Sunday, September 20, 2015

Repentance, Atonement, and Forgiveness:
Catholic Thoughts on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement

Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur
by Maurycy Gottlieb
“The purpose of Yom Kippur is to bring about reconciliation between people and between individuals and God. According to Jewish tradition, it is also the day when God decides the fate of each human being.” – Ariela Pelaia
“Yom Kippur is the supreme day of forgiveness.” – Jonathan Sacks
On Yom Kippur, the ritual trial reaches its conclusion. The people finally drop all their defenses and excuses and throw themselves on the mercy of the court, yet the same people never lose the conviction that they will be pardoned. This atonement is by divine grace; it is above and beyond the individual effort or merit.” Rabbi Irving Greenberg
Before my conversion to Catholicism, I observed (as a secular Jew) only one religious holiday, Yom Kippur,    My observance was not orthodox, although I did and do now fast (note: Jewish fasts are more stringent than Catholic--no food whatsoever).     I would go to some place far away from the city, think about the past year and ask God to forgive me for all the sins and wrongs I had committed and ask Him to make me better.


My observance of repentance (Hebrew: t'shuvah)--admitting wrongdoing and asking forgiveness from God--was only a part of the Yom Kippur atonement process.   I have found out since then that Orthodox Jews  hold that there are three ways we can sin: against God, against our fellows, and against ourselves.  

To atone for sins against God and ourselves, Jewish tradition requires that we have to sincerely resolve not to commit such sins in the future.    With respect to sins against myself, I am supposed first, to forgive myself (very hard to do in my case) and second, to set up a program whereby I will not commit that sin in the future.

To atone for sins against others, we have to apologize for hurts we have inflicted on them and ask for their forgiveness, and to make restitution when that is possible.  Interestingly, any Twelve Step Program (some years ago I was involved with several) requires atonement, specifying that we attempt to make amends for what we have done wrong:
Step 8:  “Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.”
Step 9:  “Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”
One article (can't find the reference now) gives the following traditional Jewish practice: if the person you have asked for forgiveness doesn't do so after the first request, you can ask two more times; if the person still doesn't forgive you, you can write it off IF you have made a sincere and effective effort to right the wrong you have done.


So, how do all those Jewish observances square with Catholic teaching and dogma about repentance, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and the sacrifice of Christ, as the lamb of God, to save us from sin?   As a Catholic, do I err or sin by fasting on Yom Kippur and making special prayers and acts of atonement?

There are several important differences.   First, as a Catholic, I acknowledge and glory in the fundamental dogma of the Church: Jesus Christ replaces the scapegoat that was offered by the high priest at the Holy of Holies in the Temple at Yom Kippur;  He is the sacrificial lamb, who gave Himself up for our eternal life.    He, who was without sin,  took on the sins of world by His Passion.

Second, as a Catholic, I should not offer my repentance directly to God.    My confession of sins and request for forgiveness is made to God through a priest,  in persona Christi, to Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God.  Much more can be said about the mental preparation for receiving absolution in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the resolutions, the contrition, the restitution to those injured (as with Jewish teaching), but this is covered in the Catholic Catechism on this Sacrament.

Suppose a priest isn't available--as the example in my Sacramental Theology class put it, you're on a sinking ship and no priest is available.   What do you do then?    The Church takes all things into consideration and that situation also.  There is "an act of perfect contrition":
"Among the penitent’s acts contrition occupies first place. Contrition is ‘sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed together with the resolution not to sin again.’ When it arises from a love by which God is loved above all else, contrition is called ‘perfect’ (contrition of charity). Such contrition remits venial sins; it also obtains forgiveness of mortal sins if it includes the firm resolution to have recourse to sacramental confession as soon as possible" CCC 1451-52
So there are fundamental differences and there are similarities--similarities in being contrite and resolving to do better, in making atonement and restitution to those we have harmed,  but differences in the mediator through whom we offer repentance,  and in acknowledging a Savior who takes on our sins, including Original Sin.

And with this,  "G'mar Hatima Tova”--may you be sealed in the Book of Life.
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About Me

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Retired, cranky, old physicist.   Convert to Catholicism in 1995.   Trying to show that there is no contradiction between what science tells us about the world and our Catholic faith.   Intermittent blogs and adult education classes to achieve this end (see   and

Extraordinary Minister of Communion volunteer to federal prison and hospital; lector, EOMC.
Sometime player of bass clarinet, alto clarinet, clarinet, bass, tenor bowed psaltery for parish instrumental group and local folk group.

And, finally, my motivation:
“It is also necessary—may God grant it!—that in providing others with books to read I myself should make progress, and that in trying to answer their questions I myself should find what I am seeking.
Therefore at the command of God our Lord and with his help, I have undertaken not so much to discourse with authority on matters known to me as to know them better by discoursing devoutly of them.”
St. Augustine of Hippo, The Trinity I,8.