By Reverend Thomas K. Murphy, O.F.M.
Traditionally, seven Psalms are referred to as Penitential Psalms by the Fathers of the Church: Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143. To these Psalms three others can be easily added: Psalms 25, 50, and 106.
The classic Penitential Psalm is Psalm 51, in which an opening plea for Divine Mercy is followed by a flood of self-accusations (cf. Ps 51:3-5). Further pleadings for mercy and restoration of his faith are followed by a recognition that animal sacrifices are not effective; his sacrifice must be a a broken and contrite heart (cf. Ps 51;16,17).
Sometimes the repentance process is more complicated. Strong passions and unconsciously operating defense mechanisms can block faults from our consciousness. Psalm 32 demonstrates how these factors can be overcome. First we stew in the inevitable consequences of being out of harmony with the Will of God: When I declared not my sin, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long . . . my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer (cf. Ps 32:3,4). Then, taking full responsibility for breaking faith with God’s Covenant, we humbly own up to our failures: I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord”(cf. Ps 32:5a,b). Next, we experience the return of peace: then you forgave the guilt of my sin (cf. Ps 32:5c). Finally, we take our place among God’s people: Be glad in the LORD, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart! (cf. Ps 32:11).
In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus does not mention sorrow for sin. He tells us to say to the Father: And forgive us our trespasses, As we forgive those who trespass against us (cf. Mt 6:12). Jesus makes the measure of receiving forgiveness from the Father the very measure of our own willingness to forgive whose who have done wrong to us.
Why does the Savior take this unusual approach to forgiveness and reconciliation? It may be that Jesus had observed the cumulation and compounding effects of sin in our lives. Caught in the maelstrom of sin, many people become paralyzed in hidden states of pain and confusion (cf. Psalms 38 and 143). Perhaps Jesus is telling us that the alienation from God felt in so many people of good will originates not so much from their own misdeeds as from the hurt we, in one way or other, first receive from others.
Jesus offers to all of us the quickest, the most effective, and sometimes the only remedy for our most common spiritual ailments. As he did on the Cross, he invites us to forgive those who have sinned against us: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (cf. Lk 23:34). Then again, as he did on the Cross, he invites us to entrust our welfare to the supreme goodness, mercy, and justice of the Father of us all: Into your hand I commit my spirit (Ps 31:5, cf. Lk 23:46)