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Chapter 4: Repentance, the Sacrament of Penance, and the Struggle against Sin

Question A:  How Do Responsibilities in This Sphere Fit into Christian Life?

Each person’s first response to God and turning toward him is a special grace and unique moment. But this initial conversion, the Church has always taught, usually is neither complete nor definitive, and the struggle against sin and tendencies to it must continue throughout life. Even after sins are forgiven, it is necessary to deal realistically and effectively with their effects on one’s personality, interpersonal relationships, and relationship with the remainder of the created world. Moreover, responsibilities with respect to sin and its consequences do not end with oneself. Each Christian also must work for the renewal of the Church as a whole and do his or her part in the Church’s service of reconciliation, so that Jesus’ peace may reach out to embrace all humankind.

Today, the penitential dimension of Christian life—Christian asceticism—often is neglected. Many have discontinued or greatly reduced their use of the sacrament of penance and traditional penitential practices; some seem to ignore the whole sphere of responsibilities pertaining to repentance and reconciliation. The decline in ascetical practice points to a deeper crisis, affecting the very sense of God and of sin.2 Many elements of the non-Christian, contemporary culture contribute to this crisis, and certain new forms of so-called spirituality, propagated even within the Catholic Church, rationalize abandonment of the whole Christian tradition concerning human free choice and moral responsibility, divine justice, and the conditions essential for genuine repentance. In light of all this, it is important to understand why it is as necessary today as ever to continue to turn toward God, struggle against sin, deal with its effects, and so help to make peace on earth.

1. Christian Asceticism Aims at Human and Personal Fulfillment

While everyone in the world experiences evil, the asceticism characteristic of some non-Christian religions is based on false interpretations of evil: the belief that matter, the body, and the very individuality of the person are evil in themselves, which leads to the notion that human persons are fulfilled only by escaping from the world, discarding their bodies, and ceasing to be the persons they are. Christian faith, by contrast, teaches that matter and individuality are goods created by God, while the evil disfiguring human nature and mutilating persons arises from the wrong free choices of creatures, including one’s own sins. In the past, nevertheless, some Christians confused non-Christian with Christian asceticism. Such confusion can lead people to reject the asceticism they should practice.3

a) Christian asceticism affirms life. False asceticism is life denying. It points toward complete or partial annihilation of the human. By contrast, while Christian asceticism has been tainted by some mistaken and harmful excesses, it is essentially life affirming.4 For Jesus’ salvation is not annihilation, but liberation and re-creation: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10.10). Even when opposing the world and the flesh, the New Testament does not oppose a full human life, for then the world means humankind precisely as sinful and the flesh means the person precisely as enmeshed in sin.5

Moreover, Jesus by no means endorses death and other human miseries, which have their source not in God’s good will but in creatures’ sinful wills. These evil effects of sin become means of redemption only because, in assuming human nature in its fallen condition, the Word accepts them. Jesus does this in order to prepare humankind to receive God’s re-creative gift of the Spirit, the gift that alone overcomes death and suffering.

b) Christian asceticism is a means to the kingdom. Christian penitential activity is shaped by faith, hope, and charity, but penance itself is not of the same order as those three gifts. As a person struggles against disease in order to live as only the healthy can, so a person struggles against sin in order to live a humanly and divinely full life as only the holy can. Thus, overcoming sin and its effects is not the ultimate purpose of penitential activities; rather, these aim at growth in holiness. All works of penance are for the sake of increasingly intimate communion with God and neighbor, and also for perfecting the peace of soul and harmony with God’s good creation that sin had upset. Christian asceticism is a means to the kingdom, to its coming and to one’s sharing fully in it. It accepts suffering and death as Jesus did and in unity with him: not as if they were good in themselves but insofar as accepting them is necessary for resurrection.

c) Christians need not reject any true good. Although the kingdom is more than human fulfillment—it is fulfillment in divine life—divine goodness and human goods are not at odds (see CMP, 24.E). In the kingdom, where one hopes to live a real, human, bodily life, as Jesus and Mary already do, all the good fruits of human nature and effort will be found again, freed of sin and completed (see GS 39). Those who denied and rejected their sinful selves for Jesus’ sake and the gospel’s will have saved their authentically human selves (see Mt 10.38–39, Mk 8.34–35, Lk 17.33, Jn 12.25). Thus, nothing good about human persons and communities, nothing which contributes to their reality and true fulfillment need be rejected.

In any human life, of course, it is necessary to choose, act for, and share in some human goods rather than others; moreover, Christian preferences, flowing from faith’s understanding of what is required for human fulfillment, differ markedly from non-Christian preferences. Still, one need not and should not reject those goods which are given up for the kingdom’s sake. For example, those called to virginity or celibacy should not regard marriage and parenthood as evils to be rejected, but should affirm them as great goods that they renounce only for the sake of other goods, seen by the eye of faith to be greater still.

2: Authentic Asceticism Is a Desirable Part of Christian Life

The previous section has clarified confusions about asceticism. But it also is important to see why people should joyfully accept their responsibilities in this sphere. Since repentance and penitential works would be unnecessary in a sinless creation, considered in and by themselves these are not unqualified goods. In the actual situation, however, repentance and penitential works really are good despite their lack of appeal. Rather than ignore, avoid, or rebel against them, one should gladly fulfill the responsibilities of the penitential dimension of Christian life, in which one is united with Jesus in submitting to God’s judgment on sin. In penance one experiences in a special way God’s saving love, revealed in Jesus’ cross, and enjoys the fruit of repentance and penitential works: reconciliation and peace.

a) The call to repentance belongs to the gospel’s good news. Authentic repentance is concerned with sin but should not be associated with it, though that is likely to happen in the subconscious mind. Repentance is to sin as appropriate treatment is to disease. Of course, it would be better if there were no diseases to treat, and likewise it would be better if there were no sins to repent. When one is sick, however, the alternative to treatment is not a healthy and comfortable life without treatment’s burdens, but a life burdened and threatened by disease. And when one sins the alternative to repentance is not an innocent and peaceful life uncomplicated by repentance, but a life deformed by sin and increasingly enslaved by both sin itself and anxiety about death.

Repentance frees one from sin. Freedom from mortal sin is reconciliation with God and neighbor: the prodigal’s return to his home, where his father receives him as a son and celebrates his return with a banquet (see Lk 15.22–24). The gradual overcoming of all other sin and sin’s effects is growth in holiness, the building up of communion with God and neighbor. This communion is the central reality of God’s kingdom, and so the gospel’s good news of the kingdom’s arrival also is a call to repentance: to come back to the Father’s heavenly home, to remain at home, and to grow in familial solidarity. Repentance can indeed be painful, but its immediate fruits are joyful.

b) The sacrament of penance is a very easy way to deal with sin. While this may not seem true, a little thought makes the point clear.

Suffering from a fatal illness, such as AIDS, and offered, free of charge, a treatment which, while painful, took only a few minutes and assured complete and immediate recovery, any reasonable person would be happy to accept it. That is so even if people receiving the treatment had to promise never again to do what had brought on the disease. Likewise, anyone afflicted with a serious and chronic disease, such as diabetes, who was offered, free of charge, a treatment requiring only a few minutes every week or so, and was assured that the disease not only would be controlled but gradually cured, surely would want to receive that treatment and would cooperate with it.

Mortal sin is spiritual death, and venial sin is a serious, chronic spiritual disease; and spiritual disease and death are far more serious than mortal illness and chronic bodily disease. Considered in this light, the sacrament of penance plainly is a wonderful gift, one Jesus gave his life to win for his followers. Moreover, it manifests God’s great gentleness and mercy, for its way of dealing with sin requires little from sinners in return for spiritual life and health.

c) Authentic repentance is sure to be fruitful. Repentance is not only the work of God’s grace in sinners but their own free human act, motivated by the sure hope of God’s merciful forgiveness. The Father’s faithful love, so great that he gave his Son to reconcile humankind to himself, guarantees that he will receive with reconciling mercy anyone who turns to him, just as the father in the parable joyfully received his prodigal son (see Lk 15.11–32).6 Confident, moreover, of the Spirit’s power at work in oneself, one should be joyful in hope even while experiencing hardship (see Col 1.11–12). As Jesus “for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame” (Heb 12.2), so the penitential dimension of one’s life should be accepted for the sake of its fruit of holiness (see Heb 12.3–13; cf. Jas 1.2–4), which the gift of the Holy Spirit guarantees.

d) In doing penance, Jesus’ disciples can follow him joyfully. Jesus not only preached penance but practiced it. Before beginning his ministry he received John’s baptism, fasted, prayed, and overcame temptation (see Mt 3.13–4.11; Mk 1.9–13; Lk 3.21–22, 4.1–13). But even though he was sinless, Jesus was made “to be sin” (2 Cor 5.21), as Paul says, so that fallen humankind might be reconciled to God (see 2 Cor 5.18–21). His self-offering in obedience to the Father truly is redemptive (see CMP, 22.G, 22.2); therefore, it is the most perfect of all penances (see S.t., 3, q. 15, a. 1, ad 5).

But Jesus’ penance does not render one’s own unnecessary: he suffered, leaving an example, that one should follow in his footsteps (see 1 Pt 2.21). Christians are called to cooperate in Jesus’ redemptive work; to follow him is to deny oneself and take up one’s own cross (see Mt 10.38, Mk 8.34, Lk 14.27). Thus, Christians, although degraded by sin, are ennobled, for they take part in Jesus’ kingly work of conquering the reign of sin, beginning with its reign in themselves (see Rom 6.12; LG 36; S.t., 3, q. 49, a. 1; q. 62, a. 5). God’s grace is the greater in not only forgiving the sin but providing an opportunity for satisfaction that makes the repentant sinner more like Jesus.

Although Jesus’ natural feelings resisted suffering and death, as he was about to die he experienced, due to his obedience, the joy of being in communion with the Father (see Jn 15.10–11). Similarly, when a person’s natural feelings resist penance, he or she should accept it joyfully in solidarity with Jesus: “If we endure, we will also reign with him” (2 Tm 2.12).

e) Repentance purifies and strengthens the Church. Insofar as she is inseparably united with Jesus, the Church is holy, but insofar as she is sinful in her members, she always needs to be purified (see LG 8, UR 6). Sin wounds the Church, but the penance of her sinful members not only reconciles them to her but heals the wounds they have inflicted on her (see LG 11).7 Thus, the Church calls her members “to purification and renewal so that the sign of Christ may shine more brightly over the face of the Church” (LG 15; cf. GS 43). For Catholics to correct what disfigures the face of the Church means removing the obstacle their sins place in the way of others’ acceptance of the faith, thus making the Church a more effective sign of God’s truth and love.8 More broadly, the Church is a more effective sacrament—a sign and a means—of reconciling humankind to God and healing all human divisions as she herself is more perfectly united with Jesus through the healing of her inner tensions and divisions, caused by her members’ sins.

3. Christians Must Struggle Hard against Sin and Its Effects

To appreciate the responsibilities pertaining to repentance and reconciliation, it is necessary to realize that sins are spiritual realities that last. They truly offend God while wreaking havoc in and beyond sinners. The struggle of Christians against sin is made still more difficult by diabolical adversaries, their own weakness, and the sinful world around them.

It would be contrary to God’s wisdom and holiness for him simply to overlook or forget about evil, or to treat it as if it were good. His mercy cannot mean that he reconciles sinners to himself without their sins being overcome. Of course, the overcoming of sin is the work of God’s grace, freely given because of his mercy and faithfulness; far from being a substitute for one’s struggle against sin and its effects, however, grace is the power to win the battle.

a) Sins are spiritual realities that last. Insofar as they flow from free choices, human actions are not mere units of transitory behavior, which people do and then simply put behind them (see CMP, 2.H); rather, actions really constitute a person’s life and self. Moral norms, furthermore, are truths, not mere rules, that guide human actions to the authentic fulfillment God plans and wills for creation as a whole and for each created person (see CMP, 3.A–B, 7.A, 7.E–F, 19.A–C, 23.F–G, 34.A, and 34.D–G). Sins, then, are choices contrary to what the sinner believes to be the moral truth. In every sinful choice, one makes oneself guilty, whether one feels guilty or not; and one remains guilty unless and until one has a real change of heart (see CMP, 13.A–B).

b) Sin offends God and causes widespread disharmony. Sins interfere with human fulfillment and disrupt human harmony on every level, as Vatican II teaches: “Often refusing to acknowledge God as their source, people have disrupted not only their proper relationship to the ultimate end of the human person, but also their whole relationship to themselves, other people, and all created things” (GS 13; cf. CMP, 7.F).9 Basically, however, sins explicitly or implicitly violate God’s wisdom and love, and so alienate sinners from him. For those who have entered into a covenant with God, sin is unfaithfulness, as adultery is unfaithfulness to a spouse. Thus, although sins cannot harm God, they truly offend him inasmuch as they are against the good he wills (see CMP, 13.B–C). In sinning, one implicitly says to God: May thy will not be done on earth as it is in heaven!

The Bible expresses how offensive that is to God by speaking often of his wrath. While God’s mercy is so great that repentant sinners need not fear that wrath, one must not forget Jesus’ cross: revealing God’s mercy, it also reveals just how seriously he takes sin.

c) Malicious adversaries oppose every effort to overcome sin. Vatican II reiterates the Church’s teaching that humankind’s fall was partly due to the Devil and that the Devil’s continuing malicious action is one cause of the monumental conflict which makes up human history (see GS 13, 37). Christians do not enjoy total immunity from diabolical subversion (see DS 1668/894). Thus, the New Testament teaches them to prepare to fight: “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6.12; cf. 1 Pt 5.6–10). Since by themselves human beings are weaker than their diabolical adversaries, prayer for divine and angelic help is the chief means of carrying on this part of the struggle against sin.

d) Fallen human nature is a handicap in the struggle against sin. Honest people who desire to live uprightly often recognize in themselves a vulnerability to temptation and an inclination to sin arising from the fact that their feelings are not subordinate to reason (see Rom 7.23, Gal 5.16–17, Jas 1.14–15). The Church’s teaching calls this experience “concupiscence” and explains that it is an effect of original sin which persists even in the baptized (see DS 1515/792; S.t., 1–2, q. 82, a. 3; CMP, 14.G). Jesus makes it clear that people must take whatever measures are necessary to deal with this source of temptation (see Mt 5.29–30, Mk 9.43–47). St. Paul acknowledges the need to discipline himself much as an athlete in training does (see 1 Cor 9.24–27).

e) Society conditioned by sin impedes one from following Jesus. Original sin and subsequent actual sins not only affect those directly involved but distort social arrangements and practices, cultural processes and products, so that there are real structures of sin (see GS 25). These structures are persisting realities shaped by sin; they, as it were, embody the sins which shaped them and conduce to further sins. For example, greedy choices lead to an unjust economic system in which the rich waste goods and pollute the environment, while the poor remain in desperate need. In some nations, certain families hold vast, undeveloped estates, thus shaping an agricultural system which allows many small farmers too little land to grow the food necessary to feed their families. Again, irresponsible choices about sexual activity—perhaps together with ill-conceived public programs of sex education, no-fault divorce, and so on—encourage a family structure in which children are deprived of the support and nurture of their fathers. Although such sociocultural structures of sin originate only in wrong free choices, the sins of individuals and groups, they extend far beyond the deeds and situations which give rise to them.10

Insofar as humankind is divided and afflicted by such structures of sin, it constitutes the sinful world, friendship with which is enmity toward God (see Jas 4.4). That world hates Jesus’ loyal followers, who must remain in it without belonging to it (see Jn 15.18–19, 17.6–19). It presses everyone to conform to it, while the all-too-human tendency to conform impedes Christians from following Jesus or even thinking about their personal vocation. That is why Paul warns: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12.2).

f) Grace does not make overcoming sin painless and effortless. As the parable of the publican and pharisee makes clear (see Lk 18.9–14), true repentance requires the acknowledgment that forgiveness depends on God’s mercy. One would not be repentant in self-confidently supposing that one deserved acceptance in God’s eyes. Indeed, it is a matter of faith that God’s grace and mercy initiate and sustain whatever one does to overcome sin (see DS 373–96/176–99, 1521–25/793–97, 1530/800, 1551–54/811–14).

But it also is a matter of faith that grace does not replace human free choice and effort: “According to Catholic faith we also believe that after grace has been received through baptism, all the baptized, if they are willing to labor faithfully, can and ought to accomplish with Christ’s help and cooperation what pertains to the salvation of their souls” (DS 397/200; cf. DS 1545–46/809, 1554/814, 1574/ 834). God’s mercy is not merely a matter of writing off sins, as a creditor might cancel a debt (see DS 1561/821). Rather, God gives the sinner a new heart, which freely responds to his mercy (see Ps 51.10–12), so that those who were sinners can live as members of Jesus and act as befits God’s friends (see Jer 31.31–34, Ezk 11.19–20, Jn 15.4–15).11

Therefore, the Council of Trent teaches that Christians not only must work out their salvation in fear and trembling, but “in labors, in sleepless nights, in almsgiving, in prayers and offerings, in fastings, and in chastity (2 Cor 6.3 ff.)”; they “should be in dread about the battle they must wage with the flesh, the world, and the devil” (DS 1541/806).

4. The Responsibilities to Repent and Be Reconciled Are Continuous

In one respect, repentance or conversion is unique and decisive. Hearing the gospel and moved by grace, people turn toward God, reject all the evil in which they are enmeshed and from which they suffer, believe, and receive new life: the light and power of the Holy Spirit to live in communion with God and his friends (see CMP, 20.C–D, 20.F, 24.D, 30.H–I). From this point of view, the gospel precisely is a call to repentance (see Mt 4.17, Mk 1.15), an offer of forgiveness, and a promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit (see Lk 24.46–49, Acts 2.38; cf. Jn 20.22–23). The response of faith is at once renunciation of sin and commitment to Jesus, as the baptismal promises make clear.

Of course, Catholics also acknowledge the possibility that those who have received salvation in Jesus can commit mortal sin, lose divine life, and so again need to undergo radical conversion (see CMP, 15.B–C, 32.A). But not everyone commits mortal sins, and normally the need for so radical a new conversion is not constant. It might seem, then, that one’s responsibilities with respect to repentance and reconciliation are to be met only on a few special occasions. But that is not so. Every Christian always should be trying in several different ways to meet these responsibilities.

a) One’s basic act of repentance should be permanent. The basic act of repentance sets God’s prodigal children on their way toward their Father’s house. A person has volitional sorrow for his or her own sins, arising from the choice to accept God’s mercy and reject sin: “I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands’ ” (Lk 15.18–19). No mere feeling, this free act is a self-determination of the personal, spiritual self.

Of itself, it persists unless there is a contrary choice. But such a choice would involve approving one’s sins and so committing them anew. The basic act of repentance, by which a new and contrite heart is received, should therefore be permanent (see S.t., 3, q. 84, a. 8). It should inform one’s humble gratitude toward God, for, remaining of oneself a sinner, one is a repentant sinner only because of God’s faithfulness and mercy. Great saints have expressed this awareness by identifying themselves as great sinners despite the remarkable gifts of grace they enjoyed.

b) Growth toward holiness is gradual and should be lifelong. In explaining the universal call to holiness, Vatican II points out that followers of Jesus, having become children of God and received a share in the divine nature, by God’s grace must “hold on to and complete in their lives this holiness they have received” (LG 40). This requires the Christian virtues and fruits of the Spirit. The Council adds: “Since truly we all offend in many things (cf. Jas 3.2), we need God’s mercy continuously and must pray daily: ‘And forgive us our trespasses’ (Mt 6.12)” (LG 40).12 Thus, continuous conversion is needed to overcome sin gradually. The overcoming of sin is growth in single-heartedness (see CMP, 26.I).

Continuous conversion is neither constant innovation nor repeated restoration. It is an ongoing effort to understand more correctly and fulfill more faithfully what was undertaken by the commitment of faith, to implement one’s hope for the kingdom in an increasingly consistent way, and so to grow toward the ideal of perfection: to love God with one’s whole heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself (see CMP, 27.E).

c) As holiness grows, residual defects continue to appear. Growth toward the ideal of love is not simply a matter of gradually eliminating the major and minor sins that any healthy conscience can recognize by its awareness of the principles of natural moral law. It is intimate cooperation with the Holy Spirit in forming oneself to meet the demands of the specifically Christian commitments of one’s personal vocation (see LG 41; CMP, 28.E). But even these commitments are at first imperfect, more or less limited and distorted by interests other than hope and motives other than charity; thus, it is necessary to struggle to respond consistently to one’s vocation and to fulfill its commitments faithfully.

As the effort proceeds, more and more implications of the Christian modes of response gradually become clear, and awareness of one’s shortcomings develops at an altogether new level (see CMP, 28.E–F). This is another reason why great saints consider themselves sinners: they expect to continue to discover their shortcomings in respect to Christian humility, meekness, detachment, mercy, and so on.

d) The social dimension of penance cannot be definitively fulfilled. God’s grace frees Christians from the sinful world, but not from responsibilities toward that world. Like the sinless Lord Jesus, who entered the sinful world to save humankind, Jesus’ followers must be peacemakers and liberators, extending God’s peace to others (see CMP, 26.J). Unlike Jesus, however, repentant sinners owe it to God to have mercy on others, since they themselves gladly receive his mercy: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Mt 6.12; see CMP, 26.H). On this ground, people should promote reconciliation by loving enemies and offering forgiveness to anyone who has wronged them. Moreover, justice is owed to anyone who suffers or has suffered injustices to which one has contributed, and on this ground, restitution must be made to those whom one has wronged (see 7.G, below).

On both grounds, furthermore, Christians’ responsibilities to do penance and promote reconciliation include the duty to work for social justice: “to implement—by the way they live as individuals and as families, by the use of their resources, by their civic activity, by contributing to economic and political decisions, and by personal commitment to national and international undertakings—the measures inspired by solidarity and love of preference for the poor.”13 Plainly, these responsibilities which pertain to the social dimension of penance are ongoing; they never can be definitively fulfilled.

e) Penance will be incomplete until the whole Church is perfect. A Chris~tian’s very identity as a member of Jesus depends on the Church as a whole, for Christians are to seek first the kingdom, and the Church is the incipient kingdom. The social responsibilities of penance and reconciliation cannot be met fully by any individual as long as the Church as a whole is not perfectly what Jesus planned and willed her to be. “But,” as Paul VI teaches, “the actual image of the Church will never attain to such a degree of perfection, beauty, holiness and splendor that it can be said to correspond perfectly with the original conception in the mind of him who fashioned it.”14 Hence, a Christian has lifelong responsibilities to help and support fellow Christians in their work of repentance and reconciliation. No member of Jesus can rest until all are free of sin, and each should be able to say with Paul: “I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col 1.24).

2. See John Paul II, Reconciliatio et paenitentia, 18, AAS 77 (1985) 224–28, OR, 17 Dec. 1984, 6–7; Nicolò M. Loss, S.D.B., “La prospettiva di penitenza nella Bibbia,” Ephemerides liturgicae 89 (1975): 220.

3. A helpful clarification of the essence of Christian asceticism: Hubert van Zeller, Approach to Penance (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1958).

4. See Louis Bouyer, Cong.Orat., Introduction to Spirituality, trans. Mary Perkins Ryan (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1961), 134–41.

5. See John L. McKenzie, S.J., Dictionary of the Bible (New York: Macmillan, 1965), 280–82 and 942–44.

6. John Paul II, Dives in misericordia, 1–8, AAS 72 (1980) 1177–1207, PE, 279.1–93, deals richly with divine mercy and includes a powerful synthesis of relevant scriptural sources.

7. John Paul II, Reconciliatio et paenitentia, 9, AAS 77 (1985) 203, OR, 17 Dec. 1984, 3, teaches: “The Church, if she is to be reconciling, must begin by being a reconciled Church. Beneath this simple and indicative expression lies the conviction that the Church, in order ever more effectively to proclaim and propose reconciliation to the world, must become ever more genuinely a community of disciples of Christ (even though it were only ‘the little flock’ of the first days), united in the commitment to be continually converted to the Lord and to live as new people in the spirit and practice of reconciliation.”

8. In conformity with Vatican II’s teaching (in LG 32–33, 39–42; AA 6), CIC, c. 210, prescribes: “All the Christian faithful must make an effort, in accord with their own condition, to live a holy life and to promote the growth of the Church and its continual sanctification.” Sanctification is important for authentic ecumenism; John XXIII, Paenitentiam agere, AAS 54 (1962) 486, PE, 269.25, on the eve of Vatican II, called Catholics to penance, so “that the faith, the love, the moral lives of Catholics may be so re-invigorated, so intensified, that all who are at present separated from this Apostolic See may be impelled to strive actively and sincerely for union, and enter the one fold under the one Shepherd (cf. Jn 10.16).”

9. John Paul II, Reconciliatio et paenitentia, 15, AAS 77 (1985) 213, OR, 17 Dec. 1984, 5, points out that according to Genesis sin leads to human divisions, and then explains: “No one wishing to investigate the mystery of sin can ignore this link between cause and effect. As a rupture with God, sin is an act of disobedience by a creature who rejects, at least implicitly, the very one from whom he came and who sustains him in life. It is therefore a suicidal act. Since by sinning man refuses to submit to God, his internal balance is also destroyed and it is precisely within himself that contradictions and conflicts arise. Wounded in this way, man almost inevitably causes damage to the fabric of his relationship with others and with the created world. This is an objective law and an objective reality, verified in so many ways in the human psyche and in the spiritual life, as well as in society, where it is easy to see the signs and effects of internal disorder.”

10. See John Paul II, Reconciliatio et paenitentia, 16, AAS 77 (1985) 213–17, OR, 17 Dec. 1984, 5–6; Sollicitudo rei socialis, 36–38, AAS 80 (1988) 561–66, OR, 29 Feb. 1988, 9–10.

11. Thus, Paul VI, Evangelii nuntiandi, 10, AAS 68 (1976) 11, Flannery, 2:714–15, teaches that while God’s mercy and grace are freely offered to all, each person must attain a share in Jesus’ kingdom and salvation “by force: ‘men of violence take them by force’ (cf. Mt 11.12, Lk 16.16) as the Lord says. They must achieve them by labour and sorrows, by a life lived according to the standards of the gospel, by self-denial and the cross in the spirit of the beatitudes of the gospel. But above all each individual can achieve them by a total spiritual renewal of himself which the gospel calls metanoia, that is by a conversion of the whole man by virtue of which there is a radical change of mind and heart (cf. Mt 4.17).”

12. John Paul II, Reconciliatio et paenitentia, 4, AAS 77 (1985) 191, OR, 17 Dec. 1984, 2, similarly explains that while penance means the initial conversion of heart, penance also means doing penance, and this requires daily effort supported by grace: “Penance is therefore a conversion that passes from the heart to deeds, and then to the Christian’s whole life.”

13. John Paul II, Sollicitudo rei socialis, 47, AAS 80 (1988) 581, OR, 29 Feb. 1988, 13.

14. Paul VI, Ecclesiam Suam, AAS 56 (1964) 612, PE, 271.10.