad Gentes, 11-12.
123. Cf Pope Paul VI, Ecclesiam Suam, III: AAS
56 (1964), 639-659.
124. Lumen Gentium, 1, 9,13.
125. Pope Paul VI, apostolic exhortation
Paterna Cum Benevolentia: AAS 67 (1975), 5-23.
126. Cf Unitatis Redintegratio, 7-8.
127. Ibid., 4.
128. St. Augustine, Sermo 96, 7: PL 38, 588.
129. Pope John Paul II, Speech to Members of
the Diplomatic Corps Accredited to the Holy See January 15, 1983), 4, 6,
1 1: AAS 75 (1983), 376, 378f, 381.
130. Pope John Paul II, Homily at the Mass for
the 16th World Day of Peace (January 1, 1983), 6: Insegnamenti VI, 1
131. Pope Paul VI, apostolic exhortation
Evangelii Nuntiandi, 70: AAS 68 (1976), 59f.
132. 1 Tm 3:15.
133. Cf Mt 5:23f.
134. Cf ibid., 5:38-40.
135. Cf ibid., 6:12.
136. Cf ibid., 5:43ff.
137. Cf ibid., 18:21f.
138. Cf Mk 1:14; Mt 3:2; 4:17; Lk 3:8.
139. Cf Lk 15:17.
140. Ibid., 17:3f.
141. Cf Mt 3:2; Mk 1:2-6; Lk 3:1-6.
142. Cf Gaudium
Spes, 8, 16, 19, 26, 41,48.
143. Cf Declaration on Religious Liberty
Dignitatis Humanae, 2, 3, 4.
144. Cf among many others the addresses at the
general audiences of March 28,1973: Insegnamenti XI (1973),294ff; August
8,1973: ibid., 772ff, November 7, 1973: ibid., 1054ff; March 13, 1974:
Insegnamenti' XII (1974), 230ff; May 8, 1974: ibid., 402ff; February 12,
1975: Insegnamenti XIII (1975), ibid.,290ff; July 13, 1977: Insegnamenti
XV (1977), 710ff.
145. Cf PopeJohn Paul II, Angelus Message of
March 17, 1982: Insegnamenti V, 1 (1982), 860f.
146. Cf Pope John Paul II, General Audience
Address of August 17, 1983, 1-3: Insegnamenti VI, 2 (1983), 256f.
147. Heb 4:15.
148. Cf Mt 4:1-11; Mk 1:12f; Lk 4:1-13.
149. Cf 1 Cor 10:13.
150. Cf Mt 6:13; Lk 11:4.
151. 1 Pt 3:21.
152. Cf Rom 6:3f; Col 2:12.
153. Cf Mt 3:11; Lk 3:16; Jn 1:33; Acts 1:5;
154. Cf Mt 3:15.
155. St. Augustine, In Ioannis Evangelium
Tractatus, 26, 13: CCL 36, 266.
156. Sacred Congregation of Rites, Instruction
on the Worship of the Eucharistic Mystery Eucharisticum Mysterium (May
25, 1967) 35 AAS 59 (1967), 560f.
157. Ps 78(77):38f.
158. Cf Jn 1:29; Is 53:7-12.
159. Cf Jn 5:27.
160. Cf Mt 9:2-7; Lk 5.-18-25; 7:47-49; Mk
161. Cf Jn 3:17.
162. Jn 20:22; Mt 18:18; cf also, as regards
Peter, Mt 16:19. Blessed Isaac of Stella in one of his talks emphasizes
the full communion of Christ with the church in the forgiveness of sins:
"The church can forgive nothing without Christ and Christ does not wish
to forgive anything without the church. The church can forgive nothing
except to a penitent, that is to say, to a person whom Christ has
touched with his grace: Christ does not wish to consider anything
forgiven in a person who despises the church": Sermo 11 (In Dominica II
Post Epiphaniam, 1): PL 194, 1729.
163. Cf Mt 12:49f; Mk 3:33f; Lk 8:20f; Rom
8:29: "the firstborn among many brethren."
164. Cf Heb 2:17; 4:15.
165. Cf Mt 18:12f; Lk 15:4-6.
166. Cf Lk 5:31f.
167. Cf Mt 22:16.
168. Cf Acts 10:42.
169. Cf Jn 8:16.
170. Cf the address to the penitentiaries of
the Roman patriarchal basilicas and to the priest confessors at the
closing of the Jubilee of the Redemption auly 9, 1984): L'Osservatore
Romano, July 9-10, 1984.
171. Jn 8:11.
172. Cf Ti 3:4.
173. Cf Council of Trent, Session XIV De
Sacramento Poenitentiae, Chap. 1 and Canon 1: Conciliorum Oecumenicorum
Decreta, 703f, 711 (DS 1668-1670,1701).
174. Lumen Gentium, 11.
175. Cf Council of Trent, Session XIV, De
Sacramento Poenitentiae, Chap. l and Canon 1: Conciliorum Oecumenicorum
Decreta, ed. cit.,703f,711 (DS 1668-1670, 1701).
176. Cf Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy
Suaosanctum Concilium, 72.
177. Cf Rituale Romanum ex Decreto Sacrosancti
Conalii Oecumenici Vaticani II Instauratum, Auctoritate Pauli Vl
Promulgatum: Ordo Paenitenttae, Vatican Polyglot Press, 1974.
178. The Council of Trent uses the attenuated
expression "ad instar actus iudicialis" (Session XIV De Sacramento
Poenitentiae, Chap. 6: ConciliorumOecumenicorum Decreta, ed. dt., 707
(DS 1685), in order to emphasize the difference from human tribunals.
The new Rite of Penance makes reference to this function, Nos. 6b and
179. Cf Lk 5:31f: "Those who are well have no
need of a physician, but those who are sick" concluding: "I have...come
to call...sinners to repentance"; Lk 9:2: "And he sent them out to
preach the kingdom of God and to heal." The image of Christ the
physician takes on new and striking elements if we compare it with the
figure of the Servant of Yahweh, of whom the Book of Isaiah prophesies
that "he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows" and that with his
stripes we are healed" (Is 53:4f).
180. St. Augustine, Sermo 82, 8: PL 38, 511.
181. Ibid., Sermo, 352, 3, 8:9: PL 39, 1558f.
182. Cf Ordo Paenitentiae, 6c.
183. Even the pagans recognized the existence
of "divine" moral laws which have "always" existed and which are written
in the depths of the human heart, cf Sophocles (Antigone, w. 450-460)
ant Aristotle (Rhetor., Book I, Chap.15, 1375 a-b).
184. On the role of conscience cf what I said
at the general audience of March 14, 1984, 3: Insegnamenti VII, 1
185. Cf Council of Trent, Session XIV De
Sacramento Poenitentiae, Chap.4 De Contritione: Conciliorum
Oecumenicorum Decreta, ed. cit., 705 (DS 1676-1677). Of course, in order
to approach the sacrament of penance it is sufficient to have attrition,
or imperfect repentance, due more to fear than to love. But in the
sphere of the sacrament, the penitent, under the action of the grace
that he receives, "ex attrito fit conmtus," since penance really
operates in the person who is welldisposed to conversion in love: cf
Council of Trent, ibid., ed. cit., 705 (DS 1678).
186. Ordo Paenitentiae, 6c.
187. Cf Ps 51(50):12.
188. I had occasion to speak of these
fundamental aspects of penance at the general audiences of May 19, 1982:
Insegnamenti V, 2 (1982), 1758ff; February 28, 1979: Insegnamenti II
(1979), 475-478; March 21, 1984: Insegnamenti VII, 1 (1984) 720-722. See
also the norms of the Code of Canon Law concerning the place for
administering the sacrament and concerning confessionals (Canon 964,
189. I dealt with this subject concisely at the
general audience of March 7, 1984: Insegnamenti VII, 1 (1984), 631-633.
190. Cf Gn 4:7, 15.
191. Cf 2 Sm 12.
192. Cf Lk 15:17-21.
193. Cf Presbyterorum Ordinis, 18.
194. Ordo Paenitentiae, 7b.
195. Cf ibid., 17.
196. Canons 961-963.
197. Cf Ez 18:23.
198. Cf Is 42:3; Mt 12:20.
199. Cf Familiaris Consortio, 84: AAS 74
200. Cf 1 Pt 1:1f; 3:8.
201. Ibid., 3:9, 13.
202. Ibid., 3:8, 9, 13.
203. Ibid., 3:17.
204. Litany of the Sacred Heart, cf 1 Jn 2:2;
Eph 2:14; Rom 3:25; 5:11.
205. Pope John Paul II, General Audience
Address of December 7, 1983, No. 2: Insegnamenti, VI, 2 (1983), 1264.
206. Ibid., General Audience Address of January
4, 1984:Insegnamenti, VII, 1 (1984), 16-18.
207. Cf Rom 1:5; 16:26.