Repent and Believe in the Gospel

“Penance requires ... the sinner to endure all things willingly, be contrite of heart, confess with the lips, and practice complete humility and fruitful satisfaction.” (CCC 1450)

Gerard Seghers (1591-1651), “The Repentance of St. Peter”
Gerard Seghers (1591-1651), “The Repentance of St. Peter” (photo: Public Domain)

For many of us, going to confession this Lent is on the list of things that have suddenly become difficult or impossible because of COVID-19.

Since it’s unlikely we’ll be able to queue up for the sacrament in person in the near future, Pope Francis is encouraging us to bring our sins to God the Father, ask for forgiveness with all our heart and make an act of contrition.

Normally, after we receive absolution in confession, we should make a purpose of amendment: a resolution to avoid both the sins we confessed and the dangerous occasions to sin. But we can’t do this without God’s grace.

But even if a priest can’t give us absolution, it’s still possible to work on a purpose of amendment.

“A mere desire to do better is not sufficient,” according to a Dominican mission. “You must have a strong will to do better. You must then vigorously and watchfully labor to destroy your bad habits. “

Many people wish to make a change but don’t put effort into it and soon fall back into those habits.

It takes courage to make that change, St. Josemaría Escrivá said. "'You told me, Father, that after my past life it is still possible to become another St. Augustine,” he said. “I don't doubt it, and today more than yesterday I want to try to prove it. But you have to cut out sin courageously from the root, as the holy Bishop of Hippo did."

It’s true that Catholics who receive the sacrament of penance can and must renew, strengthen and direct their Christian life to holiness and supernatural charity but they can’t do it on their own, wrote Pope St. John Paul II in a 1996 letter.

“If we wished to rely only on our own strength, or primarily on our own strength, the decision to sin no more, with a presumed self-sufficiency, almost a Christian Stoicism or revived Pelagianism, we would offend against that truth about man with which we began, as though we were to tell the Lord, more or less consciously, that we did not need him.”

Trust, the possible and necessary exercise of supernatural hope, should accompany our hatred of sin, our humble accusation of it and our firm determination to not sin again, the Holy Father wrote.

By that hope, he said, “we expect from God’s Goodness, through his promises and through the merits of Jesus Christ the Savior, eternal life and the graces necessary to attain it.”

St. Pio of Pietrelcina helped a man find hope, but not before he kicked him out of his confessional in 1963.

Afterward the man complained to the other Capuchins who told him the saint wanted him to change his life to save his soul.

One of the Capuchins heard his confession, but the man continued to live a sinful life. Still, after his meeting with Padre Pio, he slowly started to change. The man went back to San Giovanni Rotondo seven more times but didn’t dare go back to the saint for confession.

The last time he went there he sensed encouragement from Padre Pio who saw him in the crowd. He found the courage to go back to the saint’s confessional. This time he spoke from his heart and told Padre Pio that although he’d been trying to overcome his sins, he hadn’t been completely successful.

Padre Pio’s gentle response — “But is that not repentance?” — helped the man to make a good confession and change his life.

The more we go to confession for both lesser and greater sins, our soul continues to move forward and is led to God’s heart, the Lord revealed to St. Bridget of Sweden.

Even when we can’t get there, God’s grace is still available to help us move forward through a purpose of amendment.