Is Penance a Problem for Lent?

Tim Gabrielli’s 2013 enlightened study on the issues facing adolescent celebration of the Sacrament of Confirmation, Confirmation, has the very fitting subtitle, “How a Sacrament of God’s Grace Became All about Us.” What is most intriguing about this subtitle is that it might easily be used to describe the sacrament of Penance, perhaps the most misunderstood of all the church’s sacraments. Rather than an experience of healing and transformation, Penance is all too often routinely offered in pastoral settings as a prescriptive legalism for worthy reception of the Eucharist. Worse, it may be repeated so many times, by so many the same people, to address so many of the same issues of brokenness without much hope of either conversion or resolution, which are the sacrament’s primary emphases. Rare is the focus in the sacrament, as dispensed by certain clergy, where God is healer rather than judge, relieving the individual of the burdens she or he carries into the sacramental encounter. The fact that the sacrament is titled “Penance,” and still more, “Confession,” only affirms the spotlight on the human end of the encounter.

All this comes to mind as we stand at the precipice of another Lent, where once again the dilemma of when and how to shrive the faithful looms on the horizon. Notwithstanding that three months ago many parishes and dioceses shrove the faithful in preparation for Christmas – how much new sinning has been undertaken and accomplished since then, one can only imagine! Furthermore, that there seems to be no other concern for communal penance until next Advent is as curious as is the back ending and front loading of the civil year with thoughts of personal sinfulness.

So back to Tim’s subtitle and its appropriateness for reflecting upon an activity that seems so intimately tied into Lent. But is it truly, if one pays attention to the broader scriptural and liturgical sources from which an understanding of Lent emerges? Availing oneself of the sacrament of Penance, while a “laudable tradition” as stated in some diocesan Lenten guidelines, is not listed among the Lenten disciplines of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving (if one reads Matthew correctly, which gospel passage is not foreshadowing a penitential Lenten season as it is Jesus reminding his listeners of how one, in a relationship with God, comports her- or himself at particular times). Nor does the sacramental practice have any direct connection to abstinence, another practice not specifically located in a gospel tradition.

Yet, making sure that one completes a round of seeking forgiveness for sins, expressing contrition, and making a penance of a few traditional prayers or devotional actions is de rigueur for this time of the year. Some go so far as to call it completing one’s “Easter Duty,” which is a gross misrepresentation of that medieval onus. The “duty” had to do with receiving communion at Easter, according to the canons of Lateran IV. If someone realized that they were aware of serious sin, then they needed to seek penance before receiving; if they were not aware of any such sin, then sacramental forgiveness before receiving communion was unnecessary.

How contrary making Penance a central requirement of Lent appears when one remembers that the season’s principal focus is baptism and the new life one receives through it. This transformation is accomplished through recalling and appropriating once again the anamnetic memorial of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection, not through a continuous, egocentric cataloging of our failings. This new life is further attained and initiated by reception of the Eucharist and the recommitment to Christian life that such reception engenders. Penance does not figure into the equation. Rather, conversion does, a turning toward, or better a waking up to, the wonder of a God who looks upon the human condition in more loving ways than we ever can. This recognition is the heart of encounter in the Eucharist.

We see this dynamic in the Cycle C gospels encountered this Lent, especially in the Prodigal and the nameless Woman accused of adultery. The Prodigal’s words of contrition really don’t matter as his father is already at work preparing his homecoming welcome before his son even comes to face him. Jesus’ puzzled words to the shaken Woman, who has survived the injustice of her ordeal, are so matter of fact, “What are you still doing here?” as to make the final moment almost comedic; and then he simply tells her to be better. In both situations the individuals are awakened to a reality of God, and consequently of themselves, they may never have thought possible or even conceived. Perhaps here is where the focus of Lent should lead us, not in clamoring for mercy and beating our breasts in the vain hope for a modicum of forgiveness, but in an awakening to the wonder of God, through whose eyes we are challenged to see the reality and truth of ourselves as healed and restored. It is this very reality and truth, which our brokenness prevents us from ever seeing clearly, and which a sacramental penance, too focused on “us,” can never truly resolve.


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