During his general audience May 19, the eve of the feast of the Ascension and the day following his 84th birthday, Pope John Paul II met with thousands of pilgrims who crowded together in St. Peter's Square. He offered his insights on Psalm 32 — the song of a repentant sinner — as part of his ongoing teachings on the psalms and canticles of the Liturgy of the Hours' evening prayer.
The Holy Father said Psalm 32 is “not some generic reflection on sin and forgiveness but rather the personal testimony of a repentant sinner.” The psalmist describes the inner turmoil he experienced after committing some serious sins, but he kept silent because he did not have the courage to confess his sins.
However, the Pope pointed out, “The sinner felt the weight of God's hand upon him; he was aware that God does not remain indifferent to his creatures' wrongdoing, because he is the guardian of justice and truth.”
Finally, the sinner confesses his guilt. “God responds immediately with generous forgiveness,” the Holy Father noted.
John Paul said that we, too, are blessed by recognizing and confessing our sin, particularly in the sacrament of penance, where we experience and celebrate with joy the reality of God's unfailing mercy.
“Happy the sinner whose fault is removed, whose sin is forgiven.” This blessing at the beginning of Psalm 32, which we just heard, immediately helps us to understand why our Christian tradition has included this psalm in the series of seven penitential psalms. After this initial twofold blessing (see verses 1-2), we encounter not some generic reflection on sin and forgiveness but rather the personal testimony of a repentant sinner.
The composition of this psalm is rather complex. After the personal testimony (see verses 3-5), there are two verses that speak of distress, prayer and salvation (see verses 6-7), which are then followed by God's promise of counsel (see verse 8) and a word of warning from him (see verse 9). Finally, some words of wisdom follow that take the form of a contrast (see verse 10), along with an invitation to rejoice in the Lord (see verse 11).
Return to the Lord
At this time, we will only examine a few elements of this composition. First of all, the psalmist describes a very painful moral situation that occurred when he “kept silent” (see verse 3): Having committed some serious offenses, he did not have the courage to confess his sins to God. It was a time of terrible interior turmoil, which is described in some rather striking images: His bones wasted away as though a fever were consuming him and leaving him dehydrated; the dry summer heat melted away and sapped his strength; his groans were constant. The sinner felt the weight of God's hand upon him; he was aware that God does not remain indifferent to his creatures' wrongdoing, because he is the guardian of justice and truth.
Unable to resist any longer, the sinner decides to courageously confess his guilt, using words that seem to foreshadow those of the prodigal son in Jesus' parable (see Luke 15:18). With all sincerity of heart, he says: “I confess my faults to the Lord.” They are only a few words, but they originate from his conscience; God responds immediately with generous forgiveness (see Psalm 32:5).
The prophet Jeremiah spoke about God's plea to us: “Return, rebel Israel, says the Lord. I will not remain angry with you; for I am merciful, says the Lord, I will not continue my wrath forever. Only know your guilt: how you rebelled against the Lord, your God” (Jeremiah 3:12-13).
A Source of Peace and Joy
Thus, in spite of life's trials, the prospect of security, trust and peace opens before “all God's faithful” who have repented and who have been forgiven (see Psalm 32:6-7). They may still experience times of anguish, but the advancing tide of fear will not prevail, because the Lord will lead his faithful to a safe place: “You are my shelter; from distress you keep me; with safety you ring me round” (verse 7).
At this point, the Lord speaks and promises that he will guide the repentant sinner from now on. Indeed, it is not enough to have been purified; we then need to walk on the right path. This is why the Lord promises, “I will instruct you and show you the way you should walk” (Psalm 32:8) and invites us to be docile — like he also does in the Book of Isaiah (see Isaiah 30:21). His call is made with kindness and is tinged with a bit of irony thanks to the vivid comparison to the mules and horses, which are symbols of stubbornness (see verse 9). True wisdom, in fact, leads to conversion, leaving behind any vice and its dark power of attraction over us. But above all, it leads to the enjoyment of the peace that flows from being delivered and forgiven.
In his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul refers explicitly to the beginning of this psalm in order to celebrate Christ's liberating grace (see Romans 4:6-8). We can apply it to the sacrament of reconciliation. In light of this psalm, we experience in this sacrament a consciousness of sin, something that is often clouded over in our days, together with the joy of forgiveness. The two terms, “sin-punishment,” have been replaced by two other terms, “sin-forgiveness,” because the Lord is a God who forgives “wickedness and crime and sin” (Exodus 34:7).
St. Cyril of Jerusalem (fourth century) used Psalm 32 to teach catechumens about baptism's profound renewal, a radical purification from every sin (Procatechesis, No. 15). He also exalted God's mercy, using the psalmist's words. Let us conclude our catechesis with his words: “God is merciful and does not skimp on forgiveness … The accumulation of your sins will not surpass the greatness of God's mercy. The seriousness of your wounds will not surpass the skill of the supreme physician — as long as you abandon yourself to him with trust. Show the physician your illness and speak to him with David's words: ‘I confess my faults that are always before me to the Lord.’ In this way, you will obtain what has proved true for others: ‘You have forgiven the evil of my heart’” (Le catechesi, Rome, 1993, p. 52-53).