Friday, January 19, 2018

The Sacrament of Penance

The Scripture reading for Friday in Week II of the Liturgy of the Hours is Ephesians 2:13-16:
But now in the Anointed One Jesus you who were once far away have come to be near, through the blood of the Anointed. For he is himself our peace, who has made the two into one and shattered the interposing wall of partition - the enmity - in his flesh, Having abolished the Law consisting in commandments and ordinances, that in himself he might fashion the two into a single new human being, making peace, And might by the cross reconcile the two to God in one body, killing enmity in himself 1
This is a Scripture passage well-suited for Friday, which, unless a solemnity falls on that day of the week or we are within one of the celebratory octaves, is a day of penance. Being reconciled to God through Christ by the power of their Spirit is fundamental to Christianity. Of course, there is no shortage of atonement theories that seek to explain just how Christ's atonement works.

This week I was asked to provide a relatively brief overview of the Roman Catholic "take" on confession. What I provided is by no means comprehensive or exhaustive. In fact, it does not go into the Sacrament of Penance very deeply at all, but that was not what I was requested to provide. I don't mind saying that I am a regular penitent most of the time. But now and again I experience periods when, for any variety of reasons, not least among which is my on-going struggle with depression and the resultant spiritual affliction of acedia, I find it difficult to go to confession. In fact, I have not been to confession since the beginning of the new liturgical year.

Writing about confession this week was a grace because it convicted me that it is time for me to g. So this coming Tuesday afternoon I have an appointment with my regular confessor. As I have done for all my years of blogging, as well as in my preaching and teaching, I urge you, dear reader, to have regular and fairly frequent recourse to this wonderful, life-giving, sacrament. The Sacrament of Penance, through which we are time again reconciled to God and each other, was the first gift our resurrected Lord gave to his Bride, the Church.

Below is what I provided about the Sacrament of Penance:


The Sacrament of Penance, more popularly known as "confession," is how Catholics receive forgiveness for post-baptismal sins, especially so-called mortal, grave, or serious sins [the terms "mortal," "grave," and "serious" are used synonymously]. The Sacrament of Penance, in a sense, is an extension of the Sacrament of Baptism. This is depicted beautifully in The Cathedral of the Madeleine. When you enter the Cathedral through the main doors, you encounter the baptismal font. The font consists of an upper basin and a lower font. If you look down into the lower font, where adults are baptized at the Easter Vigil, you will see the floor of the font is shaped like a cross. If you visually follow the cross to the East and West walls, you see it is aligned with the confessionals.

Under normal circumstances (i.e., the person has regular access to the Sacrament of Penance), a Catholic who is conscious of having committed a serious sin(s) should refrain from receiving Holy Communion until the sin(s) has been confessed, absolved and the penance completed. Prior to going to confession, Catholics are urged to prayerfully examine their consciences. There are many aids available to assist Catholics in their examination. A so-called “good confession” is one in which the penitent confesses all the sins he has committed since his last confession.

It is important to note that confession is just that, confession, or self-accusation. It is not an interrogation. In asking questions of a penitent during confession, priests are to act with prudence and discretion.2

Christ atoned for our sins. Hence, penances are not assigned in order to do what Christ has done for you. Penances are not punishments but are given in order to help one grow in love of God and neighbor. While a penance may be related to the sin, like being told to do something nice for your spouse to whom you said ugly things in a fit of anger, very often it consists of saying prayers, like three Hail Marys and an Our Father. I don’t mind saying that at end of a confession I made shortly after last Easter, my penance was to reflect on a particular passage of the Exsultet, an ancient hymn sung by a deacon at the beginning of the Easter Vigil.

Catholics are no longer required to go to confession prior to each Holy Communion. At a minimum, Catholics are obligated to go confession at least once a year. If it’s been longer than a year since one’s last confession that should be confessed. I think most of us in ministry encourage people to go with more frequently than once a year and with some regularity. The sacrament is initiated by the penitent, who usually says while crossing himself- "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been [however long] since my last confession."

For Roman Catholics, the Scripture passage the constitutes the basis of the Sacrament of Penance more than James 5:16, which urges Christian to confess their sins to each other, is John 20:21-23. In this passage Jesus, appearing to his disciples after his resurrection, breathes on them, giving them the Holy Spirit, and tells them, "Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained."

A priest may never violate the seal of the confessional. "The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason."3 Further, "A confessor is prohibited completely from using knowledge acquired from confession to the detriment of the penitent even when any danger of revelation is excluded" and "A person who has been placed in authority cannot use in any manner for external governance the knowledge about sins which he has received in confession at any time."4

If someone confesses a crime during a sacramental confession, the priest hearing the confession may encourage the person to turn himself in. The priest may even make turning himself in the penance. If someone confesses an intention to commit a crime, the priest may and probably should try to dissuade the penitent from carrying out the crime, but he may not divulge what he was told during a confession. If a priest divulges what he heard in a confession, he incurs automatic excommunication.5

One does not go to confession to find out whether or not God will forgive him. Christians are always already forgiven by virtue of Christ’s atonement. So why go to confession? If nothing else, confessing one’s sins, receiving absolution, and making satisfaction (i.e., completing one’s assigned penance) is something you experience firsthand, not just a mental transaction that leaves you wondering whether or not you’re forgiven. In essence, we don’t go to confession to admit our failures. We go to confession to claim our victory in Christ.

1 Ephesians 2:13-16 from David Bentley Hart's The New Testament: A Translation (New Haven: Yale University Press), 382.
2 Code of Canon Law, Canon 979.
3 Code of Canon Law, Canon 983 §1
4 Code of Canon Law, Canon 984 §1-§2
5 Code of Canon Law, Canon 1388 §1

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