The Sacrament of Penance: whatever happened to confession?

The Sacrament of Penance: whatever happened to confession?

Br Barry Coldrey

He had not planned on dying young. At sixteen, "John" loved life, his school, his girl friend, his sport and his part-time job at McDonalds.

One Friday evening he was cleaning the rear of the restaurant, sneaking a furtive cigarette, when a gas cylinder exploded showering him with flaming debris ... medical care was available quickly ... the paramedics worked tirelessly ... a short race to casualty at a hospital ... but "John" was beyond medical assistance.

On life-support and pumped with drugs he struggled to greet family crowding around the bed. The assistant priest from the parish was there too, a friend of his mother's.

At his modern Catholic secondary college there was little systematic religious education. The time allowed was crowded with the minutiae of school organisation spiced with up-front discussions around sex, drugs and modern living.

However, now it was crunch time and a primary school memory surfaced - or was it the laser-beam of divine grace or his mother's prayers? "John" asked for the priest to hear his confession. Family and friends stood back or moved aside. There was not much time remaining.

Father got the basics clear. "John" had not been to confession since primary school nor had he attended Mass much in recent years. Sure, he'd committed the usual sins of impurity, had sex with his girl friend a few times, blasphemed the Lord's name a lot to keep in with his mates in various sporting teams, and he never prayed.

All the sordid tissue of teenage sin and human weakness was there. The confession was sincere and complete. Father gave absolution quietly and faded into the background.

Crisis of practice

This little story underlines what has become a major crisis of practice, certainly in the Western Church, namely the near disappearance of regular confession. Since the reforms of Pope St Pius X about a century ago and the encouragement of regular communion given by the Second Vatican Council during the 1960s, it has become normal for Catholics who attend Mass to receive communion. This is a good thing.

However, side-by-side with the ready participation of active Catholics receiving communion, there has been a steep decline, among many of the same practising Catholics, in reception of the Sacrament of Penance (Reconciliation). In plain language, only a handful Catholics now go to confession regularly, many of them rarely from one year to the next.

The situation is more serious with 'Census' or 'cultural' Catholics. These Catholics may attend Mass occasionally for a special event: a Commencement or Graduation Mass at a secondary school, a family wedding or a friend's obsequies, for example. However, when the time for communion arrives almost all the congregation receives the Eucharist, including many inactive Catholics.

This poses a serious problem since we cannot enter intimate communion with God in the Eucharist until we have first repented of any mortal sins and been absolved in the Sacrament of Penance.

This is the traditional teaching of the Church, recently reaffirmed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: "Anyone aware of having sinned mortally must not receive communion without having received absolution in the Sacrament of Penance." (1415)

It is impossible to know whether any specific inactive Catholics who approach communion at a Mass for a special occasion are doing the wrong thing. However, the possibility is there if such people have ignored confession for years and attend Mass only occasionally as a social duty.

In the Western Church, regular communion among both active Catholics and others who attend Mass rarely has become the norm. However, few - even among practising Catholics - go to confession. The dilemma is clear.

Two millennia ago, when St Paul spoke strongly to his Corinthian converts, he mentioned the matter of their approaching the Eucharist appropriately, and certainly not unworthily. Paul wrote: "Everyone is to examine himself and then eat of the Bread or drink from the Cup because a person who eats or drinks without recognising the Body is eating and drinking his own condemnation" (1 Cor. 11:29-30).

A number of the early Church Fathers made the same point in similar language. Origen wrote, c. 245 AD: "What a crime is theirs who rashly seize Communion and touch the Body and Blood of the Lord ... even though their foulness is not washed away by the sacrament of the Church. For it is written: 'Whoever eats the Bread and drinks the Cup of the Lord unworthily will be drinking damnation to himself'."

St Cyprian of Carthage wrote, c. 250AD: "Those presbyters (bishops) who, contrary to Gospel law ... before penitence is fulfilled ... dare to offer on their behalf and to give them the Eucharist, that is, they dare to profane the Sacred Body of the Lord. Moreover, it is written 'Whoever eats the Bread and drinks the Cup of the Lord unworthily will be guilty of the Body and Blood of the Lord'."

Why so few?

Why do so few Catholics, even active Catholics, go to confession? The reasons appear to be a mixture of the following:

* The secular culture has eroded a sense of personal sin, the need for personal conversion and our need for God's forgiveness.

* The secular influence has eroded the hard sayings of Jesus regarding the existence of Hell and the realities of the Four Last Things: death, judgement, Heaven or Hell.

* There is the euphemistic talk by religious leaders who replace hard personal sin (requiring forgiveness) with cosy social sin. Sometimes they avoid the word sin altogether and talk in evasive generalities such as "some static in our lives".

* It is embarrassing to confess one's secret sins to another person, in this case the priest in the Sacrament of Penance.

* In the frenetic pace of modern living, some find it difficult to arrange suitable times to receive the sacrament.

* The clerical sexual abuse scandals have lowered the reputation of the priesthood. The scandals have made some, especially many women, less willing to confess their sins to a priest.

However, times keep changing. In spite of the powerful influences of the secular agenda and the cultural majority some young adult Catholics are returning to the full practice of their faith. Where these young adults meet, for example, at conferences of the Australian Catholic Students Association, at SIX30 Holy Hours, at Theology-in-the-Pub (under whatever name) and in a variety of similar groups which connect with some religious orders, the Sacrament of Penance is available and many go to confession.

Young dedicated adult Catholics and younger priests have discovered one another and the sacraments are readily available. Moreover, numbers in the seminaries are rising.

Prodigal Son

One of Jesus' parables which so strikingly prepares the ground for the Sacrament of Penance is that of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). Most readers will recall the parable which commences in these words: "A man had two sons. The younger said to the Father, 'Father let me have the share of the estate that will come to me ...'."

The parable dramatises God's desire to forgive, but the sinner, the Prodigal Son, has to make the first move, to turn to God and ask for forgiveness.

Sin and forgiveness are best understood in terms of relationship between God and His people. The Old Testament uses the term covenant to dramatise this relationship when God took the Hebrews as His own and treated them as a chosen people. God expected fidelity on their part, i.e., that they would worship no other than Himself.

The Hebrews did not respond with consistent fidelity, but even when His people were defiant and sinned, God always forgave them as soon as they showed repentance.

In due course, God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, into the world to reconcile mankind with the Father by His death on the cross. In this understanding, sin is not merely breaking moral laws, but breaking a relationship, a relationship between God and each human being. Our human nature, so capable of doing good is, however, broken and we find it easy to do the wrong thing. In view of our brokenness, Jesus gave us a sacrament for the forgiveness of these sins, the Sacrament of Penance.

On the evening of His Resurrection, Jesus appeared to the Apostles in the Upper Room. John, the evangelist, records: "He breathed on them and said: 'Receive the Holy Spirit, when you forgive men's sins, they are forgiven, when you hold them bound, they are held bound'." This power, given first to the Apostles has continued with their ordained successors down through the ages.

Today, when penitents approach confession, they have three actions to perform: contrition, confession and satisfaction, or in more simple language, be sorry, tell the sins and then do something to restore their relationship with God which has been weakened by sins.

* As with the Prodigal Son in the parable, we penitents must be sorry for our sins, even if our motives for the sorrow are mixed.

* As penitents we must confess our sins to the priest.

* Our third action is to carry out some penance in order to make up in small part for the sins we have committed.

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