If you were to survey 1,000 Catholics and ask them, “What was the central dictate given by Christ in His preaching” you would probably discover a wide array of answers.
Some might say, “Love one another.” Others may assert, “Come, and follow me.” Some may submit, “Love your enemies and do good to those you persecute you.” While it is true that Jesus did say all of the aforementioned things, the central dictate in His preaching was simply, “Repent and believe in the gospel.” And yet, this is among the most overlooked and ignored directives issued by Our Lord. We may ask, “Why?”
The answer may lie in the fact that many people neither recognize their personal sinfulness nor their need for repentance. While we may conjecture that most people may admit of their need for deeper faith (i.e., belief in the gospel), the idea of repentance is less attractive.
After all, popular psychology books warn us sternly not to focus on such “negative” issues as sin for fear that such thoughts may lower our self-esteem or cause us to wallow in misery. The Catholic understanding, meanwhile, is dramatically different. Catholics understand sin in terms of the meritorious redemption of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection.
Sin is never understood in isolation. Rather, sin is always placed subordinate to what Jesus accomplished for us at Calvary, since sin and death were vanquished by Our Lord.
And yet, it is not enough to recognize what Jesus accomplished through His passion, death and resurrection. We must participate in its merits by the lives we lead. It is not enough to make claims on the merits of Jesus, without any conversion and repentance on our part. Repentance is always preceded by an acknowledgement of sinfulness and this acknowledgement is always preceded by the virtue of humility to recognize that we are in need of God’s mercy.
The inability to perceive these aforementioned elements may be one of the most serious spiritual malaises plaguing believers today. Pride, the rationalization of one’s sins, infrequent sacramental confession and the lack of a daily examination of conscience only exacerbate a very serious spiritual problem.
Repentance forces the penitent to engage the reality of who he is and who he has become in light of God’s perfection. The admission of guilt is never easy for anyone but it is among the most liberating experiences imaginable. After all, it is not as if God doesn’t already know our sins.
We never fool our omniscient Creator. Repentance seeks to free us from the bondage of pride and the facades we build to convince ourselves that we do not offend God by our sinfulness. Rather than lead us to despair or despondency, repentance frees us to receive God’s graces and to engage the reality of our lives. When we are less full of ourselves and more filled with His light and truth, we begin to experience the freedom and glory of living as God’s children. This is what Jesus desires for each of us. May the spirit of repentance free us to love God as we ought.