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Ioannes Paulus PP. II
Dominum et vivificantem

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    • 5. The Blood that Purifies the Conscience
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5. The Blood that Purifies the Conscience


42. We have said that, at the climax of the Paschal Mystery, the Holy Spirit is definitively revealed and made present in a new way. The Risen Christ says to the Apostles: "Receive the Holy Spirit." Thus the Holy Spirit is revealed, for the words of Christ constitute the confirmation of what he had promised and foretold during the discourse in the Upper Room. And with this the Paraclete is also made present in a new way. In fact, he was already at work from the beginning in the mystery of creation and throughout the history of the Old Covenant of God with man. His action was fully confirmed by the sending of the Son of Man as the Messiah, who came in the power of the Holy Spirit. At the climax of Jesus' messianic mission, the Holy Spirit becomes present in the Paschal Mystery in all his divine subjectivity: as the one who is now to continue the salvific work rooted in the sacrifice of the Cross. Of course Jesus entrusts this work to humanity: to the Apostles, to the Church. Nevertheless, in these men and through them the Holy Spirit remains the transcendent principal agent of the accomplishment of this work in the human spirit and in the history of the world: the invisible and at the same time omnipresent Paraclete! The Spirit who "blows where he wills."159

The words of the Risen Christ on the "first day of the week" give particular emphasis to the presence of the Paraclete-Counselor as the one who "convinces the world concerning sin, righteousness and judgment." For it is only in this relationship that it is possible to explain the words which Jesus directly relates to the "gift" of the Holy Spirit to the Apostles. He says: "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." 160 Jesus confers on the Apostles the power to forgive sins, so that they may pass it on to their successors in the Church But this power granted to men presupposes and includes the saving action of the Holy Spirit. By becoming "the light of hearts,"161 that is to say the light of consciences, the Holy Spirit "convinces concerning sin," which is to say, he makes man realize his own evil and at the same time directs him toward what is good. Thanks to the multiplicity of the Spirit's gifts, by reason of which he is invoked as the "sevenfold one," every kind of human sin can be reached by God's saving power. In reality - as St. Bonaventure says - "by virtue of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit all evils are destroyed and all good things are produced.162

Thus the conversion of the human heart, which is an indispensable condition for the forgiveness of sins, is brought about by the influence of the Counselor. Without a true conversion, which implies inner contrition, and without a sincere and firm purpose of amendment, sins remain "unforgiven," in the words of Jesus, and with him in the Tradition of the Old and New Covenants. For the first words uttered by Jesus at the beginning of his ministry, according to the Gospel of Mark, are these: "Repent, and believe in the Gospel. "163 A confirmation of this exhortation is the "convincing concerning sin" that the Holy Spirit undertakes in a new way by virtue of the Redemption accomplished by the Blood of the Son of Man. Hence the Letter to the Hebrews says that this "blood purifies the conscience."164 It therefore, so to speak, opens to the Holy Spirit the door into man's inmost being, namely into the sanctuary of human consciences.


43. The Second Vatican Council mentioned the Catholic teaching on conscience when it spoke about man's vocation and in particular about the dignity of the human person. It is precisely the conscience in particular which determines this dignity. For the conscience is "the most secret core and sanctuary of a man, where he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths." It "can ...speak to his heart more specifically: do this, shun that." This capacity to command what is good and to forbid evil, placed in man by the Creator, is the main characteristic of the personal subject. But at the same time, "in the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience."165 The conscience therefore is not an independent and exclusive capacity to decide what is good and what is evil. Rather there is profoundly imprinted upon it a principle of obedience vis-a-vis the objective norm which establishes and conditions the correspondence of its decisions with the commands and prohibitions which are at the basis of human behavior, as from the passage of the Book of Genesis which we have already considered. 166 Precisely in this sense the conscience is the "secret sanctuary" in which "God's voice echoes." The conscience is "the voice of God," even when man recognizes in it nothing more than the principle of the moral order which it is not humanly possible to doubt, even without any direct reference to the Creator. It is precisely in reference to this that the conscience always finds its foundation and justification.

The Gospel's "convincing concerning sin" under the influence of the Spirit of truth can be accomplished in man in no other way except through the conscience. If the conscience is upright, it serves "to resolve according to truth the moral problems which arise both in the life of individuals and from social relationships"; then "persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and try to be guided by the objective standards of moral conduct."167

A result of an upright conscience is, first of all, to call good and evil by their proper name, as we read in the same Pastoral Constitution: "whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or willful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where people are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons"; and having called by name the many different sins that are so frequent and widespread in our time, the Constitution adds: "All these things and others of their kind are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than to those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonor to the Creator"168

By calling by their proper name the sins that most dishonor man, and by showing that they are a moral evil that weighs negatively on any balance - sheet of human progress, the Council also describes all this as a stage in "a dramatic struggle between good and evil, between light and darkness," which characterizes "all of human life, whether individual or collective."169 The 1983 Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on reconciliation and penance specified even more clearly the personal and social significance of human sin.170


44. In the Upper Room, on the eve of his Passion and again on the evening of Easter Day, Jesus Christ spoke of the Holy Spirit as the one who bears witness that in human history sin continues to exist. Yet sin has been subjected to the saving power of the Redemption. "Convincing the world concerning sin" does not end with the fact that sin is called by its right name and identified for what it is throughout its entire range. In convincing the world concerning sin the Spirit of truth comes into contact with the voice of human consciences. By following this path we come to a demonstration of the roots of sin, which are to be found in man's inmost being, as described by the same Pastoral Constitution: "The truth is that the imbalances under which the modern world labors are linked with that more basic imbalance rooted in the heart of man. For in man himself many elements wrestle with one another. Thus, on the one hand, as a creature he experiences his limitations in a multitude of ways. On the other, he feels himself to be boundless in his desires and summoned to a higher life. Pulled by manifold attractions, he is constantly forced to choose among them and to renounce some. Indeed, as a weak and sinful being, he often does what he would not, and fails to do what he would."171 The Conciliar text is here referring to the well-known words of St. Paul.172 The "convincing concerning sin" which accompanies the human conscience in every careful reflection upon itself thus leads to the discovery of sin's roots in man, as also to the discovery of the way in which the conscience has been conditioned in the course of history. In this way we discover that original reality of sin of which we have already spoken. The Holy Spirit "convinces concerning sin" in relation to the mystery of man's origins, showing the fact that man is a created being, and therefore in complete ontological and ethical dependence upon the Creator. The Holy Spirit reminds us, at the same time, of the hereditary sinfulness of human nature. But the Holy Spirit the Counselor "convinces concerning sin" always in relation to the Cross of Christ. In the context of this relationship Christianity rejects any "fatalism" regarding sin. As the Council teaches: "A monumental struggle against the powers of darkness pervades the whole history of man. The battle was joined from the very origins of the world and will continue until the last day, as the Lord has attested."173 "But the Lord himself came to free and strengthen man."174 Man, therefore, far from allowing himself to be "ensnared" in his sinful condition, by relying upon the voice of his own conscience "is obliged to wrestle constantly if he is to cling to what is good. Nor can he achieve his own interior integrity without valiant efforts and the help of God s grace."175 The Council rightly sees sin as a factor of alienation which weighs heavily on man's personal and social life. But at the same time it never tires of reminding us of the possibility of victory.


45. The Spirit of truth, who "convinces the world concerning sin," comes into contact with that laborious effort on the part of the human conscience which the Conciliar texts speak of so graphically. This laborious effort of conscience also determines the paths of human conversion: turning one's back on sin, in order to restore truth and love in man's very heart. We know that recognizing evil in ourselves sometimes demands a great effort. We know that conscience not only commands and forbids but also Judges in the light of interior dictates and prohibitions. It is also the source of remorse: man suffers interiorly because f the evil he has committed. Is not this suffering, as it were, a distant echo of that "repentance at having created man" which in anthropomorphic language the Sacred Book attributes to God? Is it not an echo of that "reprobation" which is interiorized in the "heart" of the Trinity and by virtue of the eternal love is translated into the suffering of the Cross, into Christ's obedience unto death? When the Spirit of truth permits the human conscience to share in that suffering, the suffering of the conscience becomes particularly profound, but also particularly salvific. Then, by means of an act of perfect contrition, the authentic conversion of the heart is accomplished: this is the evangelical "metanoia."

The laborious effort of the human heart, the laborious effort of the conscience in which this "metanoia," or conversion, takes place, is a reflection of that process whereby reprobation is transformed into salvific love, a love which is capable of suffering. The hidden giver of this saving power is the Holy Spirit: he whom the Church calls "the light of consciences" penetrates and fills "the depths of the human heart."176 Through just such a conversion in the Holy Spirit a person becomes open to forgiveness, to the remission of sins. And in all this wonderful dynamism of conversion-forgiveness there is confirmed the truth of what St. Augustine writes concerning the mystery of man, when he comments on the words of the Psalm: "The abyss calls to the abyss."177 Precisely with regard to these "unfathomable depths" of man, of the human conscience, the mission of the Son and the Holy Spirit is accomplished. The Holy Spirit "comes" by virtue of Christ's "departure" in the Paschal Mystery: he comes in each concrete case of conversion-forgiveness, by virtue of the sacrifice of the Cross. For in this sacrifice "the blood of Christ...purifies your conscience from dead works to serve the living God."178 Thus there are continuously fulfilled the words about the Holy Spirit as "another Counselor," the words spoken in the Upper Room to the Apostles and indirectly spoken to everyone: "You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you."179


159. Cf. Jn 3:8.

160. Jn. 20:22f.

161. Cf. Sequence Veni, Sancte Spiritus.

162. St. Bonaventure, De Septem Donis Spiritus Sancti, Collatio II, 3: Ad Claras Aquas, V, 463.

163. Mk 1:15.

164. Cf. Heb 9:14.

165. Cf. Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, 16.

166. Cf. Gen 2:9, 17.

167. Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, n. 16.

168. Ibid., n. 27.

169. Cf. ibid., n. 13.

170. Cf. Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia (December 2, 1984), 16: AAS 77 (1985), pp. 213-217.

171. Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, n. 10.

172. Cf. Rom 7:14-15, 19.

173. Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, n. 37.

174. Ibid., n. 13.

175. Ibid., n. 37.

176. Cf. Sequence of Pentecost: Reple Cordis Intirna.

177. Cf. St. Augustine, Enarr. in Ps. XLI, 13: CCL, 38, 470: "What is the abyss, and what does the abyss invoke? If abyss means depth, do we not consider that perhaps the heart of man is an abyss? What indeed is more deep than this abyss? Men can speak, can be seen through the working of their members, can be heard in conversation; but whose thought can be penetrated, whose heart can be read?"

178. Cf. Heb 9:14.

179. Jn 14:17.

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