Lent: a season for Penance and Reconciliation
The devil made me do it! echoes in human conversation from the Garden of Eden to our day. The devil is the source of temptation, but succumbing to temptation is our own doing. Only if we come face to face with our own sinfulness, do we begin to be grateful for the power of Gods forgiveness. Only if we recognize the connection between sin and death, do we begin to probe the meaning of Christs death and resurrection. Only if we experience the evil we have done, do we begin to understand how God has brought redemption out of loss, love out of hatred.
Once aware of our sinfulness, we turn either to quiet despair or to God who offers us forgiveness. Who can forgive sins but God alone? the people of Jesus day rightly asked (Mark 2:7). God can forgive sins in many ways, of course, but the ordinary way of being forgiven by God in the Church is through the Sacrament of Penance. In the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, the risen Christ acts and forgives our sins as he forgave the sins of those who came to him during his earthly ministry. After his resurrection from the dead, Christ shared with the apostles his authority to forgive sins (John 20: 21-23).
Penance, like any sacrament, is a visible sign which Christ uses to give invisible grace. There are four components to the sacramental sign: a sense of sorrow for our sins and the expression of our sorrow to the Church, the confession of our sins to an ordained priest, the grant-ing of a penance by the priest in order to help overcome the evil effects of our forgiven sins, and the actual forgiveness of Christ made effective in the words of absolution pronounced by the priest. All four elements are essential to the sacrament, although they sometimes differ in sequence. In the early days of the Church, the penitent had to do his or her penance, which sometimes took years, before receiving absolution. Now, we usually do the penance imposed by the priest after we receive absolution. The intention to perform the penance must, however, be present when absolution is received. In danger of death or other extraordinary circumstances, absolution can be given before the confession of sins. But the intention to confess ones mortal sins must be present when absolution is received. Absolution is not a magic formula; it is conditioned by the other elements of the sacrament.
The formula of absolution pronounced by the priests sums up the Churchs understanding of what happens in the Sacrament: God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church, may God give you pardon and peace; and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Spirit. To the Sacrament, we bring contrition for our having sinned, confession of our every mortal sin and any other sin we care to express and desire to make satisfaction for our sins. The ordained priest brings the judgment of the Church and the forgiveness of Christ. This forgiveness reconciles the sinner to God and to Christs body, the Church.
The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation is available regularly in all our parishes, although there is some discussion about when it is most convenient to make the Sacrament available. Because the nature of the weekend has changed in recent years, the traditional time for going to confession on Saturday afternoons and evenings is often no longer the most convenient time for many people. During the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent, the Sacrament is often celebrated in communal fashion. These are important moments in the life of the Church, for they bring parishioners together to acknowledge their sinfulness as a people, and they make clearly visible the reconciliation of the sinner with both God and the Church.
This Lent I am grateful to be able to lead a communal reconciliation service in each of the six Vicariates of the Archdiocese. I am especially grateful to the priests who serve as confessors during these services, which provide communal preparation for the individual confession of sins and granting of absolution and then communal thanksgiving for our being forgiven. In fact, since every sin affects the health of Christs body, the Church, there is no such thing as a purely private sin. Confessing ones sins in the context of communal support and prayer is an acknowledgement that everything we do has an impact on the spiritual life of everyone else. This true insight has led some parishes to the regular practice of communal penance and general absolution without individual confession of sins. Over the past 30 years, the Holy See has made it clear that the regular use of general absolution is not consistent with the discipline of the Sacrament. Conversation around the use of general absolution in the Archdiocese has been going on for some months and will continue until we can see our way clear to being both faithful to the discipline of the Sacrament and respectful of practice in the Archdiocese. The Vicariate penance services open up such a path.
Insight into our sinfulness comes from the action of the Holy Spirit in our lives, moving us to recognize when we have opened up a gap between Gods love and ourselves. The Ten Commandments given to Moses on Mt. Sinai as the Lord was leading his people to freedom guide Gods people still in forming their conscience. The laws of the Church are also guides and are therefore helpful in the examination of conscience necessary before receiving the Sacrament of Penance. Many guides to self-examination begin with a consideration of our relationshipsto God, to those we are responsible for, to our social commitments. Often it is not easy to take the results of our examination of conscience to the judgment of the priest. Baring the less attractive aspects of our soul to a fellow human being is a severe mercy. We condemn ourselves at the chair of confession lest we be condemned at the chair of judgment, as an old Irish saying has it. This self-condemnation is a condition for spiritual progress. In a recent article in America magazine, Mary Sherry wrote: Since my return to regular one-on-one confession, I have been led to introspection and the discovery of what my systemic sin is. The Sacrament has become an ongoing resource for insight, healing and forgiveness in this area... Reconciliation is a sacrament that can bring the light of grace and calming peace to our dark and stormy night.
Frequenting the Sacrament of Reconciliation gives us categories to understand what our lives are really about. It is neither liberal nor conservative to lie or to commit adultery. It is simply wrong. It is neither liberal nor conservative to obey the laws of the Church. It is simply right. Wrong and right are the difference between death and life. They are the guideposts along the paths to damnation or to eternal life. That difference is what our lives are really about. All the rest is distraction.
In the act of owning up to our failures and accepting Gods forgiveness through the ministry of the priest, our struggle with the evil that warps our hearts is no longer just our burden. In the Sacrament of Penance, the Church stands with us in the struggle. The Church assures us of Gods forgiveness. It is strange to hear some Protestants who are completely certain of their own salvation question how Catholics can be certain of Gods forgiveness. The source of certitude is the same: the action of Jesus Christ, the savior who brings forgiveness of our sins. The difference lies in our recognizing the action of Christ in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
On the cross, Jesus overcame sin. On the evening of the day he rose from the dead, Christ gave his apostles power to forgive sins. In the Sacrament of Penance, through the ministry of the Church, Christ releases the power of Easter into our lives. The best way to observe Lent and prepare for Easter is through confessing our sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. God bless you.
Sincerely yours in Christ,