Sins of past life indication of reincarnation?

Question: When I was young I was taught to conclude my confession by saying, “For these and all the sins of my past life, I ask pardon and absolution.” This is a strange expression and almost seems to imply a kind of reincarnation, as if I’ve had other lives in the past, does it not?

John R., via email 

Answer: No, it does not. This is a mode of speaking, an expression, and should not be understood in a strictly literal manner. There are all sorts of expressions and manners of speaking that, if read in a literalist manner, make little sense, but everyone knows what they mean euphemistically.

For example, a mother may say to her child, “Put on your shoes and socks.” Literally, this would be difficult and clumsy, since it seems to say that I should put on my shoes, and then my socks on top of the shoes. But of course, it means no such thing. And while it is more true to say one ought to put on his socks and shoes, everybody knows what it means. Another example is the expression “coming and going.” Of course, one cannot really come, until they first go. So the expression more accurately should be “going and coming.” But despite poor word order, everybody knows what “coming and going” means and adjusts.

And thus, when we ask forgiveness for the sins of our “past life,” it is clear we are referring merely to the sins we have committed in the past.

If this saying this is bothersome to you, then you may amend it, for it is not a formal or prescribed way of ending the confession, but it is simply a common sentence many use to tell the priest they are done mentioning their sins.

Theologically, one is not required to ask forgiveness for sins of the past that have already been forgiven in the sacrament. And thus, another way a penitent can end his confession is to say something like, “For these, and other sins I cannot recall, I ask for pardon and absolution.”

Can man become God?

Question: The Catechism of the Catholic Church in paragraph 460 says, “that man might become God.” Please explain.

— Jim Jeson, Milwaukee, Wis. 

Answer: The Catechism here references a quote from St. Athanasius, and also a clarification by St Thomas Aquinas. It is true that Athanasius speaks boldly, as saints often do! But as both Sts. Athanasius and Thomas were careful to do, distinctions are necessary.

The exact quote from the Catechism is: “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God. The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods.”

Note that the second sentence, a comment by St. Thomas on Athanasius’ statement, the word “gods” is not capitalized. And this is to make it clear, as St. Athanasius would agree, that we do not become a god as separate and distinct from the one, true God. But rather, that we “partake” or “participate” in the divine nature.

To partake, or participate comes from the Latin word particeps, meaning to take up a part of something, but not the whole. Thus, though we come to share in aspects of the divine nature, we do not do so in a way that is separate from being members of Christ’s Body, through baptism. 

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 Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to msgrpope@osv.com. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.