Absolution of sins

Question: A friend told me that the words during Mass asking God to forgive our sins aren’t a true absolution, but they take away venial sins even without absolution. I also heard that true contrition and changing one’s ways will take away venial sin without confession. Is this true?

Katherine Rio, via email

Answer: The words of the priest at Mass asking God to forgive our sins are an absolution. The Roman Missal calls it such: “The absolution by the priest follows: May almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us to everlasting life.” So, it is properly called an absolution even if the word “absolve” is not used.

However, as you note, this prayer only takes away venial sins, as does the reception of Communion. For mortal sins to be forgiven, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is required.

As for contrition expressed to God with a purpose of amendment, this too takes away venial sin, but not mortal sin.

Some wonder why the Church encourages reception of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, even if one is not aware of mortal sins. There are several reasons. First, it is medicinal to speak to the priest who can advise, encourage and explain, and is deputed to bestow the grace of forgiveness. Speaking our sins to another person is a healing moment of honesty.

It is also helpful since we must prepare for confession by reviewing our life and preparing to speak to our sins, not in a merely abstract way, but in a way that names sins and attitudes. This is a healing preparation and process. Confession also gives the grace to avoid sin in the future in addition to the grace of forgiveness.

Finally, since our sins are not just against God, but also against the Church, the priest — who represents the Church — is also able to receive our sorrow on behalf of the Church and speak the forgiveness of the Church as well as God.

Biblical languages

Question: We often hear that the majority of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew and the majority of the New Testament was written in Greek. Hebrew makes sense, but why was Greek used for the New Testament? Why not Aramaic or something more native to the Holy Land?

Paul VanHoudt, Erie, Colorado

Answer: Hebrew was the ancient and sacred text given by God through Moses and the prophets. As Hebrew declined as a spoken language and became Aramaic, the Targums emerged, an Aramaic paraphrase or interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, which could be read by some. However, these were not an official translation of Hebrew, just an interpretive summary for those whose Hebrew skills were lacking.

However, the most widely spoken language at the time of Jesus and the composition of the New Testament was Greek. It made sense to compose the New Testament books in Greek since they would reach the widest audience in that way. While many Jews spoke Aramaic, not all Jews did. In the Holy Land the one language that united Jews and Gentiles was Greek. Even the Romans whose mother tongue was Latin used Greek in most instances.

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There is some evidence of an earlier version of Matthew in Aramaic, but an actual manuscript has not been found. If it did exist, it was translated to Greek because that permitted a wider audience. This makes sense since the Gospel was directed to the nations, not just a small population of Aramaic-speaking Jews.

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org. Send questions to msgrpope@osv.com.