Catholics… we are very particular creatures. Those of us who try, every day, a little bit harder, to be that which we are called to be, tend to fall quite easily. It is awful to see ourselves falling, knowing full well that we, at that particular moment in time, should be doing better and making better choices. It is so hard to actually live through those moments when our conscience is clearly audible and our bodies completely ignore it. Most difficult is the moment after the offense is committed and you are left with yourself and your sin; you know that gross feeling in the pit of your stomach? Christ, in His mercy and goodness, has given us two very beautiful things: repentance and reconciliation.
In addition to repentance and reconciliation, and particular to our Catholic faith, we practice contrition and reparation. What a beautifully restored creature we are when we go through the process and humble ourselves enough to accept, admit, take ownership, and try our hardest, with God’s grace, to overcome those things that make us imperfectly human. It is important that we don’t dwell in them, but acknowledge them; that we don’t let them define us but teach us how to become stronger; that we don’t excuse them but search within ourselves the faults that let them be and the strengths that won’t let them happen again. The virtues that help us overcome the sins are all gifts that we are taught in our faith to embrace, absorb, and master. What a gift the Catholic Church is! What a gift we have in our holy priests!
Some of our Protestant brethren do not believe that it is necessary to do penance for your sins. They say that all you have to do is ask God’s forgiveness and everything goes away. But we as Catholics know that there is punishment due to sin that must be taken care of before we can get to heaven. Either here in this life or in Purgatory, which, according to them, does not exist. Sometimes they just grab a quote from St. John the Baptist about baptism of penance and basically say that in baptism, there is forgiveness, and that is it. It is a done deal, all past, present, and future sins are forgiven. Actually, this is only partially accurate. In Baptism there is forgiveness but only of the original sin that is a gift from our first parents; for those adults baptized it also includes past sins. You cannot ignore the fact that we continue to sin and just think we are a-okay just because we got baptized. We have to think back to Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion. Christ died to reopen Heaven, closed due to the Original Sin. It is not a “free pass”. We have to render an account for every idle word.
Problem is that the entire Levitic system was about doing an action for reparation (offering lambs at the altar). Jesus’s coming changed a couple of things but not this. His crucifixion didn’t change the system, we still have to make reparation. Just think about this, why does He command prayers? He fulfilled and perfected the law, He did not say anywhere in any of His discourses, “I am going to offer myself up for the sins of mankind and all the punishments forever.” When He talks about goats and rams and says, “what you do for the least of my brethren you do for me.” He commands action because He didn’t change the need because justice demands reparation. From the moment of Abraham and Issac, when God asked him to sacrifice Isaac and lets Abraham go through all the motions until the last second when He sends and angel to stop him. It was a foreshadowing of Jesus’s sacrifice. Jesus too had to go through it all as well, the crucifixion, the walk to Calvary, all of the suffering in reparation. He had to do actions for our redemption. He could have just stood on Calvary and said, “Accept me as your Lord and savior and you go to Heaven with me right now.” NO, He wanted to model real sacrifice for each one of us!
So since Christ is our model, we too must make reparation for our sins by DOING something. Jesus never got rid of the action of reparation or contrition. Therefore, faith must go with actions. We do have to make reparation just like in the Old Testament except we are not offering up rams and bulls but instead we are offering up His perfected sacrifice. In addition, we must make reparation to Him because each time we sin we injure Him. His justice demands that from us! Jesus never said we no longer have to make reparation to Him for His perfect sacrifice. If He did not change it, then it remains something we must follow. Unlike circumcision, Mosaic purity laws, the food laws, strengthening the marriage law, etc. which He changed explicitly; How do we know this? It is either taught in the Bible or through tradition. Which is another reason we cannot follow the sola scripture stance.
When I was a teenager, my Youth Minister, Carlos Cristobal (RIP), used this piece of wood and the nails analogy. He would say something like this: Imagine a piece of perfect wood. Beautifully sanded down, smooth to the touch, flawless and unique. That is our soul after baptism, perfect. Every time we sin, we drive a nail through the wood. Now we have this (these) metal spokes driving through our perfection, these pieces of foreign material disrupting the look and feel of the wood. Confession removes the nails, takes them out permanently, until we drive new nails in. Most often, people tend to stick to the same brand of nail but don’t reuse the ones that have been removed. We tend to gravitate towards one particular sin, our root sin. Once the nails are removed, the wood does not look the same, there are holes in the place where the nails were. This is the damage left behind by the offense and this is why we need reparation; to repair the damage left behind by our sins. A big problem we see in our society today is the lack of accountability and responsibility. Because people are not being formed with a clear understanding of the difference between contrition (feeling sorry for committing a sin) and penance (a physical work to help you make up for your offense) and reparation (the act of repairing what was broken or damaged), it is not filtering into the mundane activities in their lives. We end up with a bunch of people that say “sorry” expecting forgiveness and that is that. Or worse, people who don’t say “sorry” at all and go through life like bulls in china shops.
Lastly, something we should always keep in mind when discussing sin, contrition, penance and reparation is that we are not disconnected. Being created in the image and likeness of God, means we are created in communion with one another, and most importantly, with the Holy Trinity (the epitome of communion). This means, that sin is not isolated, it affects not only the sinner but many, many people and instances around the sinner. A good visual is the pebble in the lake. If you drop a pebble into a still lake (or puddle, whatever) it will create ripples. Sin, always creates ripples, very damaging ripples. Whether our sin hurts us or those around us, it always, without exception, hurts someone. And so, contrition, penance and reparation must be a part of our daily lives for our physical and spiritual health and the physical and spiritual health of those around us.
God also gives us tremendous graces to help us overcome those sins which are deeply rooted in our souls because of ingrained habits. Even some of the saints who were mystics shared with us that the amount of holiness is at God’s discretion. In doing so He helps us grow further in holiness because withholding these graces make us yearn Him even more and search for Him continually in Confession and Communion. Sometimes suffering through some spiritual sins help us grow in other areas in our lives. For example when I struggle with pride, when I am contrite, make penance and then reparation He will grace me with an increase in humility. His plan is so perfect for each one of us. The good news is that every day is a new opportunity, because God is Love and Mercy, to do better. Being aware that it is an opportunity to do better, not a do over, it is the beginning, the easy part. Making it happen, well, the devil is a tough adversary, keep reminding him that God is greater and all things are possible through Him that strengthens you.
Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us sinners.
*** This article was a combined effort between my friends Cristina O., Ryah S., and myself during a conversation we had on Facebook. Thank you ladies for allowing me to include your words in this blog post for His greater Glory! ***
Though I am a cradle Catholic, I was a little lost sheep for sometime. Thankfully, I found my way in December of my Junior year of High school. I now write from the NE USA, where I live with my husband, a convert, and five young children. I have a Master of Science in Reading Education. In 2008, after more than fifteen years in the education field, I “retired” to begin a new career as full time mommy and home educator–a world I felt so foreign to–but now have embraced it as a total lifestyle for my clan.