SACRAMENT MATTERS: Saying, “I’m Sorry”

Dr Christine Wood, Director of the Office of Evangelisation & Catechesis

Catholic belief in the burden of sin, and the need for repentance and sacramental absolution before departing this world, is borne out in Church history.

The royal executioner of France during the French Revolution, Charles-Henri Sanson, tells the story of Queen Marie Antoinette’s execution. Once condemned, the Queen took her place in the cart destined for the gallows. When the cart passed Palais Egalité she began to display uneasiness. Looking at the various houses with more than commonplace curiosity, her eyes fell upon one particular dwelling, whereupon she bowed her head and prayed. Afterwards, she breathed more freely, and a smile came to her lips.

What was going on here? The executioner recounts that he later discovered that the Queen had made a prior arrangement with a proscribed ecclesiastic, who had promised to be in a house of the Rue St Honoré on the day of her execution. From a window there he would administer to her sacramental absolution in extremis.

No matter what we think of the French Royal family at that time, the Catholic Marie Antionette was acutely aware that she must rid herself of the burden of sin before death as she would soon stand before divine judgement. She received God’s mercy in sacramental absolution, which both strengthened her to face the gallows and prepared her to meet God.

Serious sins, called mortal sins, separate us from God, and if we die without repentance we will not be saved. Every sin, big or small, bears a weight of temporal punishment, which must be endured before entry into everlasting life. Undergoing temporal punishment sets the world and our hearts right again.

In the Sacrament of Penance we encounter God’s mercy through the forgiveness of our sins. The guilt of sin is removed and we are reconciled with our heavenly Father. The priest also gives the penitent some form of penance for their sins to deal with the temporal punishment due to sin. 

This is good psychology. How often do we offend family members or friends, yet shy away from apologising? We are embarrassed, ashamed, or afraid of the consequences. What if the apology isn’t accepted? Families where “I’m sorry” is never spoken are dysfunctional. Likewise, “I’m sorry” must also be backed up with actions for we manifest contrition through acts of love. This sets things right again. 

The Sacrament of Reconciliation, with the accompanying penance, sets things right again. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were long lines of penitents at the confessional each week? Think of the change that would take place in our families, workplaces, and society.

Tags: Evangelisation and Catechesis