By Fulton J. Sheen
Satisfaction for sins, or what is sometimes called “penance,” is distinct from sorrow. Few dwell sufficiently on the difference between being forgiven and atoning for the sin which was forgiven.
Suppose I stole your purse in the course of a conversation, and then I said to myself: “What a scandal I am to this person. I am supposed to bring justice and the love of God, and here I violate God’s law of justice, impugn His mercy, and nail Him to the Cross by stealing the purse.” So I say to you, “Will you forgive me?” In your kindness, you would certainly say: “I forgive you.” But you would also say something else, would you not? Would you not say, “Give me back my purse?” Could I really say that I was sorry unless I returned the purse?
There is a story told, which is sheer imagination with no basis in fact, about a man who came to confession to a priest. During the course of the confession, he stole the priest’s watch. At the end of the confession, he said to the priest: “Oh, Father, I forgot to tell you. I stole a watch.” The priest, emphasizing the necessity of satisfaction, said: “You must return the watch to the owner.” The penitent said: “I’ll give it to you, Father.” The priest said: “No, I don’t want it. Return it to the owner.” The penitent said: “The owner doesn’t want it.” The priest said to him: “Well, in that case, you can keep it.”
Immediately one can see some of the fallacies. First, there was no real sorrow in confession; otherwise, he would not have added a sin while confessing others. Second, there was deceit in his satisfaction. There must always be satisfaction for sin, because every sin disturbs the order of God. Sin upsets a balance. It is to no purpose to say, “Don’t cry over spilled milk,” just because we happen to have spilled someone else’s milk. If we cannot gather up the spilled milk, we can at least pay for the bottle, or buy some more milk.
At the end of the confession, the priest gives to the penitent what is called a “penance,” a certain number of prayers to say, or fasting, or the giving of alms, or acts of mortification, or a way of the Cross, or a rosary. All of these are to “make up” for the sin, and to prove that the sorrow was sincere. This is what Catholics call “saying my penance” or “doing my penance.”
God does not ask us to make an exact reparation for our sins, but rather to do it in a proportional manner. This is because the Sacrament of Penance is less a tribunal of strict justice than a reconciliation between friends. The priest, representing Christ, is not a judge sentencing a criminal to prison. The penitent is not an enemy. He is a reconciled friend, and the reparation, penance, or satisfaction is the work of friendship between members of Christ’s Mystical Body. The penance also has a medicinal value, that of healing the wounds of the soul, which is why it has to be performed in a state of grace. Our Lord forgave our sins on the Cross, but He paid for them in justice. Our Lord forgave the thief on the right, but He did not stop his crucifixion. The pain the thief endured was a reparation for his evil life. Penance is a sign that we are applying Christ’s death on Calvary to ourselves.
Here the Sacrament of Penance differs from the Sacrament of Baptism. In Baptism, the merits of Christ’s Passion are applied to ourselves without any action on our part; but in the Sacrament of Penance, we make some satisfaction. Power and efficacy are given to our acts, because they are united with the Passion of Christ. There are two debts to be paid for sin. One is the eternal debt, which is hell; and the other is the temporal debt, or atoning in our lifetime for our imperfections and our want of charity, after our sin has been forgiven. The eternal debt of hell is completely remitted in the sacrament. The temporal debt for sin remains.
In Scripture, we find records of people being forgiven, for whom a temporal punishment remains. Adam and Eve were restored to grace, but they were made subject to death. Miriam, the sister of Moses, gained forgiveness for her sin, but she was shut out from the camp for seven days and afflicted with leprosy. Moses was forgiven, but was punished for his lack of trust in God by being excluded from the Land of Promise. David’s sin with Bethsabee was forgiven, but he had to suffer misfortunes for it, and the child died as a punishment.
That is why St. Paul urges us to take on voluntary penances that we may “help to pay off the debt which the afflictions of Christ still leave to be paid, for the sake of His Body, the Church.” Daniel consoled Nabuchodonosor with the words: “Deign my lord king, to be advised by me; with almsgiving, with mercy to the poor, for fault and wrong-doing of thine, make amends; it may be that he will condone thy guilt” (Daniel 4:24). And Joel writes: “Time now, the Lord says, to turn the whole bent of your hearts back to me, with fasting and mourners’ tears” (Joel 2:12). Did not Our Lord say of certain cities that they would be condemned because in them “were done most of His miracles, but for that they had not done penance (Matt. 9:20).
Penances given after confession are generally light. Some say they are too light. But we must not forget indulgences. To understand them, we should recall that we are members of Christ’s Mystical Body. When we do evil, or commit sin, we affect every member of the Church in some way. This is even done in our most secret sins. It is evident that we do it in stealing, murder, and adultery; but we do it even in our solitary sins, even in our evil thoughts. How? By diminishing in some way the content of charity and love within the whole Mystical Body. Just as a pain in the eye affects the whole organism and makes us hurt all over so, if I love Christ less, do I impair the spiritual well-being of the Church.
But because I can harm the Church by my sin, so can I be helped by the Church when I am in debt. St. Paul applied to the Mystical Body the lesson of the physical body: “All the different parts of it [the body] were to make each other’s welfare their common care” (I Corinth. 12:25).
Religion is not individual, it is social; it is organic. Look to the natural order, and see how many benefits I receive from my fellow man. There are a million ways in which they are indulgent to me. I did not raise the cow that furnished the leather that went into my shoes. I did not raise the chicken I eat at dinner—but that is a bad example; I do not like chicken! So let us say, the chicken you eat. Somebody’s work or labor allowed you to indulge in this luxury. We might almost say that we are surrounded by social “indulgences,” because we share in the merits, talents, arts, crafts, sciences, techniques, needlework, and genius of society.
Now, in the society of Christ’s people, His Mystical Body, it is possible to share in the merits and the good works, the prayers, the sacrifices, the self-denials, and the martyrdoms of others. If there be an economic “indulgence,” so that I can ride in a plane someone else built, why should there not also be a spiritual indulgence, so that I can be carried to Christ more quickly through the bounty of some members of the Mystical Body.
Go back now to the distinction between forgiveness of guilt and satisfaction for guilt. Every sin has either an eternal or a temporal punishment. Even though our sins were forgiven, there still remained some satisfaction to be made in time; or else in Purgatory after death, provided we die in the state of grace. An indulgence refers not to sin, but to the temporal punishment. Before the indulgences can apply, there must have been forgiveness of the guilt.
Actually, there are several ways of making up for the punishment due after the guilt of sin has been forgiven. Three are personal, one is social: (1) The saying or doing of the penance given in the confessional box at the end of confession; (2) Any works of mortification which are freely undertaken during life, such as helping the poor and the missions, fasting, and other acts of self-denial; (3) The patient imitation of Our Lord’s sufferings on the Cross by enduring the trials of life; and (4) The social remedy of applying the superabundant merits of the Mystical Body to our souls. As we depend on intellectual society to make up for our ignorance, so we depend on a spiritual society to make up for our spiritual bankruptcy.
It may be asked where the Church gets power to remit temporal punishment due to sin? Well, the Church happens to be very rich spiritually, just as some men are very rich financially. In a village there lived a rich banker who set up a trust fund in a bank; he bade all of the sick, infirm, and unemployed to draw from that reserve. The banker told them: “Have no fears that this fund will ever run out, for I am rich enough to care for all of you.” If the banker paid part of the hospital bills, that would be a partial indulgence of the debts of the sick; if he paid all of their bills, that would be a plenary indulgence of their expenses and costs.
The Church is a spiritual banker. It has all the merits of the Passion of Our Lord and the Blessed Mother, the merits of the martyrs, saints, and confessors, and the patient endurance of persecution in the present time; all of these merits are far greater than those needed for salvation of these saintly and good people. The Church takes that surplus, puts it into her treasury, and bids all her weak and wounded, who cannot pay all the debts they owe for their sins, to draw on those reserves. The Church lays down certain conditions for making use of this treasure, just as the banker did. The users have to be deserving, they have to be in the state of grace, they have to fulfill certain conditions; e.g., a prayer, a pilgrimage, or any one of a thousand little things.
When the debt of temporal punishment due to sin is liquidated only in part by an indulgence, it is called a partial indulgence. But if all the debts of temporal punishment are paid for by fulfilling the conditions, it is called a plenary indulgence.
Suppose I am standing in the center of the room, that you have a right to command me, and that I am bound in conscience to obey you. You order me to take three steps to my right. I disobey, and take three steps to my left. When I take the three steps to my left, I say to you, “I am very sorry. I have disobeyed you. Will you forgive me?” You say: “Yes, I will forgive you.” But look where I am! I am actually six steps from where I ought to be, and I am three steps from being in neutral ground. Since I have taken three steps in disobedience, I must put my foot down three times humbly and in penance, in order to get back to “neutral” before I can begin doing right. Those three steps, taken penitentially, represent the payment of the temporal punishment due to sin.
Now suppose that I just took two steps and someone carried me the other one, I would then have an indulgence of one step. If someone carried me two steps, I would then have the indulgence of two steps. If someone carried me the three steps, that would be a plenary indulgence.
That brings up the question of “days.” One often hears of the indulgence of “forty days,” “one hundred days,” or “forty years.” The Church has to have some standard of measurement, and “days” and “years” are merely approximations. In the first several centuries of the Church, penances were very severe for certain public sins. One might have to dress himself in sackcloth and ashes and beg at a church door for forty days, or three years, or seven years, or sometimes ten years in the case of atrocious crimes. Because these sins gave grave scandal to the public, the penitent would be permitted to assist at the Mass at the door or in a special part of the Church.
Later on, there began to be intercessions of persons of high merit, that they be given more or less extended remission of the temporal punishment due to their sins; these became known as indulgences. The Church then took, as a standard of measurement, the severe penances of the early days and applies them today to indulgences. For example, for saying certain prayers, one receives an indulgence which is the equivalent of “forty days” penance in the early Church, or the equivalent of “one hundred days” penance in the early Church, or a “year,” as the case may be.
There is no exact statistical relation between the sin and its expiation, as there is none between the money you pay for a suit of clothes, and the cooperation of the sheep herder, the wool-gatherers, and the suit manufacturer.
What a beautiful doctrine and how consoling is this sacrament! See how it combines the poor sinner who is in debt, the Mystical Body to which he is restored by absolution in the confessional, and the mercy of Christ, the Head of His Mystical Body Who gave this power to His Church: “Whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth is loosed also in heaven.”
My prayer is only a drop but, when it is joined to the other cells of the Mystical Body, when it becomes a bead in a rosary which unites the Church Militant on earth with the Church Triumphant in heaven and Church Suffering in purgatory, when it fuses into the tears of Christ on the Cross and with the sword in Mary’s heart at the foot of the Cross, then it makes its way to the sea which is God where we all meet. Thus, thanks to my little drop of a prayer, I have the right to say, “I, too, am the ocean.”
One feels like singing for joy, for here is a greater thrill than the bath that cleanses the body. Regular confession prevents sins, worries, and anxieties from seeping down into the unconscious and degenerating into melancholy fears and neuroses. The boil is lanced before the pus can spread into unconsciousness. Our Lord knew what was in man so He instituted this sacrament, not for His needs but for ours. It was His way of giving man a happy heart. It is not easy, indeed, for a man to make his way to the Cross and to admit that he has been wrong. It is very hard; but the penitent knows that it was harder to hang on that Cross! We are never made worse by admitting we are broken-hearted, for unless our hearts are broken, how can God get in?
With thanks to http://www.fultonsheen.com