Due to inclement weather, Pope John Paul II's general audience on May 8 took place in the Paul VI Audience Hall instead of St. Peter's Square. Over 10,000 pilgrims were present. The Holy Father resumed his cycle of teachings on the psalms and canticles of the Liturgy of the Hours.
His teaching focused on Psalm 51, the best known of the penitential psalms.“The psalmist confesses his sin clearly and without hesitation: ‘For I know my offense … Against you alone have I sinned,’” the Holy Father noted. While acknowledging his sinfulness, the psalmist never loses hope in God's promise of mercy, love and forgiveness,
Quoting Origen, Pope John Paul II pointed out that it is unfortunate that many people do not recognize their sinfulness:“Acknowledgment and awareness of sin is, therefore, the fruit of sensitivity we acquire thanks to the light of God's Word.” The Holy Father said that sin, besides being an offense against men, is first and foremost a betrayal of God. Nonetheless, he said,“The power of God's love overcomes the power of sin, and the disruptive river of evil is less forceful than the fruitful water of forgiveness.” God saves us not because of any righteous deeds we have done, but because of his mercy, the Holy Father noted.
Pope John Paul II ended the audience by asking prayers for the special session on children of the General Assembly of the United Nations.
Every Friday during Morning Prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours, we recite Psalm 51, the Miserere, a penitential psalm that is very dear to our hearts and that we often sing and meditate on—a hymn that a repentant sinner raises to his merciful God. During an earlier teaching, we already had the opportunity to present a general picture of this great prayer. First of all, we enter into the darkness of sin, upon which the light of man's repentance and God's forgiveness is cast (see verses 3-11). Afterwards, the gift of God's grace is exalted, which transforms and renews the spirit and heart of the repentant sinner. This is an area of shining light, full of hope and trust (see verses 12-21).
We will take time in our reflection to consider the first part of Psalm 51 and examine certain aspects of it at greater length. First of all, however, we wish to make special note of God's marvelous proclamation on Mount Sinai, which is very similar to the portrait of God depicted in the Miserere:“The Lord, the Lord, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity, continuing his kindness for a thousand generations, and forgiving wickedness and crime and sin” (Exodus 34:6-7).
The psalmist directs his initial cry to God in order to obtain his gift of purification that will make his sins—as the prophet Isaiah said—”white as snow” and“white as wool” even though they are in themselves more like“scarlet” and“crimson red” (see Isaiah 1:18). The psalmist confesses his sin clearly and without hesitation:“For I know my offense … Against you alone have I sinned; I have done such evil in your sight” (Psalm 51:5-6).
Thus, the sinner's own personal consciousness comes into play as he opens his heart to clearly perceive his sinfulness. It is an experience that involves freedom and responsibility, and leads him to admit that he has broken his commitment in order to make an alternate choice in life with regards to God's Word. A radical decision to change ensues. All this is implied in the verb“know,” which in Hebrew includes not only intellectual assent but also a life-giving choice.
Unfortunately, many people do not do this. Origen warns us:“There are some who after having sinned are absolutely at peace and do not give a thought to their sin, nor are they touched by an awareness of the sin they have committed, but live as if it were nothing. These, of course, cannot say, ‘My sin is always before me.’ On the other hand, when a person is consumed and afflicted by his sin after sinning, and is tormented by remorse, he is ceaselessly torn to pieces and endures attacks in his most inner being that confute him, so that he has good reason to exclaim, ‘There is no peace for my bones given the nature of my sins… ‘Therefore, when we see before the eyes of our heart the sins that we have committed, we look at them one by one, acknowledge them, feel ashamed and repent of all that we have done, then, justly upset and frightened, we say that ’There is no peace in our bones given the nature of our sins’” (Omelie sui Salmi, Florence, 1991, pp. 277-279). Acknowledgment and awareness of sin is, therefore, the fruit of sensitivity we acquire thanks to the light of God's Word.
Within the confession of the Miserere there is one particularly marked emphasis: sin is not only considered in its personal and“psychological” dimension, but above all it is considered in its theological quality.“Against you alone have I sinned” (Psalm 51:6), exclaims the sinner. According to tradition, this sinner is David, who is fully conscious of his adultery with Bathsheba and the prophet Nathan's denunciation of this crime and of the murder of her husband, Uriah (see verse 2; 2 Samuel 11-12).
Sin Betrays God
Hence, sin is not merely a psychological or social question, but is something that damages our relationship with God by breaking his law, rejecting his plan for history, upsetting his hierarchy of values, changing“darkness into light, and light into darkness,” and calling“evil good, and good evil” (see Isaiah 5:20). Although it is eventually an offense against man, sin is first and foremost a betrayal of God. The words that the Prodigal Son, who was so reckless with his inheritance, uttered to his father, who was so lavish with his love, are symbolic:“Father, I have sinned against heaven (that is against God) and against you!” (Luke 15:21).
Sin and Man's Nature
At this point the psalmist introduces yet another aspect that is more directly connected with human reality. It is a phrase that has given rise to many interpretations and that has also been linked to the doctrine of original sin:“True, I was born guilty, a sinner, even as my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:7). The psalmist wishes to indicate the presence of evil in the whole of our being, as is evident from his mention of conception and birth, a way to express the whole of existence beginning with its origin. The psalmist, however, does not formally associate this situation with Adam and Eve's sin, and does not speak explicitly of original sin.
Nevertheless, it remains clear from the text of the psalm that evil makes its home in man's innermost being; it is inherent to his historical reality and, because of this, his request for God to intervene with his grace is decisive. The power of God's love overcomes the power of sin, and the disruptive river of evil is less forceful than the fruitful water of forgiveness:“Where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more” (Romans 5:20).
The Hope of Salvation
In this way, the psalmist indirectly recalls the theology of original sin and the whole biblical view of sinful man with words that enable us at the same time to perceive the light of grace and of salvation.
We will have an opportunity to discover in the future when we return to this psalm and its subsequent verses that confession of guilt and awareness of one's own misery do not result in terror or an obsession with judgment, but rather in the hope of purification, of deliverance, of new creation.
In fact, God saves us“not because of any righteous deeds we had done but because of his mercy, he saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the holy Spirit, whom he richly poured out on us through Jesus Christ our savior” (Titus 3:5-6).