Penance Implies True Conversion of Heart

Author: Pope Paul VI


Pope Paul VI

The value of penance understood as conversion of the heart and reconciliation with God was recalled by the Pope in the address delivered on Wednesday, February 19th at the General Audience in the Vatican Basilica. Paul VI said:

Beloved Sons and Daughters!

The rite of the imposition of the ashes is so rich and clear in meaning that it does not need explanations and comments. It speaks for itself. And it tells us many things, grave things. It tells us of its century-old presence in the spirituality of our religion; in fact it has its origin in the Old Testament (cfr. Jer. 25, 34; Job 42, 6); it is recalled in the Gospel (Mt. 11, 21); it enters Christian liturgy very early, is part of the discipline of penitents, and becomes a sacramental of the Church; it merges with the inauguration of Lent, characterizing its penitential and preparatory purpose for the paschal celebration.

Thus it tells us what man's condition is before the mystery of salvation, a tragic, wretched condition; be is a sinner, he is mortal, he is habitually under the illusion that he possesses life and deceives himself when he places his trust in the things he sees and possesses, in his own vitality and health, in time that seems as if it would never end and suddenly fails us when we are least expecting it with death, which reduces all our certainly, all our riches to nothingness, to ashes; nay it throws wide open for us its abysmal kingdom, dark and dreadful for those deprived of the light of faith, the kingdom of death.

This rite, therefore, tells of our inexorable fate as mortal creatures, children of time and heirs to the condemnation brought about by sin, and at the same time it tells of our tragic condition as immortal beings, accountable for all eternity, to the living God, lost by us, needing Him, and unable to reach Him with our strength exhausted and consumed in vain hopes.

It tells of the despair of man when he trusts in himself; it tells of the philosophy of nothingness, characteristic of our existentialism, when it is apostate from the living spring of Christ; and it obliges us, with the mournful silence that suddenly concludes it, to invoke mercy and salvation. The route towards redemption, towards the paschal mystery, starts from here.

The conversion of heart

Itis, therefore, a rite that produces an inner and global sense of human existence, and arouses a dramatic personal awareness of the destiny of our life; an awareness that is thus encouraged to transform itself into a fundamental new moral orientation of itself (cfr. L. Janssens, Liberté de conscience.. p. 78), which in spiritual language we call conversion. It is the "metanoia" of the Gospel. That is, an inner change, conversion of the heart; it is just penitence, that is the inclination, which is also mysteriously inspired by grace, to open to the kingdom of God (cfr. Denz-Schoen. 1525 (797); Mark 1, 15; Luke 13, 3: etc.).

When we speak of penitence our thought goes to the ascetic acts and practices of mortification and charity, which impress on the spirit and express in action that sentiment of spiritual change in which penitence properly consists: but the Church will make us repeat in these days the words of the prophet Joel: "Return to me with all your heart,with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repent of evil" (2, 12-13): and will thus remind us that the essence of penitence is a psychological, moral and inner fact, a transformation of mentality, a change in our way of evaluating ourselves, repentance, a cordial profession of humility, a bitterness that we even call contrition.

And it is this spiritual recasting that is worth more than any outer act of penitence and if it were not present, the outer acts would be deprived of sincerity and value. We must remember what Jesus teaches us, to avoid the hypocritical exteriority of acts of penance, fashionable in pharisaical circles in his times (Mt. 6, 16-17), and which has never completely disappeared from the perennial, human temptation to replace the reality of virtue with its appearances. Then, saying penance, we think of the sacrament which bears its name and which confers on us the grace of penitence, reconciliation with God and the vital communion of His supernatural presence in our souls, through the application of the ministry conferred by Christ on Peter and on the Apostles, the famous power of the "keys" (Mt. 16, 19; 18, 18; Jn. 20, 23), that is the authority to remit sins, provided faith and repentance make its efficacy possible.

A triple order

All this is well known to us; and it is very beautiful. In this circle of doctrines, sentiments, religious and penitential acts, atonement for evil and reviviscence of good, sacramental practice and just and true humility, is contained what is most precious in the practice of Catholic life; here a triple order is miraculously restored: first of all with the courageous and wholesome appraisal of our own wretchedness (remember the parable of the Prodigal Son: "in se reversus", then he came to himself: Luke 15, 17); the soul becomes sincere with itself again, it withdraws within itself, knows itself and accuses itself with absolute courage, repudiates what dishonours it and recovers a measure of self-control; man is once more worthy of the name.

Then with the unimaginable, undeserved, ineffable meeting with God, with an infinite tenderness, with an immense and watchful goodness, God who was just waiting for the moment to manifest his omnipotence through his mercy (cfr. the collect of the Mass on the tenth Sunday after Pentecost: "Oh, God, who manifest your omnipotence chiefly with forgiveness and mercy..."):it is the new life being born again; it is the supernatural circulation of grace which begins once more to animate our natural existence by infusing the divine life-bringing Spirit into it; it is the greatest fortune that can happen to one who had no longer the right to renew the baptismal relationship with God, it is the resurrection celebrated in new plenitude and in a new, really paschal happiness.

And the third order restored is that with the Church: the sinner, if be does not expressly deny the faith, excommunicating himself from the society of believers, does remain a member of the Church, but an inert and paralyzed member, almost dead spiritually, and socially deprived of vital communion with the mystical Body of Christ.

The Council and the Magisterium

All this has been recalled by the texts of the recent Council (cfr. Sacrosanctum Concilium, nn. 109-110; Lumen gentium, n. 11; etc.), and also by Our apostolic Constitution "Paenitemini" (17 February 1966): we will do well to return to these very recent sources, which bring us the salutary stream of the evangelical sources and of those of the most authoritative tradition of the Fathers and the Councils (Lateran IV and Trent particularly), and prove to us that the ancient celebration of Lent is not a matter of other times, nor a thing fossilized in given exterior forms; but it is a living thing, and of great interest today, just for us, men of our century, in such need of finding again ourselves, God and the Church in the paschal mystery of Christ the Lord.

May He thus help you to understand and benefit from the grace that is still passing in our year 1969, with Our Apostolic Blessing.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
27 February 1969, page 2

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