The Catechism of St. Thomas Aquinas: THE FIFTH PETITION
“And Forgive Us Our Trespasses As We Forgive Those Who Trespass Against Us.”
There are some men of great wisdom and fortitude who, because they trust too much in their own strength, do not wisely carry out what they attempt, and they do not bring to completion that which they have in mind. “Designs are strengthened by counsels.” It must be known that the Holy Ghost who gives fortitude also gives counsel. Every good counsel concerning the salvation of man is from the Holy Ghost. Thus, counsel is necessary for man when he is in difficulty, just as is the counsel of physicians when one is ill. When man falls into spiritual illness through sin, he must look for counsel in order to be healed. This necessity for counsel on the part of the sinner is shown in these words: “Wherefore, O king, let my counsel be acceptable to thee, and redeem thou thy sins with alms.” The best counsel, therefore, against sin is alms and mercy. Hence, the Holy Spirit teaches sinners to seek and to pray: “Forgive us our trespasses.”
We owe God that which we have taken away from His sole right; and this right of God is that we do His will in preference to our own will. Now, we take away from God’s right when we prefer our will to God’s will, and this is a sin. Sins, therefore, are our trespasses. And it is the counsel of the Holy Spirit that we ask God pardon for our sins, and so we say: “Forgive us our trespasses.”
We can consider these words in three ways: (1) Why do we make this petition? (2) How may it be fulfilled? (3) What is required on our part?
WHY DO WE MAKE THIS PETITION?
It must be known that from this petition we can draw two things that are necessary for us in this life. One is that we be ever in a state of salutary fear and humility. There have been some, indeed, so presumptuous as to say that man could live in this world and by his own unaided strength avoid sin. But this condition has been given to no one except Christ, who had the Spirit beyond all measure, and to the Blessed Virgin, who was full of grace and in whom there was no sin. “And concerning whom,” that is, the Virgin, “when it is a question of sin I wish to make no mention,” says St. Augustine. But for all the other
Saints, it was never granted them that they should not incur at least venial sin: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” And, moreover, this very petition proves this; for it is evident that all Saints and all men say the “Our Father” in which is contained “Forgive us our trespasses.” Hence, all admit and confess that they are sinners or trespassers. If, therefore, you are a sinner, you ought to fear and humble yourself.
Another reason for this petition is that we should ever live in hope. Although we be sinners, nevertheless we must not give up hope, lest our despair drive us into greater and different kinds of sins. As the Apostle says: “Who despairing, have given themselves up to lasciviousness, unto the working of all uncleanness.” It is, therefore, of great help that we be ever hopeful; for in the measure that man is a sinner, he ought to hope that God will forgive him if he be perfectly sorry for sin and be converted. This hope is strengthened in us when we say: “Forgive us our trespasses.”
The Novatiani destroyed this hope, saying that one who has sinned but once after Baptism can never look for mercy. But this is not true, if Christ spoke truly when He said: “I forgave thee all the debt, because thou besoughtest Me.” In whatsoever day, therefore, you ask, you can receive mercy if with sorrow for sin you make your prayer. Both fear and hope arise from this petition. For all sinners who are contrite and confess their guilt, receive mercy. Hence, this petition is necessary.
THE FULFILLMENT OF THIS PETITION
Concerning the second consideration of this petition (viz., how it may be fulfilled), it must be known that there are two factors in sin: the fault by which God is offended, and the punishment which is due because of this fault. But the sin is taken away in contrition which goes with the purpose to confess and make satisfaction: “I said: I will confess against myself my injustice to the Lord. And Thou hast forgiven the wickedness of my sin” One has no need to fear then, because for the remission of a fault contrition with a purpose to confess is sufficient.
But one might say: “If sin is thus taken away when a man is contrite, of what necessity is the priest?” To this it must be said that God does forgive the sin in contrition, and eternal punishment is changed to temporal, but nevertheless the debt of temporal punishment remains. If one should die without confession, not out of contempt for it but prevented from it, one would go to purgatory, where the punishment, as St. Augustine says, is very great. When you confess, the priest absolves you of this punishment in virtue of the keys to which you subject yourself in confession. When, therefore, one has confessed, something of this punishment is taken away; and similarly when he has again confessed, and it could be that after he has confessed many times, all would be remitted.
The successors of the Apostles found another mode of remission of this punishment, namely, the good use of indulgences, which have their force for one living in the state of grace, to the extent that is claimed for them and as indicated by the grantor. That the Pope can bring this about, is sufficiently evident. Many holy men have accomplished much good, and they have not greatly sinned, at least not mortally; and these good deeds were done for the common use of the Church. Likewise the merits of Christ and the Blessed Virgin are, as it were, in a treasury; and from it the Supreme Pontiff and they who are by him permitted can dispense these merits where it is necessary. Thus, therefore, sins are taken away not only as regards their guilt by contrition, but also as regards punishment for them in confession and through indulgences.
WHAT MUST WE DO?
Concerning the third consideration of this petition, it must be known that on our part we are required to forgive our neighbor the offenses which he commits against us. Thus, we say: “As we forgive those who trespass against us.” Otherwise God would not forgive us: “Man to man reserveth anger: and doth he seek remedy of God?” “Forgive and you shall be forgiven.” Therefore, only in this petition is there a condition when it says: “As we forgive those who trespass against us.” If you do not forgive, you shall not be forgiven.UB>
But you may think, “I shall say what goes first in the petition, namely, ‘forgive us,’ but that ‘As we forgive those who trespass against us,’ I shall not say.” Would you seek to deceive Christ? You certainly do not deceive Him. For Christ who made this prayer remembers it well, and cannot be deceived. If therefore, you say it with the lips, let the heart fulfill it.
But one may ask whether he who does not intend to forgive his neighbor ought to say: “As we forgive those who trespass against us.” It seems not, for such is a lie. But actually it must be said that he does not lie, because he prays not in his own person, but in that of the Church which is not deceived, and, therefore the petition itself is in the plural number. And it must also be known that forgiveness is twofold. One applies to the perfect, where the one offended seeks out the offender: “Seek after peace.” The other is common to all, and to it all are equally bound, that one offended grant pardon to the one who seeks it: “Forgive thy neighbor if he hath hurt thee; and then shall thy sins be forgiven to thee when thou prayest.” And from this follows that other beatitude: “Blessed are the merciful.” For mercy causes us to have pity on our neighbor.
(For “Questions for Discussion” see Chapter 6.)
1. Prov., xx. 18.
2. Dan., iv. 24.
3. “In this petition we find a new manner of prayer. In the other petitions we asked of God not only eternal and spiritual goods, but also transient and temporal advantages. But now we ask to be liberated from the evils of the soul and of the body. of this life and of the life to come” (“Roman Catechism,” “Lord’s Prayer,” Chapter XIV, 1).
4. Literally, our debts; that is, the difference between what we ought to give God and actually do not give Him. “The type of offense requiring expiation, a sin” (Oxford English Dictionary). What we pray for is that God may deliver us from sin This is the interpretation of St. Luke, who, instead of ‘debts,’ uses the word ‘sins, because through our sins we become guilty before God and incur a debt of punishment which we must pay either by satisfaction or by suffering. . . . With regard to serious sins, however, this petition cannot procure forgiveness unless it derive that efficacy from the Sacrament of Penance, received, as we have already said, either actually or at least in desire’ ( Roman Catechism,” “loc. cit.,” 15).
5. “De Natura et gratia,” XXXVI.
6. I John, i. 8.
7. Eph., iv. 19.
8. Matt., xviii. 32.
9. Ps. xxxi. 5.
10. See Editor’s Note in English Translation of “Summa Theologica Supplement,” Q. xviii, art. 1, which says: “St. Thomas here follows the opinion of Peter Lombard. . . . Later in life he altered his opinion. Cfr. P. III, Q. lxvii, art. I; Q. lxiv, art. I; Q. lxxxvi. art. 6.” See footnote below.
11. The effects of the Sacrament of Penance are: (1) sanctifying grace is imparted whereby the guilt of mortal sin is taken away and at the same time the guilt of eternal punishment; (2) the guilt of temporal punishment is more or less remitted according to the dispositions of the penitent “and the disposition can be such that in virtue of contrition the entire punishment is removed,” says St. Thomas (IV Sent., Dist. xviii, art. 3, sol. 2, ad. 4). The Council of Trent (Session XIV, cap. 2) teaches that this entire remission of punishment, which is obtained through Baptism, is not obtained through the Sacrament of Penance “without much tears and labors” (“magnis nostris fletibus et laboribus”). For other effects of this Sacrament, such as the bestowal of sacramental grace and the revival of the merits of former good works, see the Manuals of Moral Theology (e.g., Aertnys-Damen, II, lib. VI, tract. v, n. 272).
12. See footnote above.
13. An indulgence is a remission of that temporal punishment which, even after the sin is forgiven, we have yet to undergo either here or in purgatory. Indulgences derive their value and efficacy from the spiritual treasury of the Church. which consists of the superabundant merits of Christ, His Blessed Mother. and the Saints. This treasury is to be considered as the common property of the faithful, committed to the administration of the Church. In virtue of the Communion of Saints, by which we are united as members of one body, the abundance of some supplies for the want of others. The Council of Trent (Session XXV) points out to all the faithful that the use of indulgences is very salutary.
14. Ecclus., xxviii. 3.
15. Luke, vi. 37.
16. “Nor do we say ‘forgive me,’ but ‘forgive us,’ because the brotherly relationship and charity which subsist between all men demand of each of us that, being solicitous for the salvation of our neighbor, we pray also for them while offering prayers for ourselves” (“Roman Catechism,” “loc. cit.,” 16).
17. Ps. xxxiii. 15.
18. Ecclus., xxviii. 2.