With Pope Francis asking the Church to show mercy, are we entering the Year of Saving Grace?

On Yom Kippur, the 10th day of the month of Tishrei in the Jewish calendar, devout Jews reconcile themselves with God and each other. Even the Confessions of St. Augustine is still being read today. Every society and religion sees some value in owning your transgressions. We Catholics are not alone in having a practice and ritual of confession and reconciliation.

Many priests just finished a round of extra confessions during the season of Advent. We have a little bit of breather before we enter in the confessional box during Lent when there is a heavier dose of celebrating the sacrament of reconciliation.

“Confession” can be found in some form in most every religion since ancient times. There is something mystical or emotionally uplifting in the act of opening up completely to another human being. The act of getting something off your chest to lighten your burden is best depicted in the Jewish heritage of the “scapegoat,” releasing the burden and placing it elsewhere. The chief priest would whisper the sins of the people into the ears of the goats. One goat would be sacrificed to God in the temple to atone for those sins. Another goat would be released into the desert to remove the sin away from the community so that the community could move forward in reconciliation.

The mystery and mystique of the Sacrament of Reconciliation and Penance is still very much present in this ritual that keeps it alive and there for the asking, even if people are not asking much. W. P. Wittman photo

Our sacramental practice has aspects of many practices. I am certainly not likening the priest to a goat but there is an aspect of whispering your sins to another in whom you place total trust that the sin is not going to be repeated. Goats don’t talk, and the seal of confession is tight-lipped. It is one of the last honored traditions in society, whereby Catholics and non-Catholics, as well as the legal system, respect the confidentiality. Even in the 12 steps taken by an addict, the admission of guilt and sin is a verbal encounter with another human being. The actual articulation of your sins to another can be such a release. Naming the sin gives you dominion over it in the same way Adam was given dominion over creatures when he was given the responsibility to name them.

There has been less naming of sins in recent generations. The sacrament of reconciliation is certainly under-utilized, as it is most likely the most misunderstood. It is not easy for anyone to admit their failures and dark sides, let alone verbalize them to someone else. It is easier just to push them down deep within us and pretend the sins are not there than to bring them out in the open. Unfortunately, it is this very suppression or even denial of the sin that allows it to fester and to germinate within us. Evil does not like to be named; that is why Jesus in his exorcist miracles named him “Legion.” Jesus exposed the sin to the light of day, no longer allowing it to hide in the dark recesses of the soul.

Next to the Eucharist itself, reconciliation is probably the most accessible sacrament. Every church posts the time to celebrate it. And, in addition to those times, often published on the bulletin is the statement “other times by appointment.” We don’t even do that for Eucharist. It is, though, fairly safe to write the phrase next to the reconciliation times because we know the phone will not be ringing off the hook. Though I have small parishes, there are times that no one arrives to celebrate the sacrament at one of the published times. I have also been in parishes where reconciliation was scheduled prior to each Mass. It was difficult, because I knew the clock was ticking toward the start of the Mass and I still had to get ready for Mass and vested. And then, when I stepped out of the confessional, I saw a long line of people waiting.

The sacrament does have a special place in the Church and in the lives of priest. Just as all Catholics remembers their First Communion; each priest remembers his first confession (not the content but the “how soon after ordination and where”). There is still a little trepidation as we never know who is coming in and what will be the matter. We may be the presider, but the penitent certainly is in the driver’s seat. It is a privileged moment, and it still amazes me that people unconditionally trust and share their most intimate side. Somehow the mystery and mystique that is still very much present in this ritual keeps it alive and there for the asking, even if people are not asking much. It is a safe place to be, and when people want to feel some forgiveness, and they cannot forgive themselves nor are they receiving forgiveness from those they offended, they somehow know intuitively that God will forgive them. The priest becomes that “bridge” closing the chasm between God and the penitent. Just as much as the penitent needs to name the sins and give voice to them, the penitent wants the words of absolution to have a voice, “the voice of God through the priest.”

God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

It is a powerful prayer and the six words, “I absolve you from your sins” can still bring a man to tears as he envisions being released from the power of the sin that had been committed. This one sentence is packed full of meaning and grace. It gives a brief statement of salvation history, as we hear what Christ did for us and what the Church wishes to impart upon the person. The penitent is reminded what God has done for him and what God is doing with me.

The sacrament seems to be having a little upswing. Maybe it is the Year of Faith ending, maybe it is because Pope Francis is freeing us from our fear to be silent about our sinfulness now that he has declared to all “I am a sinner.” We certainly know that people have not stopped sinning. Each of us is probably keeping up with some type of reading. Have we had any ongoing study or reading on celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation? Do we prepare at all for what we are about to hear? Do we contemplate the privilege in bestowing forgiveness in God’s name?

St Augustine
The journey to find God’s grace is recounted in St. Augustine’s Confessions.The Crosiers photo

The Church wants us to celebrate this sacrament with the same attentiveness we do for all of them. Recently, there have been many new endeavors for priests to consider how better to celebrate the sacrament, not only for the penitent but also for the priest. Maybe one of these resources would be helpful to you.

• St. John Vianney Center has developed a guide for confessors in dealing with penitents with addictions and personality disorders — (see assistance for confessors).

• St. Luke’s Institute is providing a free 30-minute video entitled: “A Guide for Confessors Regarding Internet Pornography.” This video at combines clinical insights and pastoral experience in the confessional to enable confessors to provide healing and assistance to those who come seeking freedom from the problem.

• The National Organization for the Continued Education of Roman Catholic Clergy is offering a conference entitled, “Reconciliation and the New Evangelization: Priest as Reconciled and Reconciler,” to be held Feb. 24-27, 2014, in Baltimore area — (see convention 2014).

• The Institute for Priestly Formation is producing a written resource highlighting the priest’s identity as spiritual physician, his role within the sacrament itself, and his own need to celebrate the sacrament as a penitent —

• The Conference of Major Superiors of Men is providing three separate services at (1) brief teachings and admonitions which touch upon the mercy of God and the use of the Sacrament; (2) a posting of brief conferences on themes associated with priests as penitents, confessors, and keepers of the seal of confession; (3) a listing of religious institutes committed to offering the sacrament for priests.

FATHER CARRION is pastor of Holy Cross, Our Lady of Good Counsel, St. Mary, Star of the Sea in Baltimore, Md., and is director of the Deacon Formation Program for the Archdiocese.