Most pastors and confessors are aware that in any parish there are going to be a few who are scrupulous, even in times like like these. Some have a kind of scrupulosity that is mild and almost admirable. A sensitive conscience is a beautiful thing and bespeaks a kind of innocence that is rare today.
Some others have a more unhealthy form of scrupulosity, rooted too much in cringing fear of a God who is seen more as a punishing adversary than a delivering Father who wants to help us overcome our sin.
But saddest of all are the large majority who have very little compunction (sorrow) for sin. Most Catholics have lived so long in a culture that dismisses, excuses, or makes light of sin that they have very little notion of just how serious sin can be. That God had to send His only Son to die in order rescue us from our sins shows just how serious they are; weeping for our sins is not some “extreme” reaction.
Indeed, a worthy Lenten practice is going to the foot of the Cross and allowing the Lord to anoint us, so that we see both how serious our sins are and at the same time how deep His love for us is. When it finally begins to dawn on us that the Son of God died for us, our heart breaks open, light pours in, and we can begin to weep for our sins and in gratitude for His love.
Consider that Jesus looked at a paralyzed man and, “not noticing” his paralysis, said to him, “Courage son, Your sins are forgiven” (Mat 9:2). In a sense, He saw the man’s sins as more serious than his paralysis. Jesus says elsewhere,
I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell (Matt 5:28-30).
Now the Lord does not mean literally to gouge out eyes and cut off appendages. But what He is saying is that it is more serious to sin (in this case through lust) than to lose our eye, hand, or foot.
Now we don’t usually think like this, but we should. Sin is much more serious than most of us imagine. It is our most serious problem. It is more serious than lack of money or poor physical health. Sin is our most serious problem; whatever is in second place isn’t even close.
In times like these, when self-esteem is overemphasized, personal responsibility is minimized, and excuses abound, we do well to ask for the gift of tears. We do well to ask for a profound and healthy grief for our sins.
More than ever, this is a gift to be sought. Note that these tears are not meant to be tears of depression, discouragement, or self-loathing. The tears to be sought here are tears of what St. Paul calls “godly sorrow.” Godly sorrow causes us to have sorrow for our sins but in a such a way that it draws us to God and to great love, gratitude, and appreciation for His mercy. St. Paul writes,
Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it—I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while—yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation [at sin], what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done (2 Cor 7:8-11).
With all this in mind, consider that in the current (2011) Roman Missal there is a beautiful “Mass for the Forgiveness of Sins (B).” In the old Missal (1962), it is called the Missa ad Petendam Compunctionem Cordis (Mass Requesting Compunction (sorrow) of Heart). It is known more colloquially as the “Mass for the Gift of Tears.”
Consider these beautiful prayers from the Roman Missal (both the 1962 and current (2011) versions). I post here the English translation from the current (2011) Missal:
Almighty and most gentle God,
who brought forth from the rock
a fountain of living water for your thirsty people,
bring forth we pray,
from the hardness of our heart, tears of sorrow,
that we may lament our sins
and merit forgiveness from your mercy.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ your Son,
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God forever and ever.
Prayer over the gifts:
Look mercifully, O Lord, upon this oblation,
which we offer to your majesty, for our sins,
and grant, we pray, that the sacrifice
from which forgiveness springs forth for the human race,
may bestow on us the grace of the Holy Spirit,
to shed tears for our offenses.
Through Christ our Lord.
May the reverent reception of your Sacrament O Lord,
Lead us to wash away the stains of our sins
with sighs and tears, and in your generosity
grant that the pardon we seek may have its effect on us.
Through Christ our Lord.
So beautiful, scriptural, and spiritual. Pray these prayers. Ask your priest to celebrate this votive Mass often. We need the gift of tears today.
Still struggling to know your sins? Consider this list I compiled: Litany of Penance and Reparation.
Here is the Lacrimosa from the Mozart Requiem. The text says, “Day of tears that day when from the ashes man arises and goes to his judge. Spare O God then, O sweet Jesus, Grant them eternal rest.