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The Penitential Psalms - IV

How Does Grace Invite a Sinner to Convert?

Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira
In the last article I invited you to imagine the state of spirit of the public sinner who is walking with the rest of his fellow villagers to confess his sins on Ash Wednesday and enter into his 40 days of penance.

bells ringing

The bells ring over the village & countryside, calling the people to church & repentance

The bells are ringing... the people look at the façade of the church that rises, imposing in its severity and at the same time welcoming, saying to them: “Come children! You have sinned, but come into a place where pardon will be given to you. Start by confessing, start by repenting…”

They enter, and the public sinners go to a certain place where they will make their penance. The ceremony then begins. But here I need to note something important: the man of the Middle Ages like all those who have a true Faith had a profound notion of the gravity of sin.

What is this notion that has so often faded? What is the gravity of sin?

To understand this, I will ask a strange question. What would be the normal response of a man who were accused: “You are a frivolous fellow who does not take yourself seriously.”

Normally the response would be a slap in the face! Because if a man does not take himself seriously, he is nothing; he is worth nothing. What is proper for a man is to take himself seriously. The first step to become something is to take himself seriously.

God takes Himself infinitely seriously, because in God everything is infinite. And if He loves Himself infinitely, He also takes Himself infinitely seriously.

The result is that He says this to men who sin: “Such an act is a sin, and by doing it you break with Me, you become my enemy, and I become your enemy!” The fact is that He takes sin infinitely seriously!

God's infinite seriousness

God infinitely serious

God weighing all things seriously as He creates

God takes Himself infinitely seriously. And He follows the actions of men with this seriousness.

With this infinite seriousness – an irradiation of His own Wisdom and Holiness – He is contemplating us right now in this auditorium: I who speak to you, and you who listen to me. And He is looking to see how seriously I am speaking and how seriously you are listening to me.

Everything is immensely serious in the presence of God. Sin is, therefore, profoundly serious. It is execrable, it is very grave. Whoever commits sin breaks with God and is in the most miserable of situations. A rich man who committed just one sin, this rich man is in an incomparably worse situation than was Job after having lost all his wealth and health on his dunghill. Because the rich man has everything that earth can offer but he has nothing that Heaven gives!

Even more, the sinner knows that he can be punished by God from one moment to the next with penalties in this life. He knows that unexpected misfortunes can fall upon him successively. Someone in his family can die; his heritage can disappear; a slander can grip and haunt him like a vampire until the moment of his death. A terrible sickness or any number of things can come to punish him on this earth for the sins he committed.

Consequences of sin: Hell or Purgatory

How tragic all this is! Yet how trifling and insignificant compared to the worst of punishments: Hell!

Hell … or Purgatory. A lie, a slight sin: A man lies and then dies soon afterwards. He goes to Purgatory where, depending on the circumstances, he could burn for 100 years. The expression 100 years is anthropomorphic because in Purgatory there is no time. But we should understand that it is equivalent to 100 years of penance on earth. Have you ever thought about what 100 years of penance means? This can happen to a soul that goes to Purgatory, from one moment to the next.

And what about Hell? That eternal darkness where the fire burns but does not illuminate, where the worst torments continually afflict the creature, and he knows that there is no longer any remedy for him, everything is lost!


Consequences of not taking sin seriously:
Condemnation to Hell

Then, the sinner has a vivid notion of the evil he has done, that he should not have offended God. Because God is infinitely Holy, True and Good, He has the right not to be offended by us. Because God is infinitely Just, He releases His wrath at a certain moment on the sinner! And the sinner fears this, and because of it he is in church asking for forgiveness, he wants to do penance. The Miserere calls him to penance

God's infinite goodness is manifested both in the sublimities of the Miserere and in the tact with which He “whispers” in the sinner's ears inviting him to penance

What is this penance, this forgiveness? They are different things.

First of all, the sinner must recognize all the evil he has done. The Church does not practice public confession. The faithful do not say in front of others the evil they have done. But the Church encourages the sinner to be aware of the gravity of his sin. And we will see this request repeated in the Psalms in a truly magnificent way. They are Psalms dictated by the Holy Spirit.

God is so unfathomably good that He creates man and gives him the glory to be created in a state of trial, so that man can acquire merit and be rewarded for the good he does. Man abuses this test and sins. God, instead of exterminating him immediately, whispers in his ear what he should measure the evil he has done. And he teaches him how to ask for forgiveness.

It is like a judge who receives the defendant with an infinite majesty, with a display of tremendous strength and severity, but at the same time he orders someone to hand the defendant a note. The note reads “If you speak to the judge in this way with sincerity of soul, he will respond to your request!” And the defendant walks to God, to God the Judge, with a prayer dictated by God the Merciful!…

That is to say, greater mercy cannot be imagined. God speaks through the Prophets, the inspired men of the Old Testament, to those who received His teachings in the New Testament. He gives words that induce a man to recognize his sin, and then to ask forgiveness.

So then, from the back of the church, dragging along, comes the miserable procession of official sinners: “Miserere mei Deus, secundum magnam misericordiam tuam, et secundum multitudinem miserationem tuarum, dele iniquitatem meam , etc., etc… “Have mercy on me, O God, according to Thy great mercy; and according to the multitude of Thy tender mercies, blot out my iniquity .. For I know my iniquity, and my sin is always before me.”… And so it continues.


Death reminds man to make repentance &
ask mercy for his sinfulness

He prays for forgiveness, as it were, overwhelmed by the grandeur of his Judge and by the infamy of his guilt. But, at the same time, he is encouraged by the Judge's promise and by the prayer that the Judge taught him:. “Pray like this! My son, have these sentiments of contrition, and I will become your friend!”

You can sense the magnificent balance in the action of God: “It is proper for Me too crush, and at times I crush! But I would prefer not to crush.” And then He says to man, his enemy: “You, my son, who are bad, be good. Here are the words you should say. My grace will work in your soul, only say 'yes' and you will become whiter than snow!”

But all of this does not fit into a single ejaculation. You see that the sinner must ask many times, in many words, with many different formulas… He asks, and asks again in the words that God taught him, which give him the disposition of soul whereby he can obtain pardon.

These words of contrition he enunciates in a proper, correct and most beautiful way so that he might obtain the pleasure of God. Yet God does not grant this pardon immediately. And why is this?



Blason de Charlemagne
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Posted February 23, 2024