Over the past two weeks, we have been revisiting the “Jubilee Year of Mercy” which was solemnly proclaimed by Pope Francis. Let’s dig a little deeper into this idea of “mercy.” This week I would like to touch upon the ultimate and tangible sign of god’s mercy: The Sacrament of Reconciliation or “Confession.”
Luke 6:36 says, “Be merciful, as your Heavenly Father is merciful.” Well, what does that mean? “Be nice?” Is that it? The biblical idea of God is not about God “being nice.” First, being merciful is about returning to God and reestablishing a “right relationship” with God. This has an intrinsic benefit. In this way, people experience “touch the grandeur of God with their own hands and feel His peace.” (Pope Francis). Second, being merciful is what has to happen initially for this to occur.
How is Confession a reflection of God’s mercy that is constant? Is it possible that Confession can become “episodic?” This can be demonstrated in confessing the same sins not only weekly but also days later. Where is the pull to “amend and change my life, change my heart, pull away from occasions of sin?” Can there be a bit of the “consumer” in the way that I approach the sacrament. Incidentally, can this be on the part of the priest as well as the penitent?
Confession needs a much larger context than we typically give it. It’s a “liturgical” celebration of an encounter with God. It’s not just the cleansing of mortal sin. It’s an action that is supposed to nourish and sustain us on several human levels. That would include mental and spiritual but also artistic and aesthetic as well. Thus the space, the décor of the confessional area, the grill, the stole and the vesture are all important.
The “rite” should not to be celebrated the same way we celebrated it as children in 1974. For an adult to start with “Bless me Father for I have sinned…” is fine. We had children memorize the ritual because children can be anxious when going to Confession. Thus, “automation” of the the ritual helps them get over their nervousness and enter automatically into the sacrament with a sense of confidence. Adults can afford to be a bit more creative perhaps – if they wish.
- Conversation and reconciliation in salvation history
- Baptism and Eucharist as the principle occasions for conversation and reconciliation
- Invitation to reconciliation by the Church
- The Rite itself
As we read in John 20:23 and Matthew 16:19, the “power of the keys” was given to Peter and administered through the Church – for the Church. In the History of Salvation, God agonizes over His people to return. Thus Confession isn’t just me and God and my sins. It’s about part of an entire nation turning back to a life with the Lord – the ongoing conversion of the baptized.
Confession deals with penance and the ideas of the Greek word, metanoia. This is a radical reorientation of our whole life and resolution to change one’s life. This is accompanied with salutary pain and sadness, an affliction of spirit and heart, a clear understanding on how hard it is to do this in every part of our life and thus the need of God’s grace to be able to move towards this. How do we do this? We are provided “gestures of reconciliation” by the Church. These include ashes, prayer, fasting, alms giving and accepting fraternal correction. In addition, the Church recommends actions through which we actually change such as concern for the poor and acts of justice “outside of our comfort zone. “Being arrested for being pro-life might be noble but it also makes me a hero. Sure it might have been was hard but if I’m going to really be pro-life, I have to be a better wife/husband every day. I need to be a better man/woman or father/mother every day. THAT’s really hard.”
Let’s delve into some of the details of the sacrament. There are four constituent elements of Confession that have been part of the sacrament since around the 7th century). They are the 4 “central moments” in our relationship with God:
- Confession of sins and the “Act of Contrition”
- Acceptance of penance – which addresses the harm of sin, aids to new life and offers an antidote to weakness
- Words of absolution
The sacrament starts with “contrition.” Contrition is a pattern of discipleship. The baptized person (not the priest) makes the sign of the cross. They recognize the need for the grace that comes from the Trinity. As the Christ figure, the priest then” welcomes penitent with kindness.” (I recognize that sometimes this is difficult for a priest, especially when he’s been hearing a lot of Confessions at one time. Be patient with the man). Next should come the Reading of the Word of God. This is important since we really don’t have the power for proper conversation that would truly capture the depth of our sinfulness, a full confession of our sins and what is happening in the sacrament in terms of God’s forgiveness. Thus what is announced is the Word, which is received in the midst of the sacrament (like in all sacraments).
Absolution – Christ’s dying and rising is what provides the grace to forgive sins. The reception of this grace can only be acknowledged by an “Act of Praise” at the end of the sacrament. The reason for this is that nowhere in Scripture, is a returning to God accomplished without praise.
In closing, allow me to say something about the the “Act of Contrition,” the rite specifies that a penitent can say “these or similar words.” There are several formulas mentioned. One is the well-known, “Oh my God I am heartily sorry….” One can also repeat the “Sinner’s Prayer” which is said by the repentant tax collector in Luke 18:13 (“Oh God, be merciful to me a sinner!”). One can even compose their own words. One example that was one presented was, “For the men and women who keep a sacred appointment on Sunday mornings, bewildered by seductive voices, nursing wounds life has inflicted upon them, anxious about matters that do not matter – Yet they come to listen for a clear word from God that speaks to their condition. I beseech Thee for thy mercy and grace, O Lord.”