Thursday, April 22, 2010


Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617 – April 3, 1682)
La conversión de San Pablo/ The Conversion of St Paul
1675 - 1682
Oil on canvas
125 cm x 169 cm
Colección Real, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675)
Allegory of the Catholic Faith
ca. 1670–72
Oil on canvas
45 x 35 in. (114.3 x 88.9 cm)
The Friedsam Collection,
The Metropolitan Museum, New York

Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450 – 1516)
Mesa de los pecados capitales / The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things 1485
Oil on wood
120 cm x 150 cm
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Lucas Franchoys II (1616 - 1681 )
Penitent Saint Jerome
Black chalk, heightened with white chalk
5 13/16 x 3 7/8 in. (14.7 x 9.9 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum, New York


It is a strange word. These days it is not an uncommon word.

Politicians and others in the public eye have recognised how a "good public apology" can often let them off the hook for some political transgression or other misdemeanour. Now we are in the age of the "Official Apology".

Governments have apologised for many historical events. For example: Tony Blair’s 1997 regrets for British government inaction during the Irish Potato Famine in the mid-nineteenth century.

People have perhaps become cynical about public apologies. They are often just words devoid of true feeling or the intention of true repentance. In some cases they can be just downright lies in a naked attempt to manipulate public opinion: to avert public ill-will and promote public good feeling towards the objects of criticism. There is always, on suspects, "an agenda" behind the words and gestures.

After the Banks collapsed, one remembers the public apologies of some bankers before the Select Committees of the House of Commons in London.

Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau famously characterised apologies as efforts to fix history, and he refused to have anything to do with them.

In Jay Rayner’s The Apologist (published in the United States as Eating Crow) an unhappy restaurant critic discovers, after meeting an old girlfriend whom he once jilted, that he has a spectacular talent for making apologies.

Eventually, he’s hired by the UN to be their Chief Apologist, and he travels the world in a private jet, facilitating apologies for colonialism, slavery, and various other historic wrongs. In this fantasy, the tone is set by the UN Secretary-General, who proclaims the “dawn of the empathetic era,” in which “the world can get back in touch with its emotions.”

Unsurprisingly, there is an academic behind it all — Professor Thomas Schenke, “the founding father of a new and exciting strand of international relations theory known in diplomatic circles as ‘Penitential Engagement.’ ”

The fictitious Schenke’s books track the growing popularization of international apologies: His first penitential work was an academic tome, Grievance Settlement within a Global Context. His sequel: More Grievance Settlement within a Global Context. But there were also two follow-ups for the mass market: A Very Sorry Business: Further Apologies for Home and Hearth, and Sorry Situations: Perfect Apologies for Weddings, Funerals and Bar Mitzvahs — published by “Heartfelt Editions”

It is one of the problems which faces the Church in present times. How can the Church convince a cynical audience that its apologies and its public words are true and sincere and more than mere words.

Interestingly the Pope until recently has said nothing in regard to the furore. His first words yesterday were a "call to penance".

The Bishops of England and Wales have recently today echoed the same call of the Pope. They, like Cardinal Pell and others have been in the forefront of issuing guidelines for the care of children. Again they, like some others, are in the forefront in dealing with the present difficulties. They offer "no excuses". See the post below.

There is no doubt that the words of the Pope and the Bishops are sincere and heartfelt.

But the modern world, I think, does not quite know of what to make of these calls. It did not know what to make of the calls of the Pope to penitence in his Letter to the People of Ireland regarding the child abuse scandals.

It simply does not understand what the Pope and the Bishops mean by "penance". And what it means to be truly penitent.

When they talk about penance, they are talking about the process of true contrition and reformation. It is not driven by the desire to calm down unwelcome public criticism.

Mere words, TV appearances on Oprah, the calling for the setting up of committees, the hasty drafting of legislative norms within a few days in reaction to revelation and public abuse might be the way a politician reacts to a public scandal to divert the unwelcome public attention.

The Church reacts differently. It is not a State or political party or political organisation or a public corporation which must satisfy its customers or shareholders. It does not react to external events in the same way as some journalists seem to think that it should.

The Church knows about Penance. Its mission is Penance. It has always preached the need for penance which is perpetual. It knows more about genuine penance and contrition than anyone else. It has been doing and teaching penance before the present "Empathetic Era" or "Time of Penitential Engagement" and when penance was not "in fashion". It has called for public penitence of the Church and its members at what to outsiders might seem rather strange times and, to outsiders, on unusual occasions.

On 1st July 1962, Blessed Pope John XXIII issued an encyclical entitled Paenitentiam Agere.

It was subtitled "On the Need for the Practice of Interior and Exterior Penance"

He issued the letter shortly before the opening of the Second Vatican Council. He favoured the practice of penance as essential preparation for the Council.

"1.Doing penance for one's sins is a first step towards obtaining forgiveness and winning eternal salvation. That is the clear and explicit teaching of Christ, and no one can fail to see how justified and how right the Catholic Church has always been in constantly insisting on this. She is the spokesman for her divine Redeemer. No individual Christian can grow in perfection, nor can Christianity gain in vigor, except it be on the basis of penance ...

5. Now we have only to open the sacred books of the Old and New Testament to be assured of one thing: it was never God's will to reveal Himself in any solemn encounter with mortal men—to speak in human terms—without first calling them to prayer and penance. Indeed, Moses refused to give the Hebrews the tables of the Law until they had expiated their crime of idolatry and ingratitude.

6. So too the Prophets; they never wearied of exhorting the Israelites to make their prayers acceptable to God, their supreme Overlord, by offering them in a penitential spirit. Otherwise they would bring about their own exclusion from the plan of divine Providence, according to which God Himself was to be the King of His chosen people.

7. The most deeply impressive of these prophetic utterances is surely that warning of Joel which is constantly ringing in our ears in the course of the Lenten liturgy: "Now therefore, says the Lord, Be converted to me with all your heart, in fasting and in weeping and in mourning. And rend your hearts and not your garments... Between the porch and the altar the priests, the Lord's ministers, shall weep and say: Spare, O Lord, spare thy people, and give not thy inheritance to reproach, that the heathen should rule over them."

8. Nor did these calls to penance cease when the Son of God became incarnate. On the contrary, they became even more insistent. At the very outset of his preaching, John the Baptist proclaimed: "Do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." And Jesus inaugurated His saving mission in the same way. He did not begin by revealing the principal truths of the faith. First He insisted that the soul must repent of every trace of sin that could render it impervious to the message of eternal salvation: "From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, Do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."

9. He was even more vehement than were the Prophets in His demands that those who listened to Him should undergo a complete change of heart and submit in perfect sincerity to all the laws of the Supreme God. "For behold," He said "the kingdom of God is within you."

10. Indeed, penance is that counterforce which keeps the forces of concupiscence in check and repels them. In the words of Christ Himself, "the kingdom of heaven has been enduring violent assault, and the violent have been seizing it by force."

11. The Apostles held undeviatingly to the principles of their divine Master. When the Holy Spirit had descended on them in the form of fiery tongues, Peter expressed his invitation to the multitudes to seek rebirth in Christ and to accept the gifts of the most holy Paraclete in these words: "Do penance and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit."

Paul too, the teacher of the Gentiles, announced to the Romans in no uncertain terms that the kingdom of God did not consist in an attitude of intellectual superiority or in indulging the pleasures of sense. It consisted in the triumph of justice and in peace of mind. "For the kingdom of God does not consist in food and drink, but in justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit." ...

The Bride of Christ, Holy and Unsullied
15. Certainly, Venerable Brethren, when one views the faith which distinguishes the Church, the sacraments which nourish and perfect her, the universal laws and precepts which govern her, the unfailing glory that is hers by reason of the heroic virtue and constancy of so many of her elect, there can be no doubt that the Bride of Christ, so dear to her divine Redeemer, has always kept herself holy and unsullied.

Her Forgetful Children
16. But of her children there are some who nevertheless forget the greatness of their calling and election. They mar their God-given beauty, and fail to mirror in themselves the image of Jesus Christ. We cannot find it in Us to threaten or abuse them, for the love We bear them is a father's love. Instead We appeal to them in the words of the Council of Trent—the best restorative for Catholic discipline.

"When we put on Christ in baptism (Gal. 3.27), we become in Him an entirely new creature and obtain the full and complete remission of every sin. It is only with great effort and with great compunction on our part that we can obtain the same newness and sinlessness in the sacrament of penance, for such is the stipulation of divine justice. That is why the holy Fathers called penance 'a laborious kind of baptism'." "

On 2nd December 1984, Pope John Paul II in his Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliation and Penance discussed the matter at length.

"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.

But penance also means changing one's life in harmony with the change of heart, and in this sense doing penance is completed by bringing forth fruits worthy of penance. It is one's whole existence that becomes penitential, that is to say, directed toward a continuous striving for what is better. But doing penance is something authentic and effective only if it is translated into deeds and acts of penance.

In this sense penance means, in the Christian theological and spiritual vocabulary, asceticism, that is to say, the concrete daily effort of a person, supported by God's to lose his or her own life for Christ as the only means of gaining it; an effort to put off the old man and put on the new; an effort to overcome in oneself what is of the flesh in order that what is spiritual may prevail; a continual effort to rise from the things of here below to the things of above, where Christ is.

Penance is therefore a conversion that passes from the heart to deeds and then to the Christian's whole life.

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. ...

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. ...

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," Too many signs indicate that such an eclipse exists in our time. ...

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....

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; 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.

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, 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."

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 contrition 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, which the majority of people in our time are no longer capable of experiencing."