Saturday, June 16, 2012

Making "reparation" for our sins?

When a non-Catholic Christian hears that Catholics believe in making acts and offering prayers in reparation for our sins and those of others, it sounds like we don't believe that Jesus' sacrifice was sufficient to atone for all sin.  That would certainly be a problem . . . if that's what we were saying.  But it isn't. 

Jesus received baptism, a baptism of repentance, as our representative.  He redeemed us by giving the Father the loving obedience we had denied him.  In the desert, he withstood temptations to which Adam and Israel had succumbed.  Jesus lived his identity as Son even when it meant being scourged, crowned with thorns, nailed to a tree, and pierced with a spear.  By saying “yes,” and enduring it all in obedience to God’s will, Jesus redeemed the “no” of our sins.  Let me be absolutely clear: the eternal punishment of sin, the separation from God that we call hell, was atoned for – totally, completely, even superabundantly – by the sacrifice of Jesus.  Having said that we Catholics also believe that, joined to Jesus, we are called to offer satisfaction, or reparation, both for our individual sins as well as other members of the Mystical Body.   I’ll do my best to explain why this is.

From time to time you hear of  a “jail house conversion.”  Someone was baptized in infancy but received no real formation in the Faith, and went from one bad decision in life to another.  He finally murdered someone and was jailed.  While in jail he experiences a profound conversion.  He understands that he has done something incredibly evil and vows to live a new life.  The visiting priest hears his confession and gives him absolution.  The convict’s sins are really and truly forgiven.  Jesus’ sacrificial death (pure love) atoned for the act of murder (hate) and reconciles the prisoner’s soul to God, saving him from hell.  Since the prisoner has been forgiven in this way, shouldn’t he be released?  Something tells me I’m not the only one out there saying “no.”

We understand that even though the eternal punishment of his sins have been atoned for by Jesus’ death and that heaven now stands open to the man, there is still an earthly penalty to be paid here in time and space.  It’s called the temporal punishment of sin; and it’s not just the state requiring this of the man, but God. 

 Analogously, this is why the Church insists that even though we’ve been absolved of our sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we need to perform an act of penance.  Penance is a concrete act meant both to repair, or when that is impossible, to make amends for, the harm we have done as well as to get us walking in the right direction again.  (You no doubt remember how Peter, who denied the Lord three times; was asked by the Risen Jesus to reaffirm his love three times.)  

Note, the Church says this to baptized Christians, members of Christ’s Mystical Body.  A state board of corrections will not recognize it, but the Church understands that Baptism wipes away eternal punishment, as well as all temporal punishment earned prior to Baptism.   The baptized soul has been regenerated by grace and made a child of God.  As a “newborn” it is completely free of all punishment!    

But when a Christian sins after Baptism, when she act out of selfishness instead of love, then her loving Father disciplines her. “Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required” (Luke 12:48).  Don’t’ be discouraged by this. “My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, or lose heart when you are punished by him . . . God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline?” (Heb.12:5,7).  And you’re not going through this discipline by yourself – you’re filled with the strength of Christ (Phil. 4:13).  Jesus’ love of the Father is so superabundant that it erupts into acts of love in our own lives, acts that make satisfaction for our sins.  “I am the vine, you are the branches.  Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit” (John 15:5).  The branches produce fruit because of the sap they receive from the vine, and we produce acts of love because of the Holy Spirit we receive from Jesus.

We also can’t forget that the Christian life isn’t just “me and Jesus.”  He isn’t at work just in us, but in the whole communion of saints!  In the Body of Christ, “if one member suffers, all suffer together with it” (1 Cor.12:26).  That is why St. Paul went on to say, “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Colossians 1:24). United to Jesus and empowered by his grace, Paul made reparation for the sins – the failures to love – of other members of the Body.  

We can consciously choose to enter into this great act of making reparation.  We intentionally ask Jesus to fill us with strength and allow us to express his love for the Father, in reparation both for our failings and those of his whole Body.  We can perform the spiritual and corporal works of mercy.  Perhaps we tighten our belts, literally through fasting or figuratively by almsgiving.[1] Like St. Paul we embrace and offer up the frustrations and sufferings God allows to come our way.  Reparation can be performing a kind act, additional Mass attendance during the week, or asking the Lord to forgive another person’s sins.[2]  Any element of the Divine Mercy is an incredible prayer of reparation!  All of this spring from the same love, the same Holy Spirit, that Jesus poured forth on the Cross. 

Almost everyone has heard the story of Fatima, how the Blessed Mother appeared to three shepherd children in Portugal during World War I.  Europe was experiencing the natural result, or the “temporal punishment,” of abandoning its love of God and neighbor.  Mary came to request a return to the Gospel and reparation for sin through the praying of the Rosary and acts of penance.  What many are unaware of was how the children were prepared for Mary’s visitation, over a year before, through the appearance of an angel and the prayer he taught them.   Prostrating themselves with their foreheads to the ground, he instructed them to pray three times, “My God, I believe, I adore, I hope, and I love you!  I ask pardon of you for those who do not believe, not adore, do not hope, and do not love you.”  

 Pope Pius XI, who became pope shortly after the events at Fatima, made a profound connection between our prayers and acts of reparation and Jesus’ Passion.  In his encyclical On Reparation to the Sacred Heart, he speculated that the angel who “strengthened” Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane did so by crossing time and space to bring him our acts of reparation!

[1] As water extinguishes a blazing fire, so almsgiving atones for sin” (Sirach 3:30).
[2] If you see your brother or sister committing what is not a mortal sin, you will ask, and God will give life to such a one—to those whose sin is not mortal” (1 John 5:16)


  1. Beautiful!

    We need to be co laborers with Christ and sacrifice for souls...
    God bless you!

  2. Truly a blessing to come across your article. Thank you for your explanation of reparation for our sins.
    Beautifully written !
    God bless you

  3. Hi Shane! I'm so glad to have found your site - it's wonderful to find a 'garden variety' Catholic dad who loves to live his faith in such an exciting way.

    Just wanted to say a huge THANK YOU for making this available- it's so simple and straightforward that I can immediately use it to help others understand, unlike most of the too-theological or heavy (or not 100% Catholic) information out there. I love the encyclicals but I could never use them directly in a talk because they require study and one needs to extract the relevant paragraphs. This page was just spot on to help me in a class. Thanks again, and God bless!

  4. What does St. Paul mean when he says "what is lacking in Christ's afflictions"?

  5. I think Trent Horn summarizes this quite nicely, so I'll quote from p. 150 of his "Why We're Catholic":
    "In Colossians 1:24 Paul said he made up in his suffering what is lacking in Christ's afflictions.' Since Christ's sacrifice is perfect, what Paul means is what is lacking is *our* sacrifice. God wants all of our sacrifices in this life to be united to Christ so that, as a family, we can help one another be full of grace and free from the effects of sin. That's why St. Paul says if we are children of God then we are both heirs of God, 'and fellow heirs with Christ, *provided we suffer with him* in order that we may also be glorified with him' (Rom. 8:17)."

    I thought you might enjoy this older post on redemptive suffering, too: