The following is a shortened version of Archbishop Barry Hickey's Pastoral Letter to the Priests and People of the Archdiocese of Perth published in September 2001.
The Sacrament of Penance, which flows from Christ's own mandate to the Church, is an expression of God's desire to heal and forgive. This Sacrament has been offered in different ways at different periods of history, but its essential elements have always been present: contrition, confession, penance and absolution.
In his Apostolic Exhortation following the 1984 Synod, Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, Pope John Paul II spoke of the Sacrament of Penance being "in crisis" and "entering into ... an area of shadow and silence". He called for an urgent renewal of the Sacrament because it was "the ordinary way of obtaining forgiveness and the remission of serious sins after Baptism". This required, he said, a new catechesis.
The Holy Father has taken up this call again in his Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Inuente where he urges pastors to "arm themselves with more confidence, creativity and perseverance in presenting this Sacrament and leading people to appreciate it".
This Pastoral Letter seeks to take up the Holy Father's concerns about the disuse of the Sacrament of Penance.
Catholic people are urged to appreciate again the extraordinary power of this Sacrament, and to make it an integral part of their journey as followers of Christ. Priests are called on to undertake a thorough catechesis on this Sacrament and its proper place in the lives of the people, alerting them by word and example to the wonderful gifts of forgiveness and healing that flow from this encounter with Christ.
In recent discussions with priests in this Archdiocese, it has been reported that in most parishes the level of confessional practice among churchgoers is extremely low, with most receiving the Sacrament at Christmas and Easter.
Both the First Rite for reconciliation of individual penitents and the Second Rite for reconciliation of several penitents with individual confession and absolution are available in the majority of parishes.
Despite some differences of opinion, the broad picture painted by the large number of the priests consulted was generally consistent.
The link between Confession and Holy Communion was not widely understood, according to some, especially the need to confess grave sins before receiving Communion. There was also some confusion about what constitutes a grave sin. Missing Mass without a serious reason was no longer perceived by many people as seriously wrong. At the same time the priests noticed that the people felt a real need to be forgiven.
As ordained shepherds of their people, priests are to accept their responsibility to call them back to the proper use of the Sacrament of Penance. They are urged to dwell on the profound significance of their role as confessors, and to do so with humility, recognising that people trust them with their innermost confidences, believing them to represent not just the Church but Jesus Christ Himself.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church elegantly expresses the confessor's role: "When he celebrates the Sacrament of Penance, the priest is fulfilling the ministry of the Good Shepherd who seeks the lost sheep, of the Good Samaritan who binds up wounds, of the Father who awaits the prodigal son and welcomes him on his return, and of the just and impartial judge whose judgement is both just and merciful. The priest is the sign and the instrument of God's merciful love for the sinner" (CCC No 1465).
In taking up his task to renew the Sacrament of Penance, the priest must first of all celebrate the Rites as laid down in the form approved by the Church in the Rite of Penance" (1973). Confessions are to be oracular, that is, spoken, except for those who have speech difficulties. The authorised formula of absolution must always be used.
The attitude of the confessor towards the penitent is to be warm and welcoming, not harsh and judgmental. He is to be a good and patient listener, encouraging the penitent to feel secure enough to confess without fear.
Penitents are required for integrity to confess all the grave sins committed since their last confession. They are also urged to confess less serious sins, that is, venial sins, to draw strength and grace from this sacrament of healing.
Penances should contribute to the spiritual growth of each individual penitent. Penances given should be appropriate to the penitent's personal situation and the gravity of the offence. Penance can be prayers, offerings, voluntary acts of self�denial or acts of kindness, justice or service to others.
Some satisfaction for sin is required personally. This is achieved through carrying out a penance.
In order to assist the celebration of the Sacrament, steps will be taken in this Arch�diocese to assemble or produce suitable pen�itential resources, homily notes and Second Rite services for use in Lent and Advent.
Confessional areas are to be adapted to suit the requirement of the Reconciliation Rites, allowing anonymity or face�to-face confession at the wish of the penitent. The personal preference of the priest is secondary to the requirements of the Rites and the sensitivity of the penitent.
The proper place for hearing confessions is a church or an oratory, although for a just reason, the Sacrament can be celebrated elsewhere. Priests should re-examine the times set for Reconciliation to make them more suited to present-day circumstances. The long tradition of Saturday morning or afternoon may no longer suit the majority of people, yet it would be unwise to abandon the practice unless more suitable occasions can be found. Priests could make themselves available before Mass or during times of Eucharistic Adoration.
If the Sacrament of Penance is to be effectively renewed in the life of the people, catechetical instruction is essential. In this the priest has a major role, although it is shared by others, particularly by parents and teachers in regard to children.
In fidelity to the Holy Father's request in Novo Millennio Adveniente for renewed catechesis and new ways of overcoming the present crisis, priests are to stress frequently the importance of this Sacrament, using to the fullest those special times when people are most receptive, Lent and Advent, before the celebration of First Eucharist and Confirmation and the Sacrament of Matrimony, and before especially significant Feast Days such as the Feast of All Souls.
In encouraging people to frequent the Sacrament and, particularly, to attend the celebration of the Second Rite, priests are reminded that an enthusiastic appeal from the pulpit will have a much more powerful effect than a paragraph in the parish notices.
People are reminded that those who have committed a grave or mortal sin may not receive Holy Communion until they have received forgiveness in the Sacrament of Penance.
Before approaching the priest, the penitent should prepare well through prayer, reading of selected Scripture passages and an honest examination of conscience together with genuine sentiments of repentance and a firm purpose of amendment.
Penitents should listen to any advice given, raise questions of conscience, accept readily the penance given and receive joyfully and thankfully the healing words of absolution. They should be able to express their sorrow for sin in a formal Act of Contrition or its equivalent in their own words.
Having reflected on this wonderful Sacrament, its origins in Jesus' own ministry, his entrustment of it to the Church, its incalculable spiritual benefits known throughout history by saints and sinners alike, and the peace and joy it brings, we should be lost in wonder at the goodness of God who welcomes sinners with such love. Let us not neglect this spiritual treasure.
I urge all members of the Church, people and clergy alike, to reflect again on their own use of this Sacrament and to recognise its transforming effects in their lives. The Sacrament of Penance is a personal encounter with Christ who forgives, reconciles and restores us to new life.