Penitential Service

When I was a boy, my parents gave me a clock. It was a fine clock; it was blue, I remember; it had luminous hands. I put it by my bed. I had the sense that it was unusual for a boy of my age to be entrusted with such a fine a clock. But then the disaster happened. One day, by mistake, I threw out my arm and sent the clock flying, and that was the end of it. That was an accident, it wasn’t deliberate. But I felt very bad. It wasn’t just because I’d wrecked the clock. After all, a clock is only a clock. The painful thing was feeling I had betrayed my parents’ trust. They had thought I was sensible enough to treat a clock well. They had trusted me, and I had failed them. I’d disappointed them. Perhaps my father said to my mother afterwards, ‘I knew he’d do that!’

Well, it was just an accident or mildly careless. But it’s a good parable for sin. It’s important to be precise about our sins, when we can be – to name them, simply and truthfully – to be aware of what commandments or demands of conscience we’ve violated. But the betrayal of trust is the key thing. The heart of it is failing the Lord. We are his children. He’s entrusted us with the world, the planet, and everything in it. He’s entrusted us with our own bodies and souls, our health, our well-being. He’s entrusted us with one another. And if we’re believers, he’s entrusted us with faith, hope and love. It’s a great gesture of love and trust on his part. And if we sin, yes, we damage one or other of these gifts of nature or grace. If I’m into substance abuse, for example, I damage my body and my brain, and my relations with others. But the real thing is that I haven’t just damaged the gifts, I’ve disappointed the Giver. I’ve grieved the Holy Spirit (cf. Eph 4:30). That’s what our conscience tells us, as Bl. John Henry Newman often said. We’ve damaged a relationship. Sin is an offence against a personal God. “Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight” (Ps 50:6).

But this is precisely when the Door of Mercy opens, as the Good Thief found. It’s knowing I’ve hurt someone who loves and trusts me which will bring me to repentance, even to tears of repentance. I haven’t so much broken a rule as broken a heart. And that thought can break mine. That’s why the saints could feel so much sorrow for such little things. And then I knew that if I went to my parents and said I was sorry for breaking the clock, they would forgive me. We know the same before God. That’s our faith. The Gospel is the revelation of God’s mercy towards sinners. It has been well said: ‘In the secular world, anything is permitted and nothing is forgiven. In Christianity, some things are forbidden but anything can be forgiven.’

So here we are coming to the Sacrament of Mercy, the Throne of Grace (cf. Heb 4:16), the place where our post-baptismal sins are forgiven and the process of their healing begins. As St John Paul II loved to say, it is a personal encounter with Christ, with the merciful Christ.

The first thing is, yes, to be honest and name our sins as they should be named. ‘I have acknowledged my sins; my guilt I did not hide. I said, “I will confess my offence to the Lord”’ (Ps 31:5).

But the second thing, the decisive thing, is to be sorry, sorry for having hurt a person who loves me. ‘My sacrifice a contrite spirit’ (Ps 50:19).

And the third thing is to be confident that he will forgive me, restore the relationship, heal the wound as though it never was. ‘A humbled, contrite heart you will not spurn’ (Ps 50:19).

In the Gospels, a father asked Jesus to have mercy on his epileptic son, and he cured him (Mt 17:15). Blind Bartimaeus cried out, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me’, and his sight was restored (Mk 10:47). The ten lepers cried out, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us’ (Lk 17: 13), and he cured them all. Every time in the Gospels, people appeal to Jesus’ mercy, they’re heard. Every time. If that was true of physical healing, how much more so now, by the power of the Cross, of the forgiveness of sins. So the Psalm is fulfilled: ‘It is he who forgives all your guilt, who heals every one of your ills, who redeems your life from the grave, who crowns you with love and compassion, who fills your life with good things, renewing your youth like an eagle’s’ (Ps 102:3-5).


RC Diocese of Aberdeen Charitable Trust.
A registered Scottish Charity Number SC005122