Monday, October 19, 2015

Bishop Forester's Pastoral Letter on Penance

A Pastoral Letter.
Monday, February 4th, 1977.

Edmund, by the Grace of God and favour of the Apostolic See, Bishop of Stamford to the Clergy secular and regular and to the Faithful of the said Diocese, health and benediction in the Lord.

Dearly beloved Brethren in Jesus Christ,

Fortunately there are few people in the world who believe that they alone are always right and everyone else always wrong, that they alone are always good and everyone else invariably wicked. We know exactly where they are, these unfortunate people who think themselves perfect: they are in lunatic asylums. It is a strange phenomenon that the human being, the summit of human creation, should be universally conscious of his own imperfection. Indeed, the saner he is the more he is aware of his liability to err; the better he is the more he is aware of his liability to sin. If you think that you are sometimes wrong it is a proof that you have right judgement. If you think that you sometimes sin it is proof that you have a sound conscience. It is precisely to remedy this state of affairs that God has revealed what we must believe for our salvation, so that we may have certainty in so vital a matter. As for what we must do for our salvation, He has not only revealed how we should act but has given us a means by which we are put right when we go wrong. This is the subject on my Pastoral Letter: Confession and the forgiveness of sin.


Before embarking on forgiveness I should like to say a few words about sin. Sin, as you remember from your catechism, is the deliberate disobedience of the known commandments of God. These commandments, summed up in the Ten Commandments and interpreted by Holy Church, constitute the Natural Law. The Natural Law is not what human beings happen to do but what God requires them to do. A sin, therefore, an an objective act which a human performs, be it interiorly in his mind or exteriorly in his deeds. Our subjective conscience, in fact, has little or nothing to do with sin. If we are lucky it may tell us that we have sinned but it does not necessarily tell us what is sinful. The people who obey most perfectly their consciences are clearly those who have none; people with delicate conscience are constantly disobeying it. Thus it comes about that saints think of themselves as sinners whereas crooks think of themselves as saints. This we know from our own experience. Have you ever met a rogue who is not self-satisfied or a noble character who is?

If sin has little to do with our conscience, it has even less to do with the feeling of shame. We may be delighted at getting away with a thumping lie and thoroughly ashamed at being incorrectly dressed. We may feel no shame at stealing an article from a self-service store but overwhelmed with it when we are caught. Besides, shame is not equally attached to all sins. Nobody feels ashamed at not saying his prayers but may be desperately so for a sexual act done scarcely deliberately and with doubtful consent.

Then again, sin is an offence against God. It must not be confused with crime, which is an offence against the State or community. Crime and sin may coincide, as is the case in certain forms of murder, but not always. Thus the State encourages and pays for abortion, the murder of the totally innocent and totally defenceless: the most sinful form of murder is counted a social virtue. Adultery is a sin but not a crime. On the other hand, avoiding certain forms of taxation, notably death duties, may be a crime but is not a sin. You can get into endless trouble for breaking a traffic regulation without any spot on your soul. This is more important than it seems for two reasons. Firstly, Catholics can be tempted to fall in with the standards of the society around them. They may be led to believe that what is not a crime cannot be a very grave sin. Oh yes it can! Secondly, some Catholics today seem to imagine that sin is an offence against the community. It is true that we act wrongly rather often against our neighbour, but our neighbour is a person, not a community, and the sinfulness of the action comes about because it offends God. Moreover such grave sins as the hatred of God, internal pride and envy may not affect the community in any way. In fact, Catholics must maintain at all costs the supremacy and independence of God’s moral law as against the penal law of the State and the conventions of the community.

So much for the nature of sin.


Since all human beings realize that they are imperfect and all good ones know they sin, what can they do about it? The situation of upright, holy people outside the Church is very sad: they know they sin and are too honest to imagine that they can forgive themselves. No matter how hopefully they may trust in God’s mercy, they are obliged to carry the burden of their sins around with them for as long as they live. I have often wondered if this is not why some of the finest non-Catholics I have met tended to be rather sad and serious. Anyway, beyond a doubt, it is to have the certainty of forgiveness that a number of splendid converts have come into the Church.

But the majority of human beings are not as heroic as all that. So what do they do? They can deny that sin exists, with what dire consequences we know only too well. They can attempt to bury their sins by forgetting them; but it does not always work. The overwhelming majority simply justify themselves, as did our First Parents. You remember the account of the Fall and how Adam reacted when faced with the first sin: “The woman whom thou gavest me to be my companion, she it was who offered me fruit from the tree.” Eve likewise: “The serpent,” she said, “beguiled me.” It is exactly the same today, in spite of the vaunted change in the modern world. Clearly the easiest way to justify oneself is to blame somebody else. Adam had no choice: it was Eve’s fault. Eve at least had the decency not to accuse Adam and so start the first family row. You will notice, too, how Adam indirectly blames God: “the woman whom thou gavest me,” so it is really God’s fault. How typical! As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be.

Just think for a moment of the hundreds of millions of people around us. They are not all wicked by any means, yet all sin, and the overwhelming majority promptly justify themselves. It is a this point that the sublimity of our holy religion becomes manifest:

Instead of denying the existence of sin, we define it most carefully;
Instead of burying the memory of sin, we recall it to mind by examining our conscience;
Instead of justifying ourselves, we accuse ourselves;
Instead of carrying the burden of sin around with us, we have the certainty of forgiveness.

This is all so wonderful, so splendid and so unnatural that it is clearly divine.

Dearly beloved Brethren, we Catholics are no better than our neighbors, indeed we are often much worse, but we are different. In the whole wide world we are the only group of people who deliberately set out to accuse ourselves. It is neither an agreeable nor an easy process. We do it as best we can, which is usually rather badly. That does not matter. God clearly knows our sins infinitely better than we do and we do not pretend to supply Him with news. What He wants from us is the humility to attempt self-accusation. And it must be real, not just in our minds: that is why He demands that it be made with the representative of His Church, the priest, as judge and witness. If we have the humility to accuse ourselves, He will not accuse us at the Judgement. Yes, it is for humility that God searches our hearts and He will not look in vain in the hearts of those who confess, whereas the upright who do not are so often kept erect by pride.


Now, in the revolution through which the Church is passing there is a victim which has suffered even more than the Mass. It is Confession, the Sacrament of Penance. The revolution claims to be a “renewal.” From the dawn of history there have been renewals and revivals. All have had the same message in a thousand forms: “Repent and do penance! God may yet relent and forgive.” The present renewal is unique; instead of penance, permissiveness is preached, the Sacrament of Penance is neglected and the confessionals abandoned. When doom is threatening the Western world more surely than it did Ninevah in the days of Jonas, there is none to cry out “Repent and do penance! God may yet relent and forgive!”

This is an unmitigated disaster. Even in our diocese the decline in Easter confessions has far outstripped the fall in Mass attendance. Have you lost the notion of sin as an offence against God? Do you believe it to be a matter of your own conscience? Are you incapable of the humility needed for self-accusation? Do you imagine that you can forgive yourselves? No, probably not. You have merely allowed yourselves to be carried along by the revolutionary process. You have strayed like sheep without a shepherd. Alas! It is I, under Christ, who am your shepherd. Too late, perhaps, when my voice is feeble and the sheep beyond recall, too late I cry: “Repent and do penance! God may yet relent and forgive!”

Next Wednesday is Ash Wednesday. Easter Duties must be fulfilled between then and Trinity Sunday, June 5th. The obligation is to Holy Communion. But what about confession? Dare I admit that I am terrified of sacrilegious Communions? In this diocese I have seen large numbers of communicants in parishes where the priests assure me that confessions are few. I am forced to believe that your consciences are clear but is it because you have ceased to examine them? I wish to remind you that Our Lord is more concerned over His sacramental than His physical body. He prayed for those who crucified Him: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Of Judas He said: “It were better had he never been born.” And what had Judas done? hat they do.” Of Judas He said: “It were better had he never been born.” And what had Judas done? At the Last Supper he had received Communion unworthily: “The morsel once given, Satan entered unto him.” The difference is that Judas, unlike the soldiers but like us, knew what he was doing. Thus, the more frequent your Communions, the more frequent should be your confessions.

It is clear enough that one of the reasons for the sharp rise in the number of communicants is the abolition of the Eucharistic fast. There is now no barrier other than sin to receiving Our Lord. Hence there is automatic social pressure in favour of receiving. The person who does not either lacks piety or is in a state of sin. No such presumption was possible when there was the barrier of fasting: those who did not receive had merely broken their fast and those who received had prepared themselves by keeping it. In fact the abolition of the Eucharistic fast, especially for children and youths, can be the source of exerting unbearable pressure in favour of sacrilegious Communion. And the habit once contracted will not be easily broken. One is sometimes forced to wonder whether those who stay in their pews are not more devout than those who approach the altar. I think people would be well advised this Lent to make a private resolution to Our Lord to keep a three hour Eucharistic fast. It might help you and your children to resist the social pressure in favour of unworthy Communions.

Alas! The pressure had not only been social but also religious. If the Mass is a meal and not a sacrifice, there is no point in going unless you eat; and those who do turn up are expect to share the meal. No attention is paid to the terrible parable of the wedding feast in which the guest improperly prepared, without a wedding garment, is damned: “Bind him hand and foot and cast him out into the darkness where there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” However, our obligation is to attend the Sacrifice of God Incarnate in the Mass. Apart from Easter Duties, you are under no obligation to partake in any sacred meal.

Lent is now upon you. “Here is the time of pardon; here is the day of salvation.” Without the Sacrament of Penance your penances are worthless. Your sacrifices will be useless if offered with unclean hands. Your Communions will be sacrilegious without pure hearts. “Turn the whole bent of your hearts back to God. It is your hearts that must be torn asunder. Come back to Him for He is ever gracious and merciful, ever patient and rich in pardon.”

Repent and do penance! God may yet relent and forgive. Given at Stamford etc.

—Bryan Houghton, Mitre and Crook, 1979, pp. 151–156.