During Lent this year I am giving a series of talks after our parish celebration of the Stations of the Cross on Wednesday evenings. They’re called “Getting Back on Track: Reconciliation as Rededication.” The talks are part of our parish’s almost year-long celebration of the 60th anniversary of the dedication of our church building. We’re using the commemoration as a time to remember, according to the theme of the year, “Then: Dedicating Sandstones – Now: Rededicating Living Stones.” (The church is constructed of St. Meinrad sandstone, by the way.)
This week’s talk was entitled:
Why go to confession?
Can’t I just go to God directly? Doesn’t the Penitential Act at Mass forgive sin? Couldn’t we just have General Absolution?
One of the objections I hear the most about the Sacrament of Reconciliation is that you have to confess your sins to a priest. Can’t I just go to God directly? Can’t I just make a good act of contrition?
I suspect this reluctance to confess to a priest has a lot to do with embarrassment about sharing personal failings to someone who is not a daily confidant like a spouse or best friend. I also suspect that there is a fear that the priest will judge the penitent and think less positively about him or her.
Let me address a couple of those fears…
Each priest, including me, knows that he is a sinner, too, and has to share with another priest embarrassing parts of his life. That humbles a priest. He sits in the chair behind the screen with a desire to be as compassionate and as understanding as he has been dealt with. The priest does not desire to embarrass because he knows that he wouldn’t want to be if he were in the penitent’s chair.
The priest, me included, knows we all fail in living up to the idea of the Gospel. He has failed, repeatedly. So the priest has no business judging…that is not his job. God judges. God is also merciful. The priest is to speak the Good News that God forgives and will make the damaged relationship with him right through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.
So if you ever experience a priest judging you in the confessional or adding to your embarrassment, go find another priest! Before you go, though, tell the offending priest what he has done, in charity, so that he can become a better confessor.
So, why not just go directly to God?
Sin is never just between you and God. It may seem like it. A sin done in private may seem to be private. But, all sin has a public side, even sins done in private. They weaken the believability of the Christian message and witness. They also affect our ability to have a sense of self-confidence that we’re able to do the right thing which may make us harder on others.
It’s like this…a husband and wife have an argument, out of sight of the children, but the resentment carries over through the day. In frustration over the spat, the parent yells at the kids for something minor and the kids’ feelings are hurt. The effects of sin, like a stone thrown in water, ripples out and disturbs the surface of the water far beyond the initial impact point.
Any sin affects the church community family, even though sins may be committed in private or a small setting. It betrays Christ, present in every person. Sin betrays the Body of Christ, his church, and makes our witness less believable that Love dwells in our community.
So, I doubt anyone wants to stand in front of the community on Sunday and say they’ve sinned. Talk about embarrassment!
The priest is, by ordination, a representative of the community of the Church. He’s not just an individual Christian. He is representative of Christ. He is representative of the whole church who has been offended by the sin which has strained the relationship, the bonds between the members of the Body of Christ. Instead of going before the community, penitents go to the representative of the community, who is bound to keep everything said secret, but also empowered to speak in the name of the community. The priest speaks not just in the name of God, but, by the Holy Order that the priest was given by the community at his ordination he has authority to speak in the name of church, the “body of Christ” on earth.
Thus the two parties that have seen their close relationship, their communion, torn apart by sin, are represented in the person of the priest. Going to God in private prayer only takes care of one part of the problem.
Also, I don’t know about you, but I don’t often hear God speaking directly to me in an unmistakable vocal way, like an audible voice heard by my ears. God uses signs and symbols that we are invited to discern in the words and actions of others, like the life of the church. The priest is empowered to say with certainty that God has forgiven. Like two spouses forgiving each other and verbally saying to each other, instead of just presuming, the offense that strained the relationship has been forgiven. The bridegroom Jesus and his spouse the church (and the members of it) hear with certainty in the words of absolution pronounced audibly by the priest representing both parties that they are reconciled and the offense of the bride (you and me) will not lead to a separation.
But what about that thing the priest says near the beginning of Mass during the Penitential Act? “May almighty God forgive us our sins and lead us to everlasting life.” Isn’t that a pronouncement of absolution of sin, the forgiveness of sin?
Notice the wording… “May.” It’s a conditional, anticipatory word. The ritual statement is not what a priest says in the absolution of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, “I absolve!” That is an active, present tense verb naming an action taking place in the present moment. Not the future implied and hoped for in “may.” The penitential act at the beginning of Mass is not a communal confession or a sort of general absolution. That’s not it’s purpose.
The penitential act is designed to get the congregation at Mass ready, to get the assembly in the right state of mind to give thanks in the Eucharistic Prayer for the saving deed of Christ that is re-presented in the symbols of bread and wine. It sets the stage, it pre-disposes the mind to be open to the grace of the Mass that results in a sign of reconciliation and communion with Christ in receiving communion. But it is not absolution.
Think of how a movie or a story begins. The back story, the situation is laid out in the first few minutes or pages of the novel. Why the reason the events of this story will unfold is established. Who are the characters involved? The penitential act sets the stage so the story of the relationship of God and his people, Christ and his bride, can be told and make sense.
The characters in the story of the Mass are God who desires to repair the relationship he has with his creation. Humanity is his creation and men and women have alienated themselves from his life and love. God sends a savior to save his creatures from death which is everlasting separation from him. We need to get the dynamics of the situation in right order…God is God and we are the creatures who need him to live…then we are ready to hear the story of how God acts on our behalf in scripture and re-presentation of the crucifixion of Jesus which leads to our giving thanks and receiving the sign in the symbols of Bread now his body and blood now his blood that we are forgiven, that our alienation from eternal life is reconciled. We are one with each other in communion and one with God, forgiven, reconciled.
The whole of the Eucharist is about celebrating the reconciliation of the Church with God and how we individually benefit, but not absolution for serious (mortal) sin… If you’ve seriously, mortally sinned…another remedy is needed before approaching the altar to receive communion or the person risks making a lie of the act of receiving communion. Maybe even a farce. That remedy is the Sacrament of Reconciliation that specifically restores the relationship that was abandoned by choice of the sinner, a member of the Body of Christ. In such a case the Sacrament of Reconciliation is needed to be assured that we are reconciled before celebrating the symbol of our being a member of the spouse of Christ.
Please realize you don’t have to go to confession before every Mass or reception of Communion. What I am describing is only if mortal sin, grievous separation from God, a destruction of the relationship (a sort of divorce) has taken place. The Eucharist is the way we realize that our minor, venial sins haven’t destroyed the relationship with God. Jesus uses the Eucharist as a way to remind us we are loved even in our imperfections, our humanness. Eucharist is the food that keeps us from going too far away from him and giving up on the relationship.
The Penitential Act isn’t absolution, but it’s our communal preparation to be in the right mind to celebrate the Eucharist that reveals God’s forgiveness.
Well, wouldn’t General Absolution be a good thing for the church to embrace? (By the way, communal celebrations of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, or penance services like we do during Lent and Advent in parish do not give general absolution – the communal liturgy prepares people to celebrate private absolution and to highlight how sin is never a private matter requiring reconciliation with the family of faith). General absolution is reserved for extraordinary circumstances in church teaching. For instance there are way too many people to absolve everyone privately in a reasonable time, or in cases of emergencies. And, for the record, if someone has committed mortal sin, he or she must still confess the mortal sin the next opportunity they have for private confession. I guess there is a hesitation “in the church” approving wide-spread use of general absolution for the fear that the faithful will miss out on the benefits of private confession. Every sacrament has a moment of private encounter with the minister of the sacrament.
Baptism – water is poured on or the person is immersed by the minister, individually.
Confirmation – there is an individual anointing by the minister of person being given the gift of the Holy Spirit
Eucharist – each person is individually presented the Body and Blood of Christ and asked to affirm their belief.
Anointing of sick – there is an individual anointing and laying on of hands upon the sick person.
Holy Orders – there is an individual laying on of hands on the man to be ordained.
Marriage – two individuals speak directly to each other and exchange rings.
Reconciliation in the normal form – there is an individual “laying on of hands” and absolution.
That individual encounter is missing in general absolution and “cheats,” so to speak, the recipient of that personal encounter with Christ who is present in the Sacramental action.
Do not be afraid of confessing to a priest. He’s like you and not there to judge.
Do not deprive yourself of the individual intimate encounter with Christ who loves you like a spouse. That would be like never having someone who loves you show that love in a hug, a kiss, or the intimate embrace of lovers.
Rededicate yourself to the life of being a member of the Body of Christ and hear that you are forgiven by your brothers and sisters, too, so that together we can be a sign of his love in the world.