Examination of Conscience, Repentance and Confession
An Examination of Conscience, Repentance, and Confession of Sin
By Cardinal J. Francis Stafford
Readings: 1 Peter 2:20b-25; Mark 10:22-24,42-45
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
Today the Church urges us to two actions prior to confession.
We are urged to pray for forgiveness. The penitent asks for mercy from Jesus who "humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on the cross" (Philippians 2:8). But it is indisputable that today many find forgiveness difficult.
Several yeas ago, I encountered some young Americans who argued against the possibility of forgiveness. They said, "It is impossible to forgive what has happened in the past. How can prior events be undone? No one can contend with the stubborn resistance of the past."
They further insisted that certain human acts are so evil, like violence against children or mass killings of the innocent, that they cannot be forgotten, and, if remembered, they cannot be forgiven. Those young people believed that forgiveness is impossible.
Moreover, they claimed that one question was absolutely unanswerable, "Who is to forgive? Certainly not the innumerable victims. Because of the contagion of evil the victims of one sin are so numerous that it is impossible to locate all the victims. It likewise seems impossible to discover any power, divine or human, capable of offering complete forgiveness."
Holy Week alone answers their objections to the possibility of forgiveness. God Incarnate has become our sovereign victim and eternal Priest. In the Gospel today, Jesus said, "For the Son of man came to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45). In the crucified Son of man the heavenly Father laid bare the mystery of his love. Only Jesus was sent as victim to carry out the wrathful judgment upon all human sin, past, present and future.
United with the twenty-four elders in the heavenly sanctuary we sing a new song to the redemptive Lamb, "Worthy are you to receive the scroll and to break open its seals, for you were slain and with your blood you purchased for God those from every tribe and tongue, people and nation" (Revelation 5:9). Jesus' atoning death remakes the past. Young and old alike recognize in Christ's passion the whole sin of mankind and God's forgiveness of it. The Apostle Peter recalls in graphic detail what he himself watched in tears, "Jesus bore our sins in his body on the tree" (1 Peter 2:24).
The Holy Spirit has gathered us about the martyrium of St. Peter in Rome. That the city is the soul written large is true of old Rome; this city is the Christian soul written large. The intellectual, moral and theological virtues of Romans are especially evident in the more distant approach to St. Peter's martyrium across the Ponte San Angelo. Eight sculpted angels are stationed on that ancient bridge, each carrying an instrument of Christ's passion.
Pilgrims to Rome contemplate these angels who mourn over these instruments. Modeling the scene on the first week of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, Bernini envisioned that the journey across the ancient Tiber bridge would lead pilgrims to compunction, the sting of conscience. Only then would they be ready to take the next, crucial step in the Ignatian Exercises, the general confession.
The base of the fourth angel carries a stunning inscription: "Regnavit Deus a legno." Those words, "God reigns from the wood," appear in Psalm :10 with the addition of "a legno," an early gloss. The mystery of God reigning from the wood as Priest and Victim is recalled this week.
Many penitents themselves are victims of unjust actions by others. Some harbor anger against them. But even victims must rediscover that Jesus alone "is the expiation of our sins" (1 John 2:2). In the name of every victim, "[Jesus] by a single offering has perfected for all time those who are sanctified" (Hebrews 10:14). The divine Sinless Man "changes places" with sinners, thereby overcoming the irreversibility of time. All peoples are thus set free, ransomed, restored, released from guilt and sin. And God is faithful to his promise, "I will remember their sins and misdeeds no longer" (Hebrews 19:16b-17).
In prescribing an examination of conscience the Church suggests the Sermon on the Mount as an aid. Jesus' words are the representative text of the New Law; the cross is the sermon's mirror image. Jesus' broken body is the light that has not been overcome by darkness. The darkness of sin can never suppress the light of divine mercy -- penitents leave the darkness behind by a transparent confession of sins.
I offer the following examination for your growth in compunction:
-- Do I turn from pride, envy, and ambition and follow Jesus' way of humility? The choice between pride and humility is made concrete by my attitude
toward Scripture. Am I docile and open to the Word of God? Am I ready to be judged by it rather than to judge it myself? Do I spend a disproportionate amount of time in reading newspapers and journals, watching television and using the Internet in comparison with the time spent reading and meditating upon the sacred Scriptures?
-- Have I been lacking in poverty of spirit and thus have been unable to hallow the name of God among men? Have I placed my happiness in the possession of external goods? Have I encouraged those in doubt and error to follow what is true and good?
-- Have I been lacking in the meekness which prays that God's kingdom come and that I not resist him?
-- Have I lacked the tears to mourn over the knowledge that the fulfillment of God's will on earth must be accomplished within the conflict between body and spirit, between heaven and earth, as I am forced to say, "I see another law in my members, warring against the law in my mind"?
-- Have I been lacking in the hunger and thirst for justice so that I and others, especially the poor, have not been supported and sustained by being given their daily bread?
-- Have I been lacking in mercy whereby I forgive the injuries of others?
-- Have I been lacking in purity of heart, thereby surrendering to the temptation which creates duplicity of heart? Have I sought affective satisfaction in evil acts or thoughts with myself or with others and thus lost the simplicity of a heart fixed solely on God?
-- Have I been lacking in the willingness to be a peacemaker whereby others might have called me a child of God?
-- Have I received the good things from God's bounty with a deep sense of gratitude and accepted with patience the evil that comes to me?
-- Have I been lacking in the practice of justice which regulates my relationship with others and has as its end the establishment of peace?
-- In my work and civic and political responsibilities, have I acknowledged that the perfection of all the beatitudes is found in the acceptance of persecution for the sake of the Kingdom of God?
-- Have I followed the precepts of the new justice that Jesus mentions after the beatitudes, his precepts on fasting, prayer and forgiveness?
Gathered about the tomb of the Apostle Peter, we recall the motive prompting the repentant and weeping Peter to obey Jesus' command: It was his love for him. So, too, penitents should strive to observe the commandments because of love alone. The revelation of Jesus' broken heart is enough. For St. Paul, nothing else was necessary. He wrote: "I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me" (Galatians 2:20). Nothing more is required than Jesus' love. All else follows.
The Holy Spirit hovers over the Chair of Peter. What happened to the assembled Church in the upper room on the first Easter is being repeated here today. Penitents are called by that same Spirit to observe the commandments out of love, with a forgiving heart, so that they themselves may "be set free from bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God" (Romans 8:21).