PARDON AND PEACE:
A Sinner's Guide to Confession
by Fr Francis Randolph
(Ignatius Press, 2001, 185pp, $30.50 plus $4.40 postage.
Available from Ignatius Press, PO Box 180, Sumner Park, Qld 4074, (07) 3376 0105)
There is little doubt that, in the past 30 years, the Sacrament of Penance's importance has diminished in the practice of the faith of many Catholics. There is also the more than alarming fact that many young Catholics born in those 30 years have had little if any formation in the meaning and importance of this sacrament.
These unhappy phenomena explain the many calls for a revival in the practice of individual confession with which the pontificate of Pope John Paul II has been permeated. Fr Francis Randolph's book is a practical response to the urgent need for a renewal of teaching about and the practice of this sacrament.
Fr Randolph works systematically through the various parts of the sacrament, elucidating their meaning and giving the practical advice that only an experienced confessor could give. The author also draws from his experience as a penitent, resulting in a book which provides an appreciation of confession from both sides of the grille.
The book strongly, and wisely, advocates frequent confession, warning that abandoning this salutary practice is "an easy trap to fall into, the idea that because we are not conscious of committing any sins worth talking about, we do not need to go to confession." Randolph likens this to people who stop taking their prescribed medication and then wonder why they are no longer well.
Fr Randolph is refreshingly clear that general absolution is "an insult to the people" which if "done in defiance of the clear instructions of the Church, cannot be said to be a true sacrament." The response of an African priest who alone has the pastoral care of six thousand parishioners, when asked whether he used general absolution frequently, eloquently illustrates the author's stance: "No I couldn't treat my people like that! I have four hours of confessions every Saturday, then I come out of the box and count off a hundred more people whom I will hear, and I send the rest away till next week."
There are, however, some unfortunate features of Randolph's text. In the earlier part of the book he repeatedly states that absolution is the "assurance of God's forgiveness." Alas, such an expression is quite Protestant, and stands in contradistinction to the language of the Council of Trent and of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. To be fair, Randolph's orthodoxy is clear from his treatment of absolution later in the book, but one would have hoped for better theological language earlier on.
And in an age where scruples are rare and consciences are by and large numb, one might also argue about the pastoral prudence of Randolph's emphasis on the difficulty of committing mortal sin, and of asserting that confession is rarely strictly necessary. There is some wisdom in the practice of submitting all grave matter to the judgement of a confessor. This is, of course, inherent in Randolph's promotion of frequent confession.
In spite of these reservations, for Catholics who have been away from Confession for some time, for those whose year of birth deprived them of the systematic Catholic formation enjoyed by earlier generations, for those seeking to renew their appreciation and use of this most wonderful sacrament of God's mercy, and for those whose solemn privilege it is to teach and form others in the faith, this book has much to offer.