The sacrament of penance not a thing of the past

Father John A. Kiley
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Pope Francis recently gave a lengthy interview to an Italian newspaper which has happily been published as a small book entitled “The Name of God is Mercy.” At least three-quarters of this brief publication is devoted to the sacrament of penance. Recurring questions as I read the pages of this interview were, “What universe does this man (the Pope) live in? Doesn’t he know that no one goes to confession anymore?” His Holiness spoke as if frequent confession were an integral part of post-Vatican II Catholic life. His thoughts seemed naïve. Surely confessional lines are a thing of the past in Argentina just as they are in the USA. The reader might well ask right now when was the last time he or she confessed to a priest. But on the other hand, perhaps the Pope was being shrewd. Speaking frankly about the centrality of the sacrament of penance in the Christian life might give his hearers pause to reflect on what Catholics are missing by ignoring this sacrament.

First of all, it is rash to write that no one goes to confession anymore. In my experience as an itinerant confessor, some Rhode Island parishes are rightly distinguished by their fidelity to the confessional. St. Joan of Arc Church at Cumberland Hill is paramount for regularity of penitents at Saturday afternoon as well as Advent and Lenten confessions. St. Joseph parish in Woonsocket, Immaculate Conception parish in Westerly, Our Lady of Mercy parish in East Greenwich and Mt. Carmel parish in Bristol rank high for scheduling times for frequent confession and for parishioners taking advantage of the ample opportunities to confess. But alas there are other parishes where the door to the reconciliation room rarely admits a visitor. Infrequent confession is, frankly, a phenomenon on which clergy, religious and laity alike need some serious self-examination.

The frequency of confession began its steady erosion in the 1960s and 70s, when clergy, assisted somewhat by Catholic high school teachers, discouraged the formal confessing of lesser sins. Priests and teachers suggested that an Act of Contrition or the Penitential Rite at the beginning of Mass was sufficient to absolve the less-than-notorious penitent. “Did you rob a bank or commit adultery or lay violent hands on the Holy Father?” the wise-guy confessor or religion teacher would ask the repentant client. Bishop Kenneth Angell remarked to me long ago that many priests had “poo-pooed” regular confession in the early years after the Council and Catholics indeed got the message. Confession was no longer that regular means of spiritual discipline in which a Catholic confronted the saving death of Christ while growing in self-knowledge. The sacrament of Penance became exceptional in the life of the average Catholic.

Pope Francis understands that the Church’s work of reconciliation involves not just a spiritual experience but rather a sacramental experience as well. Any soul, Christian or not, can plead his or her case before God and feel confident of being heard. But the sacrament of Penance goes beyond personal feelings and involves the whole Church. His Holiness instructs, “It is true that I can talk to the Lord and ask him for forgiveness, implore him. And the Lord will forgive me immediately. But it is important that I go to confession, that I sit in front of a priest who embodies Jesus, that I kneel before Mother Church, called to dispense the mercy of Christ. There is objectivity in this gesture of genuflection before the priest; it becomes the vehicle through which grace reaches and heals me.” The pontiff understands confession to be “the physical representation of grace and mercy.” Penance is “being face-to-face with someone who acts in the person of Christ to welcome and forgive. It is an encounter with mercy.”

Pope Francis echoes the noble words of St. Paul from this Sunday’s second reading: “…all this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us.” Through Christ’s ambassador, through the Church’s minster, God’s mercy is made palpable. Facing the priest means facing God more realistically and facing ourselves more truthfully; thus reconciliation becomes much more serious – but it also becomes much more re-assuring.