Photo: Felix Carroll
By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Mar 22, 2010)
In St. Faustina's Diary, she recorded a message from Jesus about the extraordinary graces He wants to pour out upon souls through the devout reception of Holy Communion on Divine Mercy Sunday. Jesus says, "The soul that will go to confession and receive Holy Communion [on that day] shall obtain complete forgiveness [or remission] of sins and punishment" (699).
One of our readers, a Mr. Bradley, asked me precisely what this promise from Jesus really means. Believe me, Mr. Bradley, you are not alone. This is one of the most frequently asked questions in my e-mail letter-box!
First, a couple of clarifications. I will use the old translation of "remission" of sins and punishment rather than "forgiveness," just because people have very funny ideas about what forgiveness means these days, and that can further complicate an already difficult subject.
Second, when we talk about "the remission of sins and punishment," we are speaking about two very different aspects of reconciliation with God.
Remission of "punishment" obviously refers to the judicial aspect: God pardons us of the debt we owe to His divine justice for our sins. We offended Him, wronged Him, and He has a right to expect compensation, restitution or reparation of some kind from us, but on the basis of the merits of the life, agony and passion of His divine Son, Jesus Christ, when we repent of our sins, He remits what we owe to Him, "wipes the slate clean," and pardons us.
Remission of "sins," on the other hand, refers to the more relational aspect of reconciliation. "Sins" are remitted when God restores to us His friendship, pouring His Holy Spirit into our hearts, filling our hearts with sanctifying grace, which includes the virtues of faith, hope, and love.
God remits all sins and punishment whenever, by the help of His grace, we attain "perfect contrition" (in other words, repentance for sin out of pure love of God) — which, for most of us, is exceptionally rare! The trouble is that most of us are contrite for our sins for "mixed" reasons (love of God, but also fear of punishment, disgust at ourselves, social embarrassment, etc.), in which case, in response to such "imperfect contrition," God remits the "eternal punishment" for our mortal sins (in other words, He will not consign us to hell), but "temporal punishment" for them remains (in other words, we are still in a state of partial moral debt to Him because we have not fully repented of those sins).
With the help of His grace, and in union with Christ, the temporal punishment still due for our sins can be remitted in a number of ways: by prayer, penance, good works, etc., acts that are medicinal to our souls, helping us attain a purer love of God.
Only "mortal" (grave) sins deserve "eternal" punishment. While we might have confessed and had our mortal sins remitted (in other words, His grace restored to our souls, and the eternal punishment of them pardoned), nevertheless, there may still be a debt of "temporal" punishment due for them, because of our imperfect contrition for these grave sins. Moreover, we may, at times, have unconfessed or unacknowledged "venial" sins on our conscience: smaller sins that still call for temporal punishment, and that weaken our ability to cooperate with the grace He pours into our hearts when He remits our mortal sins. An imperfect contrition for venial sins, whether they have been confessed or not, does not remit all temporal punishment due for them either.
When we go to Holy Communion on Divine Mercy Sunday, therefore, the extent to which we still need "the complete forgiveness (remission) of sins and punishment," as promised by our Lord, will vary a great deal from person to person, and will obviously depend upon the state of the soul at the time of Communion. At the very least, we must have confessed and had remitted all mortal sins, and the eternal punishment due to them (in other words, we must be in a "state of grace") to receive the Communion of Mercy Sunday. That is why the requirement of making a sacramental Confession precedes that of reception of Communion on Mercy Sunday.
But for most of us (since our contrition for these mortal sins is still imperfect), we still need the remission of the temporal punishment due to our mortal sins. Again, there are our smaller, venial sins. The ones we have not confessed or acknowledged still need to be pardoned of the temporal punishment that is their due, grace to combat them still needs to be strengthened in our hearts, and the temporal punishment for any venial sins that we have already admitted to ourselves, and confessed, but for which we never attained more than imperfect contrition, still needs to be remitted.
For most of us, therefore, there is still a lot of "remitting" that needs to be done on Mercy Sunday! God wants our friendship with Him to be completely renewed and restored. Out of His merciful love for us, therefore, He has provided for us a special way to do that on Mercy Sunday, a way that enables Him to apply to our souls all the medicines that we need (remitting for us all our remaining sins and all the remaining punishment due for our sins), so that he can make us the saints that He longs for us to be!
Of course, when we come to Holy Communion on Mercy Sunday, if we are already, by His grace, in a state of perfect contrition for all of our sins, both venial and mortal, then there is no more "remission" needed, and He will simply pour an even greater abundance of grace into our hearts, for there is no end or limit to His merciful love for us!
Mr. Bradley, I hope this fully answers your question about the complete forgiveness (remission) of sins and punishment available to all on the Feast of The Divine Mercy. Of course, you do not have to think about all these things on that wonderful day — just receive Him in a state of repentance and trust in His Mercy, and He will take care of all of these theological details!
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press). Got a question? E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.