English Catholics are by now familiar with the new translation of the first form of the penitential rite, restoring the three-fold culpa from the original Latin, “through my fault, my fault, my most grievous fault.” Our sins are most definitely our fault, not God’s. But the wounds that contribute to our sins are not all our fault; in fact, some other people are directly responsible, even though we choose to forgive them.
Sadly, it seems there is widespread misunderstanding about what exactly is our fault and what is not our fault. Clarification is a necessary pastoral issue, lest the liturgy be an occasion for promoting a false sense of guilt and added burdens among the faithful. Is our repentance a reaction to the Accuser whispering in our ears, so that like shame-faced and guilt-ridden whipping boys we despise ourselves, or are we gathered to adore and glorify the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world?
In the most powerful and moving scene in the film “Good Will Hunting,” therapist Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) speaks firmly and compassionately to his client Will Hunting (Matt Damon) who had suffered terrible physical abuse as a child. “It’s not your fault,” he tells him. Will immediately dismisses him, “Yeah, I know that.” Maguire repeats, “Look at me, son. It’s not your fault.” “Yeah, I know.” Maguire walks closer while calmly and slowly repeating seven, eight, nine times until the truth sinks in, “It’s not your fault,” and Will finally bursts into tears, relieving years of repressed guilt.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Quite apart from our own personal sins, whenever we are tempted by shame and false guilt, we need to hear it again and again, and repeat it unceasingly to ourselves until the truth liberates us, “It’s not your fault.” If any of us suffered abuse in our past, if any of us were abandoned or neglected, exploited or manipulated, we need to hear again and again, “It’s not your fault.”
Of course we want to forgive those who have hurt us, as Christ has commanded us. But on the journey toward full forgiveness, it is a psychological imperative to name the responsibility of the abuser, making it very clear to ourselves that we are NOT to blame for being abandoned or abused. There is no guilt for something that is not our fault. Let us not become scapegoats, absorbing other people’s sins, taking their guilt, shame and blame upon ourselves. Let us also pray for prudence and discernment, so that, in our healthy externalization of wrongful blame, we do not accuse God. We must continually renounce the lie that God is in any way to blame for our suffering or our sins.
So what exactly is my fault? My sins. But what does that mean precisely? It is not my fault that I was abused, but it is my fault that I have held on to hatred. It is not my fault that I was born into a fallen world alienated from God, with my wounded human nature, but it is my fault that I so willingly believe the lies of the Accuser about God—that he does not love me, that he is angry with me, that he is the cause of the evil in my life, and so on. It is my fault that I close and harden my heart, that I choose pride and power over love and forgiveness.
Admittedly, we are dealing with a deep mystery here, of how the external power of evil can wound us through other people’s sins, for instance, the neglect or abuse of parents toward children. But the more grievous wound is our assent to the power of sin lurking behind the evil. St. Paul wrote that Christ became sin for us—the power of sin wounded his Body but did not enter his Heart. We are different. In some inscrutable manner, we consent to this power of sin; we identify with it; we believe its lies and adopt its agenda; we give in to self-righteousness, fear, anger, hatred, impurity, and so on.
At the same time that we renounce being a victim for other people’s guilt and blame, we must also take responsibility for our own sins—not to shame ourselves, but to stand up for our dignity as beloved sons and daughters, to dis-identify with the lie that sin is an unavoidable part of our essential nature. We summon the courage to separate sin out of ourselves, as if we were rending our garments to remove a layer of soiled and ruined clothing, or performing surgery on our hearts to cut out the cancer by beating our breasts three times. “I renounce this sin! I do not want it! It’s not me!” We do our part to push the power of sin away from ourselves. But we know that the weight is beyond us. We cannot lift this burden from our shoulders, and we cannot save ourselves. For this reason in the liturgy, we not only beat our breast three times, but also, three times we call upon the Lamb of God to take away our sins and the sins of the world.
“Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father,” Jesus assures us in the Gospel of John. How does Christ bring us to repentance? He knows that if he were to accuse or condemn us, yelling at us, “It’s your fault!” we might act with anger, hostility, self-defense and denial. Accordingly, Christ does not blame or shame us into conversion. He is meek and humble of heart. With the Holy Spirit, Christ is also our Advocate who silences the Accuser, as he pleads our case before the Father, living forever to make intercession for us. He knows that for us to love, we must first be loved. For us to forgive, we must believe in the offer of forgiveness that is always extended to us, constantly holding on to the hope of receiving mercy as many times as we repent.
It is at the foot of the Cross that we come full circle in our interior journey. First, it is not our fault we were wounded. We kneel and look up in silent adoration at Christ, gasping in agony, covered in blood. God is not to blame for our suffering.
There he is suffering and dying, for no sin of his own, but for our most grievous faults.
Other people are often responsible, but we can learn to forgive them. We may want to picture our parents kneeling beside us, or anyone else who may have hurt us in this life. The blood is sprinkled on them as well as us, speaking more eloquently than the blood of Abel, imploring mercy, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” Before a love that is so humanly incomprehensible and intellectually inexplicable, blame dissolves into forgiveness, and our human sense of justice surrenders to the mercy of God.
Perhaps it is only possible to admit true guilt once we have experienced enough love to renounce false guilt. It may be necessary for us first to clarify what is not our fault so we can honestly admit our grievous fault. As we receive the love and mercy made visible by the blood and water pouring out of the broken Heart of Christ, through joyful tears of repentance, we can say “I am so sorry for not believing in your love for me, for not loving you, myself and others. I am sorry for my sins, through my most grievous fault.”
It is interesting to note at Mass that the Confiteor of the Penitential Rite is echoed by the Confiteor of the Nicene Creed. “I confess … that I have greatly sinned,” and “I confess one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” The first “confession” is an admission of guilt; the second “confession” is actually a profession of faith in God who forgives our sins. So let us make amends for our sins, by all means. But let us also amend our misunderstanding of “my most grievous fault,” so that in confessing our sins, rather than fall into false guilt, we may rejoice in professing the tender mercy of our God.
Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “The Penitent Mary Magdalene” painted by Caravaggio in 1594.