Regína sacratíssimi Rosárii, ora pro nobis!

Ave Maria!
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost 2007
On Penance

“Go, show yourselves to the priests. And it came to pass, that as they went, they were made clean.”[1]

James C. Christensen - The Ten Lepers

Ordinary of the Mass
English Text
Latin Text

    In the Old Testament we can see that the Jewish people were greatly concerned with the disease known as leprosy. Several chapters, beginning with the 13th chapter, of the book of Leviticus are devoted to the diagnosis of the disease, and the public health measures which must be observed by those infected with it. In general lepers were required to avoid the company those who were not infected with the disease. They lived apart. They traveled apart when the Jewish people escaped from Egypt.

    There is no cure for the disease mentioned in the Bible. But sometimes it does refer to lepers being cured, either by unknown natural means, or by divine intervention. In all cases, however, it is the priests of the Old Law who are to examine the sick person in order to determine that he is infected, or if he has been cured.

    The disease was viewed as having spiritual implications-that it was the outward uncleanness associated with moral uncleanness-and, perhaps, that it was a punishment from God, brought upon serious sinners. Or, if it were not a punishment, it was a manifestation of the suffering brought on the human race when Adam fell from grace and lost the gifts which would have kept mankind from natural struggle.

    The Catechism of Trent, in its sermon topics, has us relate the uncleanness of leprosy to the state of a soul afflicted by mortal sin. And it further extends the analogy to remind us that when we are in the state of serious sin, we must present ourselves to the priests to have our sins judged and forgiven.

    Our Lord arranged for this on the night following His resurrection, when He gave the Apostles, His first priests the power to forgive sins-a power which they passed down to the priests who came after them.[2]

    It is important to distinguish here, for sometimes the scriptures speak of "confessing our sins to one another"-as if for the purpose of gaining advice, or perhaps mutual support in dealing with the temptations of the world.[3] But we know that for the actual forgiveness of sin, it is necessary to receive the Sacrament of Penance from a priest or a bishop. Deacons are not able to administer this Sacrament, nor for similar reasons are they able to confer the Extreme Unction of the sick.

    The priest is able to forgive sins because he is a priest-because he is alter Christus, another Christ-he can forgive sins by his own authority, which is really the authority of Christ working through him as His instrument.

    In essence, he is able to take the graces which flow from the offering of the Sacrifice of the Cross, which the priest offers with Christ in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and apply those graces for the forgiveness of sins. Mankind was redeemed as a whole by the sacrifice on Calvary-the forgiveness of our individual sins takes place through the Sacrament of Penance.

    There is a strong element of the "judicial" in the Sacrament of Penance. The priest sits in judgment of our sins-he has the power to forgive them, or to cause us to "retain" them. Like any judge, this means that the priest must have appropriate jurisdiction; the authority to hold court in a particular locality. A judge from Georgia cannot just come into Florida and start conducting trials-he must be admitted by proper authority. Likewise, a priest must receive jurisdiction from the bishop to hear confessions in a particular territory or for those normally resident within that territory.

    When there is danger of death, however, the Church permits any priest at all to absolve our sins-even a priest who has fallen away from the Church, for the priesthood is a permanent thing which a man possesses forever, once he is ordained. Following the Divine Positive Law, which calls for the salvation of souls and which desires the availability of the Sacraments as widely as possible, Canon Law allows the faithful a free choice of their confessor-even among those excommunicated, as long as they are not publicly declared “vitandus”-"to be avoided."[4]

    And since the Sacrament of Penance is judicial in character, we must make our best effort to present our sins accurately to the priest in aural confession. We should give some time beforehand to examining our consciences, and asking God for the grace of making a good confession.

    But here again, the Church does not expect the impossible. Difficulties in speaking or hearing, or differences of language, must be overcome as best they can.

    The important thing to keep in mind in all of this is that our Lord wants to show us His compassion, just as He had compassion on the lepers. He does not want to embarrass us, not to bury us with difficult penances-but rather, he is inviting us to return to His good graces.

    As with any disease, speed of treatment is important. Just as the lepers were eager to be cleansed of their leprosy, we should be eager to receive God's forgiveness when we are unfortunate enough to fall into serious sin.

    It is a very serious mistake to go week after week, or even year after year, living with the sickness of sin. If we want to call ourselves Christians, we will put away the bad things we have done, fix our situation, resolve at least to attempt to sin no more, and seek our Lord's forgiveness in the Sacrament of Penance.

    Like the Samaritan in today's Gospel, we will return to out Lord to hear Him say: “Arise, go thy way, for thy faith has made thee whole.”


1. Gospel:  Luke xvii: 11-19

2.  John xx: 19-23

3.  James v: 16.

4.  o.c. 2261;   n.c. 1335



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