The fifth petition of the Lord's Prayer is remarkable as being the only one upon which our Lord afterwards comments. It is to the condition attached to the petition "Forgive us our trespasses," that He earnestly directs the attention of His disciples when first giving them this prayer. "For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; bat if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (S. Matt. vi. 14, 15). A like warning our Lord afterwards gave, under entirely different circumstances, when returning with His disciples from Bethany to Jerusalem on the Tuesday in Holy Week: "And when ye shall stand praying, forgive if ye have aught against any one: that your Father Who is in Heaven, may forgive you your trespasses. But if ye forgive not, neither will your Father, Who is in Heaven, forgive your trespasses" (S. Mark xi. 25, 26). We are to notice therefore, that our Lord Himself places the strongest kind of emphasis upon the conditional part of this petition.
If, as we assume, the Lord's Prayer does in the course of its seven petitions touch upon all the Sacraments of the Church, the Sacrament of Penance is clearly that to which this petition must be referred, and in this manner of viewing it, the condition upon which our Lord so strongly insists receives a special import, and emphasizes that side of the Sacrament which experience shows is easily allowed to fall into the background, or even to be forgotten altogether.
And here let us pause for a moment on the name by which this Sacrament is commonly known. If it were popularly called the Sacrament of Absolution we might attribute partly to the name any tendency to dwell over much on the purely sacerdotal side of the Sacrament, at the expense of that side which especially concerns the part the penitent has to perform. Such a name might perhaps justly be thought to savour of the "Sacerdotalism," which, in theory at least, is by some so much dreaded. But the name by which this Sacrament is known in Western Christendom is not Absolution, but Penance. We may claim the authority of our own standards for this, for Article xxv., in speaking of the five lesser Sacraments, names Penance along with Confirmation, Orders and the rest, and Penance, whatever may be said about Absolution, concerns no one in the world so much as the person who has to perform it. It is the part in the Sacrament with which the Priest has least, and the penitent most to do.
Whatever difficulty there may be in bringing people to a right appreciation of this Sacrament, the difficulty is not at all in the matter of Absolution. In spite of all the apparent dread of sacerdotalism it is astonishing to what lengths many are willing to go in attributing power to the mere words of Absolution, a power which they evidently regard as so great that it quite dispenses with the necessity of satisfaction, penance or even of confession.
The wildest exaggeration of the Priestly Authority has never yet surpassed the sacerdotalism of the revivalist who takes it upon himself "to declare and pronounce" over a multitude of people a conditional Absolution, to take effect in each individual the moment any one chooses to apply it to himself. He makes himself responsible for the declaration not only of Absolution, but of salvation (which includes Absolution as the whole includes the part) and that without a moment's regard to the conditions of penance, satisfaction or amendment of life.
Yet the extent to which even such Absolution as this is accepted, is witnessed by the numbers who fulfil the solitary penance of applying it to themselves.
Now in this petition, "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us," we seem to have an analogy between Divine forgiveness, and man's forgiveness of man. It not only makes our forgiveness of others the very condition on which we dare ask God's forgiveness of our trespasses, but it constitutes the usual and necessary process of reconciliation between man and man, as the rale whereby we are to seek reconciliation with God.
Let us examine this analogy and see what light it throws on the Sacrament of Penance.
First, then, we understand by forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration to the favor of him who is offended. We pray, "Forgive us our trespasses," because whereas our sins have separated between us and God, we hope through Christ to be reconciled, and brought near to Him again by penitence. Thus S. Paul says, "God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them" (2 Cor. v. 19).
We pray that God will forgive our trespasses in like manner as we forgive those who trespass against us. In what manner then do we forgive those who have injured us? What is the process by which reconciliation is made? To begin with, it must be a two-sided process. There may be on one side the utmost willingness to forgive, and yet through want of co-operation on the part of him who has offended us, an utter impossibility of forgiveness beyond the mere sentiment in our own heart. Some one, to whom I have freely given my confidence and love, has violated my confidence or abused my friendship. Now, if 1 am Christian enough, I say the Lord's Prayer and forgive him at once, as far as lies in my power to do this. I pray for him; I put away every feeling of resentment toward him, and keep my heart open for his return. Suppose, however, he does not care to approach me even when I have made such approach as easy for him as I can, it is clear that even with the most perfect disposition to forgive on my part, there can be in such a case no reconciliation. Together with my readiness or even longing to forgive, certain acts on his part are absolutely necessary to his receiving forgiveness, and that not merely because such acts are due to me, but because they are morally indispensable to himself, if he would accept the love I have to offer.
What are these acts? We may reckon them as three. First, there must be, in some form or other, a token of regret for the injury offered. Secondly, such regret ought to be accompanied by an acknowledgment of the full extent of the injury that has been done. Thirdly, there must be a willingness to correct the injury, as far as lies in his power. When these conditions have been fulfilled, my disposition to forgive no longer remains as a mere sentiment in my own bosom, but it passes forth to meet in my friend the disposition to receive it, and our reconciliation is effected.
Now if we apply this analogy to our relations with God, we see that it exactly covers the teaching of the Church in regard to Penance.
Penance is by no means such a sacerdotal performance as is sometimes, perhaps even generally, imagined. The Priest certainly has his part in it.
He has indeed authority and power to declare and pronounce to God's people, "being penitent, the absolution and remission of their sins," but he can do nothing unless they are penitent. In his office he represents God; he acts for God. "We are," says S. Paul, "Ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us. We pray you in Christ's stead be ye reconciled to God" (2 Cor. v. 20). It is comparatively a simple thing for the Priest as the minister of Penance to sit in his confessional or in the Church, and receive those who come before him, but Penance is a work, and the work (by the grace of God) must be done by the penitent and not by the Priest. The Priest's part is simply to see that the work is done, or at least seriously begun, and by Christ's authority to give Absolution where he is morally certain there is the right disposition to receive it.
In the Sacrament of Penance then three persons are concerned: Our Lord Himself, the Priest who represents Him, and the penitent, who seeks reconciliation. The meritorious work is all Christ's, the appropriating work is the penitent's, and the Priest, while he acts as the mouth-piece of Christ, is chiefly concerned in judging whether the penitent is laying hold upon the merits of Christ by a real repentance, before he pronounces, by the authority of Christ, the sentence of his absolution.
Next to the fact that in pronouncing absolution her Priests really do act by the Divine Authority which they claim, the mind of the Church as regards this authority, is seen in the care with which she limits and guards its exercise. Knowing the treasure in her keeping she is careful not to waste it, or to dishonour it by casting it before swine. The whole history of her penitential discipline is nothing else but the recital of the rules and safeguards with which, from time to time, she has hedged about this authority and guarded against its abuse. She will take heed to assure herself that those who pray "Forgive us our trespasses" are sincere in their repentance, before she says in her Master's Name: "Absolvo te." But how is she to judge this disposition? The answer is, She judges by applying as tests those same requirements upon which as men we insist, as we forgive those who trespass against us. We require as tokens of regret for the wrong, some worthy acknowledgment and the willingness at least to make reparation for the injury. The Church requires the same and no more. Regret she calls Contrition; acknowledgment with her is Confession; and reparation she knows as Satisfaction. She recognizes a real and a true Contrition as of itself sufficient to insure direct forgiveness from God; but she judges of Contrition by its usual manifestation in Confession and the declared intention to make Satisfaction, and ordinarily makes her formal sentence of reconciliation conditional upon these reasonable tokens of sorrow.
As we are wont sometimes in our private prayers, to pause at this petition until we have laid aside the feeling of resentment which forbids us to say it, so we should do well while we pray, "Forgive us our trespasses," to examine ourselves whether we have done what we could to "bring forth fruits meet for repentance;" and in Contrition, Confession and Satisfaction, to offer to God what we require of "those who trespass against us."