Sunday Scriptures

Penance Is the Path to Healing

by Father John Cush

These past two Sundays, the focus of our readings is clearly set on the correct course in our Lenten journey. Last week, with the account given to us about original sin, we were able to reflect a bit on what the Church teaches about the nature of sin. It is, if you will, the diagnosis of the sickness from which we all suffer.

Sin is the flip side of the Good News. Today’s readings can be seen as an opportunity to focus not on the sickness of sin but on the cure for the illness, namely repentance and holiness of life. And the only one who can cure us is the Divine Physician – Jesus our Lord.

At its root, sin is a three-fold alienation from God, others and our own self. What we need then to battle this alienation is a three-fold reconciliation that can only come from one who is like us in all things but sin and one who is also fully divine. It can only come in and through the Lord Jesus, true man and true God.

Our lack of basic integrity has to be healed. Jesus is the one who opens His arms wide on the cross in an embrace of love for you and me. Through His action of total self-giving, He conquers sin and death to bring us to new life.

Learning to Be Whole

Then how can we, during this Lenten season, learn to become whole? How can we learn to be healed by the Lord Jesus, who wishes nothing more than to heal and save us? It is simple. The Church gives us the three traditional ways of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

Prayer gets us in touch with the Lord; it helps us to become more aware of the deepest desires of our human heart through the cultivation of an open, receptive and listening attitude.

Fasting – denying ourselves the pleasures of the flesh – reminds us that our true home lies not here, but it is in Heaven. It teaches us the great virtue of temperance, so needed today in our world of excess.

Almsgiving makes us aware that it is not about ourselves, that it is never about ourselves – it is always about the Lord and always about others.

While those three are important, the surest way for our healing in this Lenten season is through the sacrament of penance. It is indeed the cure for the sickness that is sin. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) tells us, it is sin that ruptures our communion with God and the Church (1440). It is the Lord alone who forgives sins so that we might have the possibility to change our lives, to convert and to recover the grace of justification (CCC 1446). The penitent needs to have contrition and sorrow for his or her sins, confess them and do the penance assigned.

Nothing to Fear

Never be afraid of the sacrament of penance. Nothing should keep us from the sacrament. Perhaps it has been many years since you have been to confession. Perhaps you don’t remember the rite of penance or forget how to say an act of contrition. This should not hold you back from receiving the love and mercy that the Lord Jesus has for you.

The two basic questions that have been asked of me about the sacrament of penance are: First, why do I have to tell my sins to a priest? Second, why do I have to say my sins aloud?

First, we go to a priest because he is the minister of the reconciliation that Jesus wishes to give to us. Yes, the priest is a sinner – everyone is. He, too, needs to seek out the sacrament of penance often, just like we all should. I believe that in order to be a good confessor, the priest must be a good and regular penitent. When we go to confession, we are going to Christ. The priest, by virtue of his ordination and not because of his own worthiness, stands in Persona Christi, or in the Person of Christ. He stands as Christ, the Good Shepherd; as Christ, the Good Samaritan; as Christ, the long-waiting father of the prodigal son (CCC 1465). In this sacramental moment, the priest stands as the human face of the mercy that is Jesus. Do not be afraid to tell him anything you need to say. He will not be shocked, and he will not think less of you. The seal of the sacrament of reconciliation is present, and he will never violate the absolute sacred secrecy to which he has been entrusted.

Secondly, yes, the Lord knows our sins already; He knows all things. But when we say our sins aloud, in the privacy of the confessional, we acknowledge what we have done and what we have failed to do. We own up to our faults and having owned up to them, we take the first step toward healing them.

On this topic, Pope Benedict XVI (as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger) wrote: “Of course, the confession of one’s own sin can seem to be something heavy for the person, because it humbles his pride and confronts him with his poverty. It is this that we need: we suffer exactly for this reason: we shut ourselves up in our delirium of guiltlessness and for this reason we are closed to others and to any comparison with them.”

The Church is clear in the path that she lays out for us to follow this Lenten season. We need to become aware of our sins, and having owned up to them, we need not to despair but to trust in the Lord who desires nothing more than to heal and save us. May the prayer of the psalmist be ours: Lord, let your mercy be on us, as we place our trust in you.


Editor’s Note: The sacrament of penance will be available in all diocesan parishes on Reconciliation Monday, April 14, from 3 to 9 p.m.[hr]

Readings for the Second Sunday of Lent[hr]

Genesis 12: 1-4a

Psalm 33: 4-5, 18-19, 20, 22

2 Timothy 1: 8b-10

Matthew 17: 1-9[hr]

Father John Cush is a priest assigned to doctoral studies in fundamental theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome, Italy.

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