Saint Augustine identified seven psalms as “penitential.” The 32nd is one of four of those utilized for the Rite of Penance. (Psalms 6, 91, and 102 were not chosen–perhaps possible inclusions for the next edition of the Rite.)
Nine years ago, this post appeared here, and covers the Biblical text well enough. I’d like to tease out a minor reflection on the antiphon given for use, paraphrased from verse 5c:
Lord, forgive the wrong I have done.
… and these verses (3-6) which get to the crux of one of the psalmist’s themes:
Because I kept silent,
my bones wasted away;
I groaned all day long.
For day and night your hand
was heavy upon me;
my strength withered
as in dry summer heat.
Then I declared my sin to you;
my guilt I did not hide.
I said, “I confess my transgression to the LORD,”
and you took away the guilt of my sin.
The psalmist links infirmity with un-confessed sin. Is this the way it works? Does God really withhold good health so as to extract an admission of guilt? Sometimes believers get that confused: if people are sick, or otherwise suffering misfortune God must be punishing them. That logic is flawed, even if the theology were correct. And Catholicism has been, in principle, a skeptic on that argument.
That said, some sins certainly do have consequences. Promiscuity might mean the capture of a sexual disease. Addictions to alcohol or drugs might damage or destroy one’s body. If one is caught in theft, one might spend time in prison. These are not divine punishments. Such misfortune is a biological reality of being a mortal and flawed human being. Or a natural consequence of being caught in a crime, being investigated, convicted, and imprisoned. But sometimes people grow ill simply because of random biology.
Physical illness or mental anguish, even if not God whacking us directly, may be an opportunity to reflect on our life. A sick person may spend time convalescing in a hospital, or home in bed. Our regular activites are limited or gone. We have time on our hands. If we’re not medicating ourselves to sleep, we might take the opportunity to reflect on our life. We might aspire to a return to normal. But sometimes people have hope for something better than they knew before their experience of disease or serious injury.
The other aspect of Psalm 32:5-6 (“Then I declared my sin …) is that confession gets a sin out into the open with one other person. As long as sin is hidden, it can grapple with us and exert its full strength. But bringing our fault to a confessor enables a certain freedom to take root in the penitent. In freedom we can make better choices in the future, with the help of God’s grace.
Psalm 32 is certainly appropriate for a communal liturgy. Select verses might also be an encouragement for a penitent returning to the sacrament or to the Church after a long absence. And if a penitent happens to be seriously ill, this passage might provide spiritual sustenance when the Sacrament of Anointing is also celebrated.
If so, I think it’s good to be mindful that this psalm is classified as a lament. A bibllical lament traditionally concludes with an expression of praise and thanksgiving to God. I love this expression in verse 10b:
… mercy surrounds the one who trusts in the LORD
Check the whole psalm here for the perspective of all eleven verses.