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You or your gift?

Let no one say, I didnt sin against God; I sinned against a brother, against a man: its a slight sin, or even no sin at all. Perhaps you say its slight because its quickly cured. You sin against a brother; you make up for it, and youre healed. Your fatal deed was quickly done, but youve quickly found a remedy. Which of us, my brothers and sisters, would hope for the Kingdom of God when the Gospel says, Whoever says Fool! to his brother shall be in danger of hell fire. Great terror! But see the remedy stated there: If you offer your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there at the altar. God is not angry because you delay putting your gift there. God seeks you more than your gift. For if you have an evil mind toward your brother when you come with your gift to your God, he will reply: Youve perished, and you bring me something? You offer your gift, and you are not yourself a gift for God. Christ seeks more the one whom he redeemed by his blood than anything you find in your storehouse. Leave your gift there at the altar, and go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift (Mt 5:22-24). See how quickly the one in danger of hell is forgiven. While you were not yet reconciled, you were in danger of hell; reconciled, you can safely offer your gift at the altar. (Augustine, Sermon 82, 5; PL 38, 508)

About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.



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Who's forgiveness is most important? God's? The priest's? Or the person(s) who suffered as a result of one's sin? - Larry Weisenthal/Huntington Beach CA

A good question. What's your answer? I think it's pretty clear that Augustine, following Jesus, thinks that it's the other person's forgiveness the most important. By the way, Augustine doesn't mention a priest, does he?

Others know far more than I about such things, but there seems in our culture a general confusion between forgiveness and pardon to say nothing of the relationship of such terms to justice. If I murder Mr. Y., it is possible that Mrs. Y., a person of enormous charity, might forgive me; but only the state can pardon me, so that I don't have to go to prison, into the death cell, etc. Is that right? And the state might well decide that while Mrs. Y., and perhaps a great many other people and even institutions (like the Church) have forgiven me, the cause of justice would not be well served by granting me a pardon. If I were a Holocaust survivor, I might conceivably find it in myself to forgive Adolf Eichmann, but would I be inconsistent if I also rejoiced in seeing him receive his just deserts from an Israeli court?God's action as seen by Augustine seems to me more like forgiveness in this sense, analogous to victims forgiving their victimizers. But perhaps in the case of God (as opposed to the case of humanity) it can also be (will have to be) pardon as well, given sinful humanity.. I never taught Dante, except bits and pieces in the most superficial way as part of a Great Books course. But I was always struck by very human reaction of students in a case like Buonconte da Montefeltro, who delayed his repentance until the very end, only crying "Maria!" as his enemies pursued him to the death after the battle of Campaldino. He makes it into Purgatory among the saved, however long it will take him to climb the mountain. Not fair, say the students -- he should be judged on his whole life, not its last thirty seconds, as indeed should be good people who still manage to slip occasionally. I sense that today there are many people of a secular turn to whom the whole idea of forgiveness (at least Christian forgiveness) is not only strange, but indeed unethical, very much because of this outlook. It's not fair, and hence unjust, and justice trumps mercy (whatever the Bible, Dante, and Shakespeare may say)..

Mentions of Philippe Barbarin elsewhere reminded me of an incident 25 years ago. I was in Israel on a pilgrimage. One morning, while I was in the back kitchen fetching water for the group, my chaplain decided that sticking to the schedule was more important than waiting for the one missing pilgrim, my group left without me, and so I joined Barbarin's group for the day. I have no memories of Barbarin's preaching and teaching, but in the evening, when I rejoined my group of pilgrims, I learned that, during their hike in the desert, they had gotten lost, were consequently delayed by several hours, that at one point one student broke down, sat on a rock and declared she didn't want to go on any more; and that they ran out of water just as their hike was ending. Even now I have a certain satisfaction in the thought that after leaving me behind they got into trouble - after being unwilling to wait for me for 10 minutes, they ended up being several hours late - after not waiting for an extra container of water, they ended up almost running out of water. It's only fair, isn't it? Heavenly justice!

Nicholas ==I've never been able to find a satisfactory definition of forgiveness. Maybe I wasn't looking at the difference between forgiving and pardoning.As I understand it, pardoning is choosing not to require whatever punishment is due. But this isn't the same thing as forgiving. Also, one might pardon a thief to keep him our of a terrible prison but not forgive his having stolen your mother's ring. So what would forgiveness be? Something negative or positive? Canceling a debt that is owed? Wishing an evil-doer well? Acting like the wrong-doing never happened? Forgetting that the wrong-doing was done?Then there's the other problem: should one/can one forgive if the wrong-doer is not repentant?I think that cancelling the bad guy's debt to you, not requiring the punishment due to him, and wishing him well are all different from each other. The last comes closest to forgiveness, I think, but still . . . Somebody else might wish the wrong-doer well without there being any question of forgiveness being involved. Just what is it we do when we forgive someone?

Ann: In a tribute to your insistence on linguistic usage, I checked the OED and found these three descriptions pertinent to your question:

2. To give up, cease to harbour (resentment, wrath). Also, to give up one's resolve (to do something). Obs. 3. To remit (a debt); to give up resentment or claim to requital for, pardon (an offence) 4. To give up resentment against, pardon (an offender).... Also (now rarely) to abandon one's claim against (a debtor).

Then theres the other problem: should one/can one forgive if the wrong-doer is not repentant?That's next week's gospel reading: the adulterous woman. She was forgiven by Jesus even though there is no clear evidence that she was repentant.Even in today's reading, I imagine that the father was anxiously waiting for his younger son and that the son was already forgiven even before he turned back and headed back home. His change of heart enabled him to be with his father again, but the father was ready all along to welcome him back. So that's the model for us when we forgive, I think. It starts making sense if I try to keep in mind that Christ is present in the other person (and therefore they can be loved); it is also helpful to remind myself that we hope to all be together with God one day: that thought gives me real impetus to start working on reconciliation already here during our earthly life (I won't be able to fully be with Christ until after reconciliation with other people, so I'd better get going!). At least, that's my theory. Putting it in practice successfully is another matter!As to punishment, I don't see it as having any value except insofar as it helps progress towards some other goal: protect society or reform the thief or help the victimizer forgive himself, for example.

Whos forgiveness is most important? Gods? The priests? Or the person(s) who suffered as a result of ones sin? This doesn't have to be a hard question. Catholicism clearly gives us the answer. Firstly, the priest IS God, in Persona Christi, God merely "borrowing" the voice and body of the priest. To not believe that is to not believe in the core teachings of Catholicism. As for the one sinned against, the church also clearly teaches of the need of "reparation of sin." Both are important and necessary, but both are different. First the forgivenss must take place in sacarmental confession (necessary for Catholics to have sacramental confession, not personal confession except in rare cases of perfect contritition before death), followed by atonement/expiation. That's why we have among others, The Holy Mass, First Fridays, First Saturdays, Divine Mercy Sunday, and if all else fails, Purgatory.

Patricia: Most definitely, the priest is NOT God. That a priest acts "in persona Christi" means that he plays the role of Christ in the sacrament of reconciliation, and it is Christ, and not the priest, whose forgiveness we seek and may receive. Sins may be forgiven us by other means than through this sacrament, e.g., by sincere repentance and the petition of the Lord's Prayer or the short penitential service at the beginning of Mass. St. Augustine thought that almsgiving was a way of receiving forgiveness. We do not have to deny these other means in order to defend the sacrament of reconciliation.The passage from Augustine above concerned the need for Christians to forgive one another, and even to take the initiative when one is the one sinned against.

Joseph perhaps my wording was poor, but In Persona Christi, and ONLY via a Catholic Priest, does God sacarmentally remove MORTAL sins. You are correct that VENIAL sins can be forgiven from the mass, as well as some other means, but never mortal sins, with the excpetion of a PERFECT act of contrition in danger of death (and good luck to all of us on that one). Of course we are to forgive one another, but only God, via his priests in the sacarment of confession, can forgive mortal sins. I have no idea how it works for non Catholics, but assuming you aren't one, it doesn't really matter. Best to go to the Catechism for the Official Teaching if you are Catholic. It's also important to note that if Catholics receive the Eucharist in mortal sin, without a sacramental confession, the worst sin of all is committed, sacrilege. What Catholic of Faith would ever even want to take that risk, especially living in a culture where much of the 'normal accepted lifestyle' is mortal sin.Here's the an excerpt from the Cathechsim:1456 Confession to a priest is an essential part of the sacrament of Penance: "All mortal sins of which penitents after a diligent self-examination are conscious must be recounted by them in confession.Here's the link for more detail:

Joseph I just want to be clear, especially after realizing that you are a Catholic Priest (not sure why you would want to be addressed as Father Joseph). Anyway, are you saying that mortal sin can be forgiven in other ways outside of sacramental confession, or where you just referring to venial sin? Thank You.

Patricia: As you've pointed out yourself, it is possible for mortal sins to be forgiven outside of sacramental confession.You wrote: "(not sure why you would want to be addressed as Father Joseph)". Not sure why you make this comment.

Patricia: It is not a perfect act of contrition that is required for the forgiveness of mortal sins outside the sacrament, but an act of perfect contrition. There is a difference between the two. Here is what the old had to say about "perfect contrition without the sacrament":

Regarding that contrition which has for its motive the love of God, the Council of Trent declares: "The Council further teaches that, though contrition may sometimes be made perfect by charity and may reconcile men to God before the actual reception of this sacrament, still the reconciliation is not to be ascribed to the contrition apart from the desire for the sacrament which it includes." The following proposition (no. 32) taken from Baius was condemned by Gregory XIII: "That charity which is the fullness of the law is not always conjoined with forgiveness of sins." Perfect contrition, with the desire of receiving the Sacrament of Penance, restores the sinner to grace at once. This is certainly the teaching of the Scholastic doctors (Peter Lombard in P.L., CXCII, 885; St. Thomas, In Lib. Sent. IV, ibid.; St. Bonaventure, In Lib. Sent. IV, ibid.). This doctrine they derived from Holy Writ. Scripture certainly ascribes to charity and the love of God the power to take away sin: "He that loveth me shall be loved by My Father"; "Many sins are forgiven her because she hath loved much". Since the act of perfect contrition implies necessarily this same love of God, theologians have ascribed to perfect contrition what Scripture teaches belongs to charity. Nor is this strange, for in the Old Covenant there was some way of recovering God's grace once man had sinned. God wills not the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live (Ezekiel 33:11). This total turning to God corresponds to our idea of perfect contrition; and if under the Old Law love sufficed for the pardon of the sinner, surely the coming of Christ and the institution of the Sacrament of Penance cannot be supposed to have increased the difficulty of obtaining forgiveness. That the earlier Fathers taught the efficacy of sorrow for the remission of sins is very clear (Clement in P.G., I, 341 sqq.; and Hermas in P.G., II, 894 sqq.; Chrysostom in P.G., XLIX, 285 sqq.) and this is particularly noticeable in all the commentaries on Luke 7:47. The Venerable Bede writes (P.L., XCII, 425): "What is love but fire; what is sin but rust? Hence it is said, many sins are forgiven her because she hat loved much, as though to say, she hath burned away entirely the rust of sin, because she is inflamed with the fire of love." Theologians have inquired with much learning as to the kind of love that justifies with the Sacrament of Penance. All are agreed that pure, or disinterested, love (amor benevolenti, amor amiciti) suffices; when there is question of interested, or selfish, love (amor concupiscentia) theologians hold that purely selfish love is not sufficient. When one furthermore asks what must be the formal motive in perfect love, there seems to be no real unanimity among the doctors. Some say that where there is perfect love God is loved for His great goodness alone; other, basing their contention on Scripture, think that the love of gratitude (amor gratitudinis) is quite sufficient, because God's benevolence and love towards men are intimately united, nay, inseparable from His Divine perfections (Hurter, Theol. Dog., Thesis ccxlv, Scholion iii, no 3; Schieler-Heuser, op. cit., pp. 77 sq.).

Thank You for your reply Father Joseph (hope you don't mind, but now that I know you are a priest, I have a hard time addressing any priest by his first name). Yes, my apologies, I did mean to write "perfect contrition." I have a very bad habit of typing fast which more often than not is faster than my ability to think clearly. I appreicate your scholarly response, but it still does not answser my question.Are you sayiing that by this "perfect contrition" (in the case of mortal sin), it's sufficient for any Catholic in the pew to subsequently receive the Eucharist? If so, that would be in conflict with both the teaching of the Catholic Church and our obedience to that teaching. I'm no theologian, but my best guess on why the church requires the sacarment of Reconcillation for the forgiveness of mortal sin is on par with any of us, outside of Divine Mercy Sunday, being able to actually receive a full Plenary Indulgance. In our humaness, our attachement to sin is simply too great, outside of profound holiness which probably only a handful of devout souls actually have. Another reason is that it's really not all that likely that one who has the ability to commit mortal sin would also, at least at that stage of their spiritual life, also have the ability to have a totally contrite heart. I know from my own self when I fell into mortal sin easily I was probably more concerned with the fear of hell than I was having greatly offended God, especially in hindsight of my disgusting sinful acts. If I back than had had the ability to love God that intensely, at least intensely enough to be capable of perfect contrition, I doubt I would have been spiritually capable of committing the mortal sin in the first place.And like I said earlier, "even if", why would any Catholic want to take a chance that maybe we did or maybe we didn't recieve the Eucharist in the state of grace/or in mortal sin? As St. Paul cleary teaches, the consequences of receiving the Eucharist in an unworthy state are simply too dire.I was just asking for clarity, as not to cause confusion. This is a very important topic, and one that is not often addressed. So, I apprecate this conversation. Thank You.

One more thing. I understand the "desire for the sacrament" but also understand it as when the sacarment is not available, as in danger of death (like a passenger on plane ready to crash), not a Catholic in the pews on Sunday who was too busy to make it confession. Do we agree on that Father J?

Patricia: This thread was not about the conditions for receiving communion, but about the duty of Christians to initiate reconciliation, even when one is the one offended against. I am aware of and agree with the teachings of the Church about the conditions of lawful reception of holy communion.As for your second post, just above, I don't believe the author of the article I cited would be as restrictive as you suggest. I think his most convincing sentence is this one: " if under the Old Law love sufficed for the pardon of the sinner, surely the coming of Christ and the institution of the Sacrament of Penance cannot be supposed to have increased the difficulty of obtaining forgiveness."

Thanks for your response Father Joesph, also glad to confirm as I hope and suspected that you agree with the teachings of the Church about the lawful reception of holy communion. As for this:if under the Old Law love sufficed for the pardon of the sinner, surely the coming of Christ and the institution of the Sacrament of Penance cannot be supposed to have increased the difficulty of obtaining forgivenessI would passionatly disagree that the "easier" way, hands down, is the sacrament of Confession. Even Peter, the first pope, in this Sunday's Gospel, when asked by Jesus 3 times, "Peter do you love me", even Peter, the fist pope, couldn't say yes to agape love, only the friendship love. And yes, God accepted that, meeting him where he was, just as he does us. My point one again being how hard it is to have "perfect contrition", which in ordinary situations, requires "perfect love." Thank God for the great gift of the sacrament of confession, including the extraordinary grace that also comes to us in addition to our complete forgiveness of sins.

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