Reserved sins are the sins that ordinary Catholic priests can not forgive in the confessional because they are reserved to either the bishop or the Apostolic Penitentiary in the Vatican to forgive the penitent. The reason they are “reserved” is because they are so serious that they incur an excommunication that is immediate (ex latæ sententiæ) by their very deed. Examples of “reserved sins” include the desecration of the Most Holy Eucharist, a priest breaking the seal of confession, or a couple having an abortion. Some bishops have extended their own hand of absolution and recommunication (which comes from Jesus Christ Himself via Apostolic Succession in John 20:18-20) to their priests in regards to only one of these sins: abortion. This is perhaps because of how common it is. In fact, I have never heard of a bishop who has not extended his hand of recommunication to all of his priests on the reserved sin of abortion.
Recently, Pope Francis gave the power of absolution and recommunication to all the priests of the world who deal with men or women committing abortion. (Of course, this hand of recommunication is extended only to priests who have faculties to hear confessions and are a state of good-standing with either their bishop or religious superior.) In any case, I think this was a good decision of Pope Francis. Why? I have heard confessions on five continents and I never heard of a bishop who has not extended his hand of recommunication to all of his priests on the reserved sin of abortion. Thus, Pope Francis removed a formality that may have carried a weight in the realm of moral theology, but carried little practical weight. It was a good decision.
However, there are rumors that abortion will be removed from the list of sins that make Canon Law’s short list of immediate ex-communication. Would this be a good decision?
Instead of discussing that, I want us to back way up and so I ask you to consider the four parts of confession: Contrition, Confession, Absolution and Penance (or satisfaction.) Contrition is sorrow. Absolution is when Jesus Christ forgives the penitent through the priest who says “I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Penance is not a cherry on the cake but a necessary part of a valid confession. It is usually a few Hail Marys, but theologically it is a command to ensure “new life” as the Council of Trent says. For example, a person who gossips may have the penance of repairing someone’s good name. Notice the similarity between the word “repair” and “reparation.” Reparation is a synonym of penance.
None of the rest of this blog post will be on the news from Pope Francis. The rest of this post will simply be to consider the penance or satisfaction side that must follow a good confession when abortion is confessed.
If a soul is a piece of wood, and a nail is a mortal sin, absolution is the tool that pulls out the nail. But a hole remains. This is filled in by the penance or satisfaction. Nowadays, this is little more than three Hail Marys. However, for serious sins the early Church usually prescribed a year on bread and water while walking in pilgrimage or in exile.
Was it just that the early Church was mean and legalistic on heavy penances? No. The early Church understood the penance had to be the medicinal remedy in the hole of the person being reformed. The Church took upon her shoulders the responsibility to make the soul so strong wood again. Why? First, because this is a requisite part of new life, but secondly because they had the hopes that no similar nail would ever enter that soul again. For example, if someone had an abortion, they often had to go on bread and water for a year. No Christian would have a second abortion after a penance like that. Even if you doubt this claim, you should only find such a prescribed penance to be rigorous if you don’t understand the gravity of abortion.
Let me pause here and say that any sin confessed is forgiven immediately upon baptism or the words of absolution in confession (“I absolve you from your sins…”) Furhermore, we priests are called to be 100% compassion, mercy and love to any man or woman who has participated in abortion. St. John Vianney probably never dealt with as many abortions as even the average parish priest nowadays, but his advice for any priest holds true: St. John Vianney gave such easy penances because he himself did penance for his penitents. (This is part of why he lived on a potato a day.)
So, I believe we priests need to be the very living reflection of the Father to the prodigal sons and daughters who come (usually with tears) to confess this grave sin of abortion. Consider also how gentle Jesus was in the Gospel with women who came to him in sexual sin, versus how harsh Our Lord was to those who acted with spiritual pride. Thus, we should not scare people away from the Catholic Church with early-Church penances. The Post-modern, post-abortive man and woman would never come back to confession or the Catholic Church if we gave early-Church penances of a year on bread and water, so that is clearly not the goal.
But Pope John Paul II knew that confession was not the end—but the beginning—of the healing of a woman who has had abortion, as he alludes to this in his encyclical on life:
I would now like to say a special word to women who have had an abortion. The Church is aware of the many factors which may have influenced your decision, and she does not doubt that in many cases it was a painful and even shattering decision. The wound in your heart may not yet have healed. Certainly what happened was and remains terribly wrong. But do not give in to discouragement and do not lose hope. Try rather to understand what happened and face it honestly. If you have not already done so, give yourselves over with humility and trust to repentance. The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. To the same Father and his mercy you can with sure hope entrust your child. With the friendly and expert help and advice of other people, and as a result of your own painful experience, you can be among the most eloquent defenders of everyone’s right to life. Through your commitment to life, whether by accepting the birth of other children or by welcoming and caring for those most in need of someone to be close to them, you will become promoters of a new way of looking at human life.—Evangelium Vitae 99
In my years of praying and counseling in front of American death camps, I personally find that the man is the main reason that the woman is entering the abortion mill is that her man is forcing her. Not always, but often. Or, she feels too abandoned by him to raise a child without him. The men of the world need to repent for abortion. So, everything that I write on mercy, confession, reparation, hell and purgatory in this blog post is directed to men just as much as it is towards women. In fact, perhaps we as a collective Church will have to answer for a long time in in Purgatory for the sin of abortion, simply because of our nonchalant and mild opposition to the greatest holocaust in history. Arm chair pro-lifers are the main reason that abortion continues in this country. God repeatedly tells the mystics that He has compensated for the evil people on the planet, but it is actually chosen souls that re-crucify his heart through lack of gratitude and generosity. So yes, arm-chair pro-lifers are why abortion continues in this country.
If that sounds extreme, you must understand that the repair made after abortion is nearly impossible. Whose life truly changed with that abortion? The most common answer is that abortion leaves one dead and one wounded. This is true: There is a child who is physically dead and a woman spiritually dead.
But who else is affected after abortion?
First, God had a full life planned for that child. That child killed was not a “wart on the uterus.” God had already “seen” in His eternity that child’s first birthday, first pony-ride, first heartbreak, first child-born to that unborn child. All her grandchildren and the millions (literally millions) of people affected by that one unborn boy or girl (who one day might have a lot of children) are wiped out, especially as seen in God’s eternal vision of human relationships in time. In that one touch of a vacuum in a Planned Parenthood, it is not an embryo that is wiped out. It is an entire life of joys, sorrows, sacraments and eternal glory wiped out by one suction button. Yes, each of us affects the lives of thousands if not millions of people. Think how many people have been affected by the 58 million surgical abortions that have happened in this country, not to mention all the chemical abortions worldwide. The number is as great as the living population of the whole world. We live in a different world than the one God had actually planned, all because of Planned Parenthood and their racist agenda. So, yes, God’s will can be thwarted. This is God’s will from the point of conception:
But God has a plan for redemption even when His will for life is thwarted by murder. Gloria Polo was a Columbian woman who was struck by lightning in 1995. The lightning blew her IUD out of her uterus. Her sentence upon death by Jesus Christ was originally hell, and sins associated with her IUD were a large part of her sentence to hell. But Jesus gave her life back to her on earth, since she received the prayers of a poor man in the mountains of Columbia who was praying for her resuscitation. (He saw her on the news while they were working on getting her out of Cardiac Arrest.)
Since then, she has told her story to millions of people with the approbation of South American bishops. This is truly successful reparation for her sins! In the private revelation of her particular judgment, Jesus revealed the following to her:
Every time that the blood of a baby is scattered, it is a holocaust to Satan, who acquires in this way still more power. And this soul cries out. I repeat, we are dealing with a mature adult soul, even though it does not yet have eyes, nor flesh, nor a formed body… It is already completely adult. And this his cry so great, while they kill him, devastates all of Heaven. On the contrary, it is a cry of jubilation and of triumph in hell. The only comparison that comes to my mind is the finals of a world soccer championship: imagine all that euphoria, but in an enormous stadium, so immense so as to loose sight of the boundaries, full of devils who cry out like crazy beings their triumph. They, the devils, threw on me the blood of those babies that I aborted or that I contributed in killing, and my soul became black, completely black. After the abortions, I thought by now that I no longer had sins… The saddest thing was, instead, to see that Jesus showed me how, also in my family planning, I was killing… Do you know why? I was using the IUD (intrauterine device) as a contraceptive. From 16 years old, up to the day that the lightning bolt struck me! I took it out only when I wanted to get pregnant, (once married), to then put it immediately back afterwards. I want to say to all the women who use these intrauterine devices: yes, they provoke abortions! I know that it happens to many women, – because it happened also to me – , to see often clots of blood rather large during the menstrual period, and to feel pain much stronger than normal. We go to the doctor, who does not give much importance to the fact: he prescribes a painkiller, an injection if the pains are too strong, telling us to not worry, that it is normal, because we are dealing with a foreign body, but there is no problem. Do you know what it is, instead? It is a micro abortion!!! Yes! Micro-abortion! The intrauterine devices provoke micro-abortions, because as soon as the ovum and the sperm unite, as I already told you, right from that moment is formed a soul, that does not need to grow, being already adult: these devices do not let the fertilized ovum to implant itself into the uterus, which thus dies. That soul is expulsed! For this we are dealing with a micro-abortion. A micro-abortion is an adult soul, completely formed, which was not permitted to live. It was very painful to see how many babies were fertilized, but then expulsed. These little suns, originating from the Sun of God the Father, these divine sparks, could not grab on to the uterus due to the IUD. How they cried out, while they were torn out from the hands of God the Father because they could not implant themselves!!! It was a dreadful scene…! And the worst is that I could not say that I did not know! When I would go to Mass, I would not pay attention to what the priest said. I did not even listen, and if they might had asked me which verses of the Gospel had been read, I would not have known what to respond. You must know in fact that the devils are present even at the Mass, in order to distract us, to make us fall asleep, to impede us to listen. Well, in one of these Masses during which I was totally distracted, my Guardian Angel gave me a jolt and she uncorked my ears, so that I might listen to what the priest was saying in that moment: I heard him precisely speaking about intrauterine devices! He said that they provoked abortion, and that all the women who used them to control the births, actually were aborting; that the Church defends life, and that anyone who does not defend life cannot receive Communion! Hence, all the women who are using this method, cannot take Communion! How I heard those words, I became infuriated with the priest! But what kind of things do these priests have in their heads? With what right?! For this the Church does not go forward! It is for this and for that, that the churches are empty! Of course, because it is not with science! But who do they think they are, these priests? Do they think that they will give food to eat to all of these children that we might have?… I left the church infuriated! The bad thing was that, while I was being judged before God, I could not say that I did not know! In fact, notwithstanding the words of the priest, I did not give heed, and I continued to use the IUD! How many babies I had killed? … Here is the motive for which I was living so depressed! Because my womb, instead of being a font of life, it was transformed into a cemetery, in a “slaughterhouse” of babies! Think about it: a mother, who God conceded the immense gift of giving life, to take care of her own baby, to protect it from everything and everyone, precisely that mother, with all these gifts, kills her little child…! The devil, with his malefic strategy, has brought humanity to the point of killing their own children. Now I understand the reason why I lived in continual bitterness, depression, always ill tempered, ill-mannered, with ugly ways of doing things, with a bad face, frustrated with everything and with everyone. Of course! I had transformed myself, without knowing it, into a machine to kill babies, and for this reason I was sinking ever more into the abyss. Abortion is the worst of all the sins (those provoked, not when it is spontaneous), because to kill the children still in the womb of the mother, to kill a little innocent and defenseless creature, is to give power to Satan. The devil commands from the depths of the abyss, because we are scattering innocent blood! A baby is like an innocent lamb and without stain… And Who is the Lamb without stain? It is Jesus! In that moment, the baby is the image and likeness of Jesus! The fact that it might be the mother herself to kill her own child, determines a profound bond with the darkness, permitting that more devils from hell might come out to destroy and strangle humanity. It is as if one might open the seals… Seals that God has put to impede evil to come out, but that, for every abortion, it opens… And so horrible larvae come out, so that there are more and more devils… They come out to chase and persecute humanity, and then make us slaves of the flesh, of sin, of all the bad things that we see, and we will see always more. It is as if we might give the key of hell to the devils, to let them escape. And so escape more devils, of prostitution, of sexual aberrations, of Satanism, of atheism, of suicide, of indifference… Of all the evils that we see around us. And the world is getting worse every day… Think how many babies are killed every day: it is all a triumph of the evil one! That you might know that for the price of this innocent blood, the number of devils outside of hell grows; they circulate freely in our midst! Let us take shelter! … We sin without even realizing it! And our life transforms itself into an inferno, with problems of every type, with sicknesses, with so many evils that afflict us; all of this is the pure and simple action of the devil in our life. But it is we, we alone, that open the gates of evil, with our sin, and we permit him to freely circulate in our life. It is not only with abortion that we sin! … But it is among the worst sins. And then we have the nerve to blame God for so much misery, so much disgrace, so much sicknesses and so much suffering!… But God, in His infinite Goodness, still gives us the sacrament of Reconciliation, and we have the opportunity to repent and to wash our sin in confession, breaking in this way the strings that tie us to Satan, and his influence in our life. In this way we can wash our soul. … But in my case, I did not do it!
Now Gloria has confessed her sins. She is not only a forgiven woman, but a very holy woman who is leading thousands of people to Christ like a saint of yore. This may replace her purgatory time.
On the topic of the spiritual price of abortion, we are now going to continue to look at two saints of the 20th century. St. Faustina was a 20th century saint who had received the approbation of Pope John Paul II and the Vatican with her Divine Mercy Diary. On 16 September, 1937, she wrote:
I wanted very much to make a Holy Hour before the Blessed Sacrament today, but God’s will was otherwise. At eight o’clock I was seized with such violent pains that I had to go to bed at once. I was convulsed with pain for three hours; that is, until eleven o’clock at night. No medicine had any effect on me, and whatever I swallowed I threw up. At times, the pains caused me to lose consciousness. Jesus had me realize that in this way I took part in His Agony in the Garden, and that He Himself allowed these sufferings in order to make reparation to God for the souls murdered in the wombs of wicked mothers. I have gone through these sufferings three times now. They always start at eight o’clock in the evening and last until eleven. No medicine can lessen these sufferings. When eleven o’clock comes, they cease by themselves, and I fall asleep at that moment. The following day, I feel very weak. —Divine Mercy Diary 1276
Padre Pio often delayed absolution for post-abortive women until they moved from guilt to sorrow in this story originally found in Latin Mass magazine:
When he was still living I visited Dónal at his home in County Cork, I asked [this friend of Padre Pio] pointedly if he had known a woman who had been refused absolution [by Padre Pio] because of having had an abortion. Dónal told me of one such post-abortion woman who gave him permission to re-tell her story. Dónal first met her mere minutes after she had left Padre Pio’s confessional. She was in great emotional distress having been refused absolution. She was, however, receptive to meeting Dónal who greeted her calmly with his soft Irish lilt. Dónal offered her the chance to talk things over with him and she agreed. Dónal did not pry – and did not ask prying questions – an atypical Irishman one might say. But the lady felt at ease in his company and volunteered the information that she had suffered much following her abortion, and knowing it was a sin, she took it with her to Padre Pio’s confessional, but Padre Pio had refused her absolution by saying to her, “you are not truly sorry for your sin”. This is the key: Padre Pio could see her soul and could see that she was not sufficiently contrite or “truly sorry” to use Pio’s exact words… True contrition did not come easily to the lady in question. She struggled for months: she was firmly of the mind that her post-abortion guilt was the same thing as contrition for her sin. Dónal (and I’m sure Padre Pio) prayed very much for the lady. It took her one whole year – but she developed true contrition which entailed sorry to God for arranging the death of her little one who had not asked to be conceived. When the searing ache of true contrition pierced her soul, she returned to Padre Pio’s confessional and once again confessed to having had an abortion. On this occasion, Pio did not refrain from granting her absolution, and said, “now you are truly sorry, I can give you absolution”.
To move from guilt to sorrow is probably necessary to fulfill the first words of John the Baptist and Jesus in the Gospel: “Repent and believe.” We also must remember that although the blood on the cross of Jesus Christ is the only thing that can save us, and although that grace is totally free, it is not cheap. The eternal weight of hell being wiped out by baptism or confession is a free gift, but that does not mean the earthly consequences of sin are eradicated.
This is why the single-best penance a woman or man can do after confessing the sin of abortion is to name the children who have been killed. This might sound to the inexperienced reader like salt in the wound, but it is not. The recognition of a full person planned by God to live is the only possible way to begin healing. Naming the child connects the parents to the dead child (in some state of bliss, be that with or without the beatific vision, something that remains theologically undefined.)
All penance brings life, not death. In the movie The Mission, Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro play 16th century Spanish Jesuits who have come to the New World. The latter is a slave trader on the upper Amazon who has an enormous conversion. He moves from slave-trader to celibate working for the salvation of souls of the indigenous people. De Niro joins the Jesuits and decides to bring the Gospel to the highest parts of the Amazon. But, to get there, he must carry himself, not only his own body, but the very tools, mail and armor of his days as a slave-trader all the way up the waterfall, with the items strapped to his back. One good Jesuit counters his superior and looks at the excessive penance, whispering “I think he has had enough.” The wise and compassionate Jesuit superior responds “Yes, but he doesn’t.” Let us realize that there is new life in a life of penance and reparation.