Pope's Q-and-A Session With Roman Clergy, Part 5

On the Reality of Sin and the Sacrament of Penance

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VATICAN CITY, FEB. 15, 2008 (Zenit.org).- Following a Lenten tradition, Benedict XVI met Feb. 7 with parish priests and clergy of the Diocese of Rome. During the meeting, the participants asked the Pope questions. Here is a translation of the fifth question and the Holy Father's answer.



ZENIT began this series of questions-and-answers Monday.

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Father Pietro Riggi, Salesian of Borgo Ragazzi Don Bosco:

Holy Father, I work in an oratory and in a center for minors who are at risk. I want to ask you: On March 25, 2007 you gave an informal speech, lamenting that today the “Last Things” are little spoken of. […] Without these essential parts of the Creed, does it not seem to you that the logical system that brings us to see Christ’s redemption crumbles? Without sin, not speaking of hell, Christ’s redemption is diminished too. Does it not seem to you that with the loss of the sense of sin the salvific, sacramental figure itself of the priest, who has the power to absolve and celebrate in the name of Christ, is also lost?

Today, unfortunately, we priests as well, when the Gospel speaks of hell, we avoid the Gospel itself. It is not spoken of. Or we do not know how to talk about paradise. We do not know how to talk about eternal life. We risk giving the faith a dimension that is only horizontal or rather detached, the horizontal from the vertical. And this is beginning to disappear unfortunately from the catechesis for the kids, but also from the parishes, in the foundational structures. […]

I also wanted to point out that the Virgin Mary was not afraid to speak to the children of Fatima, who, incidentally, were of catechism age: 7, 9 and 12. And we so many times instead leave this out. Can you tell us something more about this?

Benedict XVI:

You rightly spoke of fundamental themes of the faith, which unfortunately rarely appear in our preaching. In the encyclical “Spe Salvi” I wanted to speak indeed also of the last judgment, of judgment in general, and in this context of purgatory, hell and paradise as well. I think that we are all still struck by the Marxist objection, according to which the Christians spoke only about the beyond and neglected this world. So, we want to show that we are really working for this world and we are not people who talk about distant realities that do not help this world. Now, although it is right to show that Christians work for this world -- and we are all called to work to truly make this world a city for God and of God -- we must not forget the other dimension. If we do not take it into account, we do not work well for this world.

Showing this was one of the fundamental purposes for me writing the encyclical. When one does not know God’s judgment, one does not know the possibility of hell, of radical and definitive failure of life, one does not know the possibility and the necessity of purification. Then man does not work well for the world because in the end he loses the criteria, he no longer knows himself, not knowing God, and he destroys the world. All of the great ideologies promised: We will take things in hand, we will no longer neglect the world, we will create a new, just, correct, fraternal world. Instead they destroyed the world. We see it with Nazism, we it also with communism -- they promised to construct the world as it should have been, and instead, they destroyed the world.

In the "ad limina" visits of the bishops from ex-communist countries I always see how in those lands not only the planet, ecology, was destroyed, but above all, and worse, souls. Rediscovering the truly human conscience, illumined by the presence of God, is the first task in rebuilding the earth. This is the common experience of those countries. The rebuilding of the earth, respecting the cry of suffering of this planet, can only happen by rediscovering God in the soul, with eyes open to God.

So, you are right: We must speak of all this out of responsibility for the world, for the men who live today. We must also speak precisely of sin as the possibility of destroying ourselves and so also of other parts of the earth. In the encyclical I tried to show that indeed the last judgment of God guarantees justice. We all want a just world. But we cannot repair all of the destruction of the past, all the people who were unjustly tormented and killed. Only God himself can create justice, which must be justice for all, for the dead too. And as Adorno, a great Marxist, says, only the resurrection of the flesh -- which he holds to be an illusion -- could create justice. We believe in this resurrection of the flesh, in which not all will be equal.

Today we are used to thinking: What is sin? God is great, he knows us, so sin will not count, in the end God will be good to all. It is a beautiful hope. But there is justice and there is true guilt. Those who have destroyed man and the earth cannot immediately sit at table with God together with their victims. God creates justice. We must keep this in mind. For this reason it seemed important to me also to write this text on purgatory, which for me is such an obvious truth, so evident and also so necessary and consoling that it cannot be left out.

I tried to say: Perhaps there are not many who are destroyed in this way, who are forever incurable, who have no element on which God’s love can rest, who do not have a minimal capacity to love in them. This would be hell. On the other hand, there are certainly few -- or, in any case, not many -- who are so pure that they can immediately enter into communion with God. Many of us hope that there is something that can be healed in us, that there is a final will to serve God and serve men, to live according to God. But there are many, many wounds, much filth. We need to be prepared, to be purified. This is our hope: Even with such filth in our souls, in the end the Lord gives us the possibility, he finally cleanses us with his goodness that comes from his cross. In this way he makes us capable of living eternally for him.

Thus, paradise is hope, it is justice finally realized. And it also gives us the criteria for living, so that this time can be paradise in some way, a first light of paradise. Where men live according to these criteria, a little bit of paradise appears in this world, and this is visible. It also seems to me a demonstration of the truth of the faith, of the necessity of following the road of the commandments, which we must talk about more. These are truly road signs and they show us how to live well, how to choose life. For this reason we must also speak of sin and of the sacrament of forgiveness and reconciliation. A man who is sincere knows that he is guilty, that he must begin again, that he must be purified. And this is the marvelous reality that the Lord gives us: There is a possibility of renewal, of being new. The Lord begins with us again and in this way we also can begin again with the others in our life.

This aspect of renewal, of restitution of our being after so many mistakes, after so many sins, is the great promise, the great gift that the Church offers, and what, for example, psychotherapy cannot offer. Psychotherapy is so widespread today and it is also necessary in the face of so many destroyed and gravely wounded psyches. But psychotherapy’s possibilities are very limited: It can only try a little to re-establish balance in an unbalanced soul. But it cannot give a true renewal, an overcoming of these grave maladies of the soul. And for this reason it always remains provisional and never definitive.

The sacrament of penance gives us the occasion to renew ourselves completely with the power of God -- “Ego te absolvo” -- which is possible because Christ took these sins, these faults upon himself. It seems that today indeed this is a great necessity. We can be healed again. Souls that are wounded and sick -- as is the experience of all -- need not only advice but true renewal, which can come only from the power of God, the power of crucified love. It seems to me that this is the great nexus of mysteries that are truly inscribed in our life. We ourselves must meditate on them again and in this way bring them again to our people.

[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]