Asking for Forgiveness

I have been thinking much about the labor, the grace, and the art of asking for forgiveness lately. Not only are we, as Christians, in the season of Lent, we have also recently witnessed (yet again) very public performances of the “I am so sorry”-variety. I was probably not the only one who watched Tiger Woods’s televised version of such an “I am so sorry” after I had earlier pondered the Psalm for that day. It was after all – in an interesting coincidence — the first Friday in Lent. The psalm was Psalm 51. A few days after Tiger Woods’s apology, I watched in dismay as the presiding bishop of the German Lutheran Church, Margot Käßmann, resigned from her episcopal office with a terse televised statement, having been arrested for drunk driving the week-end before. And the mea culpa litanies coming out of Germany in response to new revelations about the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests there seem endless (centers of liturgical learning, sadly, are implicated as well).

How do we ask for forgiveness authentically? What is needed for the sound of our asking to ring true, and deeply so? (I remember a spectacularly naïve request for forgiveness I received a few years ago, and I still cringe in pain). One thing I do know: being able to say, straightforwardly, the words “forgive me” is a step in the right direction. The simple words say so much more than “I am sorry.” For one, “forgive me” voices a direct request to another, who by these two words is rendered visible as the one who has been wronged.

This brings me to the heart of what I have been thinking about, namely the confession of sins that many of us repeat during the Sunday celebration of Mass: I confess to Almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters that I have sinned… The beginning of this confession is not without promise. What follows, however, stops sadly short, I think. The prayer continues with a request to Mary, the angels and saints, and the gathered faithful, to pray for me. Amen. The End. Would one not expect, somewhere in this confession of sins, a straightforward pleading for forgiveness, something as simple as Forgive me, God, all that is past?
If asking for forgiveness does not come that easily to us human beings and is indeed both labor and art, should the liturgy not lead the way in embodying how to do this, authentically, deeply, and credibly? Why this silence in the confession of sins? We surely will not learn the labor and art of asking for forgiveness from watching televised apologies, however prominent the speakers. Only grace can truly teach us how to ask and pray for forgiveness.

Meanwhile, Psalm 51 remains an excellent start.


  1. Much to think about here, Teresa. While I appreciate the the request for intercession in the Roman Liturgy’s Confiteor, I have long preferred the Confession used in the contemporary language rite (II) of my own church — and now I know why:

    …we confess that we have sinned against you
    in thought, word, and deed,
    by what we have done,
    and by what we have left undone.
    We have not loved you with our whole heart;
    we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
    We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
    For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
    have mercy on us and forgive us…

    Not only is an admission of guilt needed, but an outright apology and request for forgiveness.

  2. Here in Japan I teach a course to High School juniors under the general rubric of Peacemaking and Peacemakers. A core topic for the second term is Forgiveness and Reconciliation. Some time is spent on the necessity of recognizing the need for both responsibility and accountability. Just saying “I’m sorry”, just about covers accepting responsibility, genuine statements of accountability, and requesting forgiveness demand that we face the hurt our actions have caused.
    When someone forgives us they are laying down the right to payback and declaring they are willing to resume loving us, or continue to love us. Forgiveness in this sense is an act of grace, costly grace, of which oft times were are unworthy.

  3. I’ll have to think about this more; thanks for pointing it out. This is clearly a vestige of the prayer’s pre-history as a private prayer of preparation (vesting or approach to the altar). It is not complete as it stands, and it is only partially completed by the Misereatur. It may additionally be influenced by the medieval Roman notion that at least for serious sins, grace is needed for the penitent to develop perfect contrition. Hence the request for prayer would be intended to be a petition for (rather than a statement of) complete sorrow for sins.

    Of course, in the eucharistic context where it now stands, its ritual completion would fittingly fall right before communion, perhaps in the “We are not worthy to receive you…”…

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