I am hoping with this posting to open up further dialogue on a sacramental topic perhaps not critically examined enough for what it has become or how it is functioning in the life of the faithful. I am speaking about the enactment of the Sacrament of Penance on a parochial level.
I am now three years in a parish assignment after temporarily leaving academia. I am twenty years in ordained ministry and twenty-five years a professed member of my religious community. During this period, I have celebrated the Sacrament of Penance in a variety of context and through a variety of mediums. The current assignment affords me the experience of the sacrament on a regular basis. My assessment of the depth and breadth of these encounters more often than not is they are driven by a penal sense of divine judgment and justice, which is in turn often very difficult to reorient to the more hopeful and transformative vision of the reformed sacrament. An emphasis on retributive justice — a sense in which God demands confession of sins so that just punishments may be undertaken — flies in the face of a scriptural understanding of God all too ready to forgive.
Of course, this is never to deny encounters of true reconciliation and transformation brought about through the sacrament, but it is necessary to look at how many other encounters are merely mechanical exercises to make sure “I’m all right with God for another day/week/month/year.” And many of these focus on things that are more the ups and downs of human life than they are wilful actions of dehumanization for which the sacrament seems truly designed.
So, it might be prudent to ask, “Are we sufficiently enacting the Sacrament of Penance for the purpose it serves?” While Luther did not fully reject the sacrament, his criticism of it gives pause to wonder if at times we are meddling in matters best left between God and an individual. For more than a few clergy, especially seminarians and recently ordained, next to celebration of the Eucharist, Penance has morphed into the second most important of all the sacraments (if in reality it has always been that since the dawn of the modern era and the rise of “devotional confession”). It is one of principal reasons they are ordained – to act as arbiters between the human person and divine justice. At a recent clergy assembly on the sacrament, one priest stated to us gathered that he had “a passion of confession,” receiving agreement from many. Such a statement is odd for two reasons, the first is its focus on confession, which is only a part of the entire sacramental experience (and which itself is NOT a sacrament!); and second, because to the uniformed it might appear that he take perverse delight in airing his or listening to other’s dirty laundry. When asked to speak more on this, the priest replied that he saw the Sacrament of Penance as a corrective, to keep the faithful moral before God.
Is this what the sacrament’s purpose is? A vehicle for moral watchdogs? If so, can it truly offer anything in the way of healing, of compassion, of transformation. The perspective of the sacrament as keeping the faithful on the straight and narrow turns the encounter into an uneven exchange between one who claims to understand the dynamic of human existence better than the one who is living it. It continues to promote the idea of Penance as the celestial car wash, where one goes in dirty, to get clean, to get dirty all over again. The sacramental experience becomes one of absurdity.
For example, an elderly parishioner, at about eight minutes before Mass, regularly knocks on the sacristy door, and each time asks, “Father can you hear my confession?” Again, this exchange occurs less than ten minutes before Mass begins. To refuse would place the parishioner in a state of distress, having been raised with a particularly insufficient understand the sacrament. Without any other time to attend to it, I quickly celebrate the sacrament with them. Their confession…masturbation (with frequency that week); again and again, week after week, the same confession always with the number of times. I could have been impressed by their stamina, but did the celebration of the sacrament truly provide any peace? I cannot say, but for them it is necessary, if only mechanical, week after week. It is retributive, but did it achieve the purpose of the sacramental encounter?
This is just one example, many other experiences of the conversation engaged in the sacramental encounter of Penance involve missing Mass (generally because of sickness!), or the whole amorphous category of “impure thoughts” or equally quixotic “offenses against the Holy Spirit.” These expressions of contrition, while not to be blithely dismissed, are more the consequences of the frailty of human existence that the present ritual of Penance does not intend to address. To undertake the fullness of the reformed ritual, which to be honest, most ordained confessors do not do (nor may they even be aware that the ritual was reformed!), for a lack of attention to one’s daily prayers is to reduce, if not negate, the power of the sacrament. The ritual is NOT a catch-all. It is designed for those ruptures that if left unchecked have the power to destroy the fabric of human relationships – which is both human and divine. It is designed for transformation of life and attitudes and values and dignity, not to end in a few Our Fathers, Hail Marys, or a decade of the Rosary, all intended to make God like me again.
The ritual of Penance with integral confession and absolution is used expressly with those who are conscious of “grave sin” (Canon 960). The negative use of the sacrament as a deterrent to immoral behavior or to keep human beings in check with the Almighty serves more those who are the administers of it. It is not a sacrament of initiation, and it is not more powerful than Eucharist in the experience of reconciliation.
Another ritual action or experience of reconciling encounter must be devised to meet and unburden the experience of day to day human frailty and mistakes. Even the retrieval of General Absolution to meet these situations may be overshooting where a simpler and direct encounter will suffice. Until such time, however, we only have a ritual that equalizes all human brokenness into one pool which may not always resolve the encounter in the best interests of the faithful who participate in it.