Thinking outside the box: why the Sacrament of Reconciliation needs to be revisited
“The Church from time to time ought to examine herself in the mirror of the Gospel” was one of the favourite sayings of Yves Congar, the French Dominican theologian who played an influential role at the Second Vatican Council. The Council, of course, did a great deal of such examination, but the process is a never-ending one. More than 50 years later, in the papacy of Francis, who never ceases to proclaim that “the name of God is mercy”, it may be the right time to let this holy exercise be repeated for what might be called “the sacrament of mercy” – penance, or reconciliation.
Acknowledging that “with the passage of time, there have crept into the rites of the sacraments certain features which have rendered their nature and purpose far from clear to the people of today, some changes have become necessary to adapt them to the needs of our own times” (62), the Council decreed in its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, that “the rite and formulas for the Sacrament of Penance are to be revised so that they more clearly express both the nature and effect of the sacrament” (72).
In other words, the Council made it clear that it judged that the present external rite and formulas are inadequate expressions of the internal gift of grace, and it therefore mandated the Church to search for a better framework for the administration of the sacrament. “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52). In this spirit, I would like to reflect on the present state of the Sacrament of Penance, to explore what we might find in the tradition of the Church that might help us refresh and renew the sacrament for the needs of the faithful today, and to suggest what kind of changes to the rite and formulas might make God’s prodigality more manifest than the present ones do.
Responding to the Council’s demand, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1973 published a “Declaration on the Dignity of the Sacrament of Penance”, and in 1983 Pope John Paul II promulgated the new Code of Canon Law that included some revised norms for penance. These introduced some new disciplinary norms and orations but the changes did not adequately meet the mandate of the Council to adapt the rites and the formulas so that they would make the Sacrament of Penance respond to the pastoral needs of the contemporary Church.
Meanwhile, over the last five or six decades, the attitude of Catholics toward private confession has changed dramatically. The long lines of people waiting their turn to have their Confession heard are gone; in many churches, the old confessional boxes have disappeared, or have been converted to other uses. Attempts to administer the sacrament in a different way – for example by general absolution – even when they were proving successful, have been rejected.
The result is that a vacuum has been created. Instead of a Church flowing with mercy in divine abundance – as it should – it has instead been reduced to a trickle. Some communities are in a state of spiritual dehydration. The body of Christ is parched of healing grace, and this is leaving it drained and weakened, without the energy to deal with the abuse crisis, let alone become the missionary Church that Pope Francis longs for.
In the history of the practice of the Sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation, five major trends or themes can be distinguished, not as episodes in a straight line of development, but emerging at different times from different sources, intermingling and serving different purposes, until uniformity was imposed at the Council of Trent.
First, repentance and forgiveness blended into living liturgy. The faithful abided by St Paul’s warning: “Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup” (1 Corinthians 11:28). In antiquity, the liturgy of Lent developed as an on-going supplication for forgiveness, and the celebration of Easter became an explosion of gratitude for divine pardon. The rites were locally regulated; fairly common practice that nourished Christian communities for some 1,200 years.
A second element was that the faithful in a state of serious sin would “join the order of Penitents”. The word “order” did not designate a religious order but the group of all those who were doing “public penance”. To join this order, the bishop’s authorisation was necessary. Their real penalty was exclusion from the Eucharist. In general, young persons were not admitted to this order; in most places, women were excluded. Again, only the bishop had the right to reinstate the offender. The principle behind the practice seems to have been that for grave public offences, such as apostasy, murder, arson and adultery (each bishop had his own detailed list of additional transgressions), public reparation was warranted. Of early origin, the practice was abandoned by the fifth century. An imperial attempt to revive it in the ninth century was unsuccessful.
A third strand in the tradition is that of “tariffed” (or measured) penance. “Tariffed” because every sin had its proportional punishment – meticulously worked out. The system originated in Irish monasteries in the sixth century. It allowed for any penitent to confess any sin to any priest and obtain absolution – having completed the appropriate penance. When missionary-monks transported the practice to mainland Europe, it initially met with vehement rejection, but by the twelfth century it had become recognised by bishops as a legitimate and one of the principal ways of obtaining forgiveness.
A fourth aspect of the Church’s teaching and practice of the Sacrament of Penance is its emergence as an “Easter duty”. The Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 imposed the duty on every faithful to confess their sins at Easter time to their parish priest – no one else. Apart from sanctification, the intention of this new law was to ferret out heretics. It was a response to the revival at the time of a form of Manicheism – which rejected Confession. Parishioners who were “no-shows” became “suspects of heresy” – a ground for the Inquisitors to question them.
Finally, there was the consolidation and codification of the laws of the Church at the Council of Trent in 1551. This gave Catholics a set of laws by which they have been abiding ever since childhood. Recently, however, much work has been done in evaluating and re-interpreting the Council’s determinations in a broader context than that of the heated debates of the Reformation.
The Catholic tradition of 2,000 years is complex and varied: not unlike a wondrous symphony. At its best, every sound blends harmoniously into the whole. It may take centuries to notice and adjust a disconcerting note.
When the day comes, the church is lit up; fresh flowers are by the altar, as for a feast. The priest enters, and goes to the altar, vested as for the solemn liturgy (remember the grand cope, pluviale?). The first part of the service is planned on the pattern of the Liturgy of the Word before the Eucharist. There are readings from the Old and New Testament pointing up the message of God’s never failing mercy. Then the priest lets the Word unfold in his homily (a good opportunity for drawing attention to the collective sins that we all commit but hardly ever confess, like consumerism, social pride, and … who can enumerate them?).
The second part of the Service is the reception of the Sacrament. In the background there might be gentle music or low-key chant. The priest asks those who wish to receive the Sacrament to step forward. Then, in a slow rhythm, they one by one face the priest before the altar, and confess with a firm voice audible by the congregation that they have sinned against God and neighbour, and ask for the “remission of their debt”. The priest gives absolution to each in turn – from person to person, no general absolution – with words and/or gestures. The whole congregation sees and hears what is happening. Then the service ends with a prayer of thanksgiving and the congregation – of perhaps 30 to 40 persons – singing a hymn giving glory to God.
My imaginary parish of the future occasionally also has services for special groups such as school children or parents or single people or members of religious communities – and even for particular professions such as teachers, politicians, bankers, including the priests of the diocese (the bishop never misses that one). Visitors to the Parish of All Angels also report something even more unusual: in this troubled world, here is a Catholic community where all join together in the cheerful and unembarrassed rendition of songs and hymns.
“Our people live in small communities, each called a village. Many villages together (30 or 50 or even 70) form a parish. Mostly we have one priest for such a large parish. We have, however, a great number of catechists, all capable of teaching the people how to live their Christian life. All our people know that the proper reception of penance is most important, and during Lent everyone wants to go to Confession.
“Each village has a couple of days assigned to it for the reception of the Sacrament of Penance from a priest. Well before, the catechists prepare them. On the first day they all come to the main church of the parish, arriving around two o’clock in the afternoon. For an hour all pray and sing together. Then they break up into small groups, to pray, to sing and to hear the explanation of one of the parables on God’s mercy. A catechist leads them in an examination of conscience, but not allowing any public confession of sins – even when someone would try to do it.
“Around six o’clock there is a meal; all sit down to it in a large circle. After it they go into the church. There the priest speaks again of the goodness of God and asks them to be sorry for their sins. Then he invites them to stand around the altar. The priest has a catechist on either side of him. The first catechist carries a crucifix; the penitent kisses it. The priest lays his hands on the head of the penitent and says very distinctly the words of the absolution. The second catechist holds up the Bible; the penitent kisses it as a sign that he or she will obey the law of the Lord in the future. The whole community remains there singing and praying until all have had their turn; it may take a couple of hours. Then they make their penance together by saying specific prayers. Once the ceremony is concluded, they may go home to bed, but often they prefer to stay awake, singing and praying through the night.
“Early next morning the preparation for the Eucharist begins. The catechists speak to the people on the proper dispositions required, on how much God loves them all; on how much they should love God. A wonderfully participative celebration of the Mass follows; all receive Holy Communion with great devotion. After the Eucharist, the community gathers again in front of the church. Then each person goes to all other persons and asks for pardon and gives pardon. Each must talk individually to everyone present.”
The bishop assured us that “people are very receptive; they go home with the happiness that is described in the Gospels”. He said that he had been compelled by this experience to find a new way to celebrate the sacrament. Previously, when he visited the villages, he used to hear confessions individually, and he did it night after night, into the late hours, to the point where, he said, “I could not remember my own name.” It was hardly a good state of mind in which to deal with sensitive spiritual issues. Now, he said, the celebration of the sacrament is full of joy and contentment.
Perhaps we should reflect on how Jesus handled the trial of the woman caught in adultery. When he was left alone with the woman standing before him, he asked her: “Has no one condemned you?” She replied: “No one, sir.” And Jesus said to her: “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”
There, in the mirror of the Gospel, we find the everlasting counsel as to how to implement the mandate of the Council.
Ladislas Orsy SJ teaches Jurisprudence at the Law Center of Georgetown University, Washington, DC. His more than 60-year career includes serving as an expert adviser to the bishops at the Second Vatican Council and working on the preparation of the new Code of Canon Law, adopted in 1983.