Reflection on Psalm 31(32)

A Canticle of Thanksgiving of a Forgiven Sinner

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VATICAN CITY, MAY 19, 2004 ( Here is a translation of the address John Paul II gave today at the general audience, which he dedicated to reflect on Psalm 31(32). The address was given in Italian.

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1. «Happy the sinner whose fault is removed, whose sin is forgiven.» This blessedness, at the beginning of Psalm 31(32) which was just proclaimed, enables us to understand immediately the reason why it was inserted by the Christian tradition in the series of seven penitential Psalms. After the double blessedness at the beginning (see verse 1-2), we find ourselves not before a generic reflection on sin and forgiveness, but before the personal testimony of someone who has converted.

The composition of the Psalm is rather complex: After the personal testimony (see verses 3-5), two verses are presented that speak of distress, prayer and salvation (see verses 6-7), then there is a divine promise of counsel (see verse 8) and a warning (see verse 9). Finally, there is an antithetical sapiential saying (see verse 10), and an invitation to rejoice in the Lord (see verse 11).

2. We will now take up only some elements of this composition. First of all, the one praying describes his very painful situation of conscience when he was «silent» (see verse 3): Having committed grave offenses, he did not have the courage to confess his sins to God. It was a terrible interior torment, described with striking images. His bones were being consumed by a desiccating fever; the asphyxiating heat sapped his strength, dissolving it; his groaning was uninterrupted. The sinner felt the weight of God’s hand on him, aware as he was that God is not indifferent to evil committed by his creature, because he is the guardian of justice and truth.

3. Not being able to resist any longer, the sinner decides to confess his guilt with a courageous declaration, which seems an anticipation of that of the Prodigal Son in Jesus’ parable (see Luke 15:18). He says with a sincere heart: «I confess my faults to the Lord.» They are few words, but they are born from the conscience; God responds immediately with generous forgiveness (see Psalm 31[32]:5).

The prophet Jeremiah referred to this call of God: «Return, rebel Israel, says the Lord. I will not remain angry with you; / For I am merciful, says the Lord. I will not continue my wrath forever. Only know your guilt: how you rebelled against the Lord, your God» (3:12-13).

So a horizon of security, trust and peace opens before «every» repentant and forgiven «faithful one,» despite the trials of life (see Psalm 31[32]:6-7). He can again experience a time of anguish, but the advancing tide of fear will not prevail, because the Lord will lead his faithful one to a safe place: «You are my shelter; from distress you keep me; with safety you ring me round» (verse 7).

4. At this point, the Lord speaks, to promise that he will now guide the converted sinner. It is not enough, in fact, to have been purified: One must then walk on the right path. This is why, as in the Book of Isaiah (see Isaiah 30:21), the Lord promises: «I will instruct you and show you the way you should walk» (Psalm 31[32]:8) and invites to docility. The call becomes urgent, tinged with irony with the vivid comparison to the mule and the horse, symbols of obstinacy (see verse 9). True wisdom, in fact, leads to conversion, leaving behind vice and its dark power of attraction. But above all it leads to the enjoyment of that peace that flows from being delivered and forgiven.

In the Letter to the Romans, St. Paul refers explicitly to the beginning of our Psalm to celebrate the liberating grace of Christ (see Romans 4:6-8). We can apply it to the sacrament of reconciliation. In it, in the light of the Psalm, one experiences the consciousness of sin, often obfuscated in our days, and at the same time the joy of forgiveness. The binomial «offense-punishment» is replaced by the binomial «offense-forgiveness,» because the Lord is a God «who forgives iniquity and transgression and sin» (Exodus 34:7).

5. St. Cyril of Jerusalem (fourth century) used Psalm 31(32) to teach catechumens the profound renewal of baptism, radical purification from every sin («Procatechesis,» No. 15). He also exalted the divine mercy with the words of the Psalmist. We conclude our catechesis with his words: «God is merciful and he does not skimp on his forgiveness. … The accumulation of your sins will not surpass the greatness of God’s mercy: The gravity of your wounds will not surpass the skill of the supreme Physician — so long as you abandon yourself to him with trust. Manifest your illness to the Physician, and speak to him with the words that David says: ‘Behold, I will confess my offense to the Lord, my sin is always before me.’ In this way you will succeed in making this a reality: ‘You have forgiven the evil of my heart'» («Le Catechesi» [The Catecheses] Rome, 1993, pp. 52-53).

[Translation by ZENIT]

[At the end of the audience, one of the Holy Father’s aides read the following summary in English:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Today’s Psalm begins with the words: blessed is the man whose offense is forgiven. St. Paul in his Letter to the Romans refers these words to the liberating grace offered to us in Christ. The strict logic of sin-punishment has been replaced, through God’s grace, by the joyful reality of sin-forgiveness. We, too, are blessed by recognizing and confessing our sin, particularly in the sacrament of penance, where we experience and celebrate with joy the reality of God’s unfailing mercy.

[The Pope then greeted pilgrims in several languages. In English, he said:]

I offer a warm welcome to all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors present at today’s audience. I greet particularly the groups from England, Sweden, New Zealand, Japan, China, Canada and the United States of America. I thank the choirs for their praise of God in song. Upon all of you I cordially invoke joy and peace in the Risen Christ who calls us to share in his victory over evil.

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