An important reason why Catholics shouldn’t say ‘no regrets’

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“Whosoever has tears and compunction of heart let him now weep with me. … Who is there so stony of heart who will not from this time forward weep at the thought of that hour?”

The hour of which St. Ephrem the Syrian, the great deacon and Doctor of the Church, was speaking is, of course, the day of the final judgment, when life as we know it shall cease and, among other relationships that will come to an end, “children [shall] be separated from their parents” because of the choices each has made in this life. His sermon, ominously entitled “On the Various Places of Torment and on the Judgment,” is sobering, particularly for those of us who are praying for our children who have fallen from the Faith, and contemplating the role that our own sins of omission and commission played in that fall.

While the Pelagianism of modern culture seems uniquely designed to cultivate regret once the soul is awakened to the reality of one’s own sin, that same culture urges us to cast regret aside.

On the surface, St. Ephrem’s call for weeping may seem the polar opposite of Bishop Frank Caggiano’s words of hope — extended to those who, like St. Monica, love and pray for and grieve for their children — that “We get to the resurrection of Christ through the wounds of this life.” But the same mystery of redemptive suffering lies under that surface, and the same recognition that our participation in redemptive suffering may have ripples beyond the salvation of our own soul.

Two false directions

I mentioned, in my last column, that the cycle of regret that parents often experience when they come to realize the role their own actions and inactions played in their children’s loss of faith is all too often suffused with the anti-Christian notion that everything depends on us, and nothing on the grace and mercy of God. But regret does not have to pull us away from Christ. Properly ordered and channeled, it can draw us into the mystery of redemptive suffering, to the foot of the Cross, to the Eucharistic sacrifice of the altar.

While the Pelagianism of modern culture seems uniquely designed to cultivate regret once the soul is awakened to the reality of one’s own sin, that same culture urges us to cast regret aside. “No regrets,” we say, knowing in our heart of hearts that we both should and do have some. “What’s done is done.” The forked tongue of the serpent points in both — false — directions: “It’s all our fault, so there’s no hope” and “You can’t look back.”

We must look back

But as St. Ephrem reminds us in the second half of his sermon, we can and must look back, and acknowledge our failings, and, having acknowledged them, implore the mercy of God. “We have sinned; let us repent. We have sinned a thousand times. Let us do penance a thousand times.” And in doing penance, we unite ourselves to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, and through his mercy our own sacrifice may be not only for ourselves, but for those we love. Our wounds may be self-inflicted, and we should never desire to inflict them on ourselves, but having done so, we should find in them opportunities to repent, and to beg the Lord to have mercy on us and on those we love.

Regret, properly ordered and channeled, may itself be a form of penance. The sins that we regret may long have been forgiven (and, if not, we should seek the nearest opportunity for sacramental absolution), but the temporal effects of those sins remain, and they almost always affect others as well as ourselves. Acknowledging that what man has torn asunder only God can restore, we can offer those regrets as a sacrifice, and, through the mercy of God, participate in the mystery of Christ’s redemptive suffering — for ourselves and, perhaps more importantly, for those we love and long to see united with God and with us in that final hour.

Scott P. Richert

Scott P. Richert is publisher for OSV.