I committed the end of my master’s study and my thesis to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. At the time it felt like throwing my pearls before swine, since next to Anointing, Confession – more formally the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation – is the most ignored of the seven sacraments.
Though I’ve been a liturgist by affinity and truing for much of my life, it was moral theology rather than liturgical students that drew me to this topic. During a class discussion regarding the current preference in much moral theology to understand sin as “missing the mark” rather than as one of many bad acts listed on a check-off list of sins, I asked if the Sacrament of Reconciliation has caught up with this understanding. Prof. Gula paused for a moment and answered “no”.
Admittedly, my research and writing didn’t stay long in the field of moral theology. My historical research and my practical experience led me to focus on the role of community in the sacrament. This communal aspect has been almost entirely lost and must be reclaimed if the Sacrament of Reconciliation is to have a future in the lives of Catholics.
We are social beings. It is rare that our sinfulness stays between us and God. Admitting our sins to a member of our community and expressing contrirition addresses the social aspect of both sin and spirituality, as does the mediation of forgiveness through another person.
Individualism, rampant in our culture and incompatible with Catholicism and many other religious traditions, makes the argument for reconciliation with the community a tough sell. In the earliest years of the Church, the primary goal or effect of Penance was reconciliation with the community (which by definition was the local Chuch, which implied reconciliation with God because the Church was Christ’s body on earth).
The move away from public penance was done for all the right reasons – to encourage more frequent practice and to foster a relationship between a penitent and their confessor-cum-spiritual advisor. More than 1000 years later we have confused privacy with anonymity, and have made the ability to offer absolution, not counsel, the only criteria for hearing confessions.
I want to offer as an example my own practice of confession, not because it is normative but because it may be instructive. I go to confession a few times a year at either of the two Jesuit institutions where I work. I rarely meet with the priests with whom I am friendliest, but with those whom I know moderately well. They know my role in the community. They can place my confessed sins on the wider matrix of my experience and attempt to understand how that affects me.
I don’t go to confession looking for extended conversation. Usually, brief counsel is offered, and this is valuable to me. My confessors can understand how my sin affects my work and relationships. When they offer absolution, I know that they are truly offering it on behalf of the community.
My situation is unique, and that is a challenge to the Church. Parish, work and neighborhood do not overlap for Catholics the way they did 75 years ago. The Church’s ministers must experiment with ways to connect the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation to the web of relationships we all exist in.
Additionally, the faithful should seek out experiences that connect their practice of confession with the life of the Church.We can complain all day about how our parish’s confession schedule conflicts with XYZ, or “this one time I had a horrible experience in confession” (believe me, I have one of those stories too. It was really, really bad), but ultimately we have to get over it, and maybe even get creative.
Sacraments always offer grace. Sometimes we take this for granted. We fail to analyze and tend to the experience of the faithful because we know that God comes to us in the sacraments no matter how messy our sacramental practice is. I try to think of this another way: we are privileged to know God in this way, and those of us in ministry are particularly privileged to shape the experience of encountering God through the sacraments. It is the responsibility of all the faithful, not just ministers, to prepare ourselves and our people to celebrate, together.
What is your experience of confession? How would you enhance the practice of the Sacrament?
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