Shepherd's Voice October 2021 - THE FIVE WAYS OF REPENTANCE


The Holy Father Pope Francis has announced the next Synod of Bishops to take place in October 2023, but the preparatory process will begin two years in advance. The Holy Father will inaugurate the synodal process on October 9-10, 2021 at St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome and every diocese of the world will follow suit on October 16-17, 2021.
The theme of the Synod is “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, and Mission”, in other words, ‘synodality’ itself is the theme. What is the etymology of ‘synodality’? It has a Greek background – a combination of syn (with) and odos (way), hence meaning ‘walking or journeying together’. The two-year preparatory process is to help us realize that, as a Church, our baptismal vocation is to ‘walk together’ as we pilgrimage towards our eternal homeland. This ‘walking together’, and not separately, is the unique mark of the Church of Christ as the Body of Christ called to “attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4: 13). And further on: “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Eph. 4: 15-16).
This great mystery of the body building itself up in love begins in the family which is the ‘domestic church’. Therefore, the foundation of ‘synodality’ is in the family, both nuclear and extended. From that foundation ‘communion, participation and mission’ flows to all the other levels of the Church – parish, diocese, institutions, religious institutes and Universal Church and to society at large. But synodality requires communion with God and obedience to God’s will as the indispensable element of relationship among human beings, otherwise it leads to disastrous consequences. The story of the sin of our first parents (cf. Genesis 3) demonstrates how synodality in opposition to God brought about disruption in the order established by God in creation and c onsequent suffering, pain, disharmony, violence and death which is the wages of sin (cf. Rom. 6:23). This is precisely what the devil wants to do with us – to lead us into a synodality that is false and opposed to God.
To return to true synodality as taught by Christ in his Gospel of salvation and which is the way of our discipleship, ‘repentance’ is the key. St. John Chrysostom (born at Antioch about the year 349 A.D. and died in 397 A.D.), the great teacher and Father of the Church who was known as the ‘John of the Golden Mouth’ and whose feast we celebrate on September 13, enumerates in one of his brilliant homilies the ‘Five Ways of Repentance’ (cf. Office of Readings, Tuesday of Week 21).
He admits there are many different roads which point in the same direction and which ultimately lead to heaven but these five are the ‘high roads to repentance’.
The first high road to repentance is the acknowledgement of our sins. When we acknowledge our sins, God will forgive us - in the words of the Psalmist, “I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’, then you forgave the guilt of my sin” (Ps. 32:5). Acknowledging our sins helps us to stop committing them. “First acknowledge your sins that you may be justified”, exhorts St. John Chrysostom. “Keep your conscience busy at home accusing you. Then you will not have to face a far different accuser in another place before the Lord’s tribunal”.
Probably the most difficult challenge for our broken and wounded ego is to admit our own culpability and say, ‘I was wrong’, ‘I made a mistake’, ‘It was my fault’, ‘I am responsible for my action’, ‘Forgive me for my mistake’. Instead, we defend and justify ourselves by blaming the other and running away from responsibility as it happened with our first parents. The childish habit of shoving the blame on the other - ‘I am right, the other is wrong’ - is the commonest way we live a lie and refuse to enter into the glorious new life Christ has won for us. We prefer darkness to light and definitely miss the joy of life. Result? We spread our joylessness to people around us, thus polluting our environment. Instead of bridges we build walls of hatred and suspicion which hamper growth in love, peace and communion.
Repentance demands tremendous humility, a veritable dying to oneself as Christ has asked of us (cf. Jn. 12: 24--25) , a ‘self-emptying’ like that of Christ himself (cf. Phil. 2:7-8) that can only come with the power and strength of the Holy Spirit.
The first is a ‘royal’ road to repentance but the second high road to repentance is no whit inferior to the first one, namely forgetting wrongs, controlling one’s temper, forgiving the trespasses of our fellow-human beings so that the Lord may forgive us our trespasses. This is the next way to expiate our sins. As the Lord says, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Mt. 6: 14-15).
St. Paul constantly reminds us of this high road: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other, as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these, put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful (Col. 3:12-15).
Would you learn the third way? Prayer, fervent and diligent prayer, prayer from the heart. Who teaches us this prayer from the heart? Our Lord Jesus Christ himself. Therefore, we must never cease to ask him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray’ (cf. Lk. 11:1) and he will teach us the path to communion with God and with one another (cf. Jn. 17: 21-23).
The fourth way is almsgiving and a very effective way it is too. But almsgiving, if it is to be truly acceptable to God, has to be like the offering of the poor widow about whom Our Lord said: “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on” (Mk. 12: 43-44) . Nothing can be more loathsome before God than almsgiving made for gaining human publicity, praise and recognit ion.
Next comes modest and humble behaviour which annihilates sin as drastically as the other methods. The Publican bears witness to this. He had no good deeds to list but instead he offered humility and the burden of his sins dropped off him (cf. Lk. 18:9-14).
Here then are the five high roads to repentance, first acknowledging one’s sins, second forgiving the sins of others, third prayer, fourth almsgiving, fifth humility.
The final exhortation of St. John Chrysostom: “Do not be idle then but day by day set out along these roads. The going is not difficult and poverty is no excuse for stopping at home. Even if you are very poor, you can still lay aside anger, carry yourself humbly, persevere in prayer and acknowledge your sins. Poverty is no obstacle to all this, not even when you are travelling along the penitential road (I mean almsgiving) where you have to give away your money. Even there, poverty is no obstacle. Did not the widow prove that when she contributed her mite?
We have learned how our wounds are to be healed – we must now apply these remedies, so that we may recover our health and enjoy the blessings of the holy table with confidence. Then may we go in a cloud of glory to meet Christ the king of glory and attain the happiness of everlasting life through the grace and the mercy and the loving-kindness of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Can we call these five high roads to repentance ‘soft skills’ in today’s digital jargon? I just came cross this phrase in a magazine called Magnet (Vol IV, Issue 9, September 2020) edited by Fr. Joe Mannath, SDB, the Secretary General of the ‘Conference of Religious, India’ (CRI). He says, “Hard skills deal with handling machines, and are applicable to one type of work. Soft skills are about how we treat human beings; they come into play in all walks of life” (Editorial). In his lead article “Soft Skills: A Bird’s Eye-View: Managing life and relationships matters more than maintaining machines” he emphasizes the need to be ‘adults’ and ‘grown-ups’ and not to remain ‘childish’ i.e., crying, complaining, moody, withdrawn, throwing tantrums, blaming others when things go wrong, expecting others to solve my problems. All these are prescriptions for disaster. Instead, we need to be responsible adults who are able to look after ourselves and take life in our hands. For this we need to cultivate the following ‘soft skills’: problem-solving, learning to learn, taking decisions, emotional balance or managing my moods, responsibility and work ethic, time management and planning, looking at the positive, handling change and stress, discipline, creativity, respect and cou rtesy, listening, reaching out and volunteering, feedback (positive and negative), admitting one’s mistake s and limitations, building bridges and not walls, a clear stand against hatred, calumny, deceit and lies, inter-personal communication, non-verbal communication, public speaking, writing, social media.
Those with better ‘soft skills’ can make a lasting impact on society. Hence the three areas we need to pay attention to are: i) Take responsible care of your own growth; ii) Reach out to people, relate warmly and be a healer; iii) Master communication skills, so that you can truly give, and be good news.
The final advice: “May those who know you say this about you: A sound and balanced person to imitate; a loving human being to live and work with; a clear and gripping communicator to learn from”.

+ Archbishop Anil Couto
Archbishop of Delhi

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