Fr Patrick Bridgman
Having looked at the three Sacraments of Initiation – Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist – by which we enter the life of Christ and his body the Church, we now turn our gaze to the Sacraments that enable us to receive the Lord’s healing touch – Reconciliation (also known as Confession and Penance) and the Anointing of the Sick. Their history has been linked though the gift of their difference is also more clearly understood and celebrated today.
The presence of personal and social sin in our lives, as well as the effects of illness and age, give rise to our human need for divine healing. ‘Christ, the physician of our soul and body instituted these Sacraments because the new life he gives us in the Sacraments of Christian initiation can be weakened and even lost because of sin. Therefore, Christ willed his Church should continue his work of healing and salvation by means of these two sacraments’ (Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, #295).
Naturally, Baptism forgives sin; we are cleansed in the waters of Baptism. And this was understood in the early Church. However, the journey of people’s lives, and the results of persecution of Christians, meant people at times turned away from the life of Christ. What were Church communities to do? Turn such people away and not let them re-enter the community of faith? A realisation of the extent of the effects of sin within the community saw a growing need for a way by which people could be reconciled to the Church. Initially ‘sinners’ were asked to repent in public, and show their contrition with acts of penance proportionate to their sin. However, penances could become very harsh: no longer eating meat or abstaining from being with your spouse. Therefore, people began to delay reconciliation until their death bed. With Extreme Unction, we see the forgiveness of sins and the anointing of the sick becoming linked.
Following a time of great unrest in Europe, the Irish Monastic Movement re-established or re-encouraged Christianity in many parts through the establishment of monasteries. An effect was the spread of the practice of individual ‘Spiritual Direction’ between a monk (or nun) and a member of the faithful. As part of this ‘SD’, often penitents would address areas of their lives in which sin was present, from which the ritual of confession, consoling, contrition, absolution, and penance developed. Manuals were also written with the appropriate penance for the level of sin. Sadly, over time practice evolved which meant people became more focused on their sinfulness rather than on God’s mercy experienced in Jesus Christ.
Vatican Council II participants asked for a renewal of all the Sacraments, resulting in the promulgation of the Sacrament of Reconciliation as we have it today, with three Rites of celebration.
In Rite I, a person visits the priest in a confessional space. Having prepared a reading from scripture, or with the confessor reading a text of scripture, the penitent examines his or her conscience, recognising God’s spirit active in their lives, and speaks of their own sin, and the areas of life in which they have broken their relationship with God, others, and themselves through word, deed, or lack thereof. The priest offers comfort and counsel, centred on God’s overpowering mercy for his beloved children. Having received a penance, the penitent prays an act of contrition, receives absolution, and leaves the space of reconciliation rejoicing in God’s mercy and satisfying the penance.
Rite II is celebrated many penitents and priests. The focus is on the social nature of sin, as well as on the manner in which the individual may have sinned. While celebrating as a community our realisation of the need for God’s mercy, part of the rite offers the chance for individual confession.
Rite III is celebrated in time of emergency or danger of death, or possibly if the number of penitents to confessors is out of proportion. In this liturgy there is song, prayer, reading from scripture, a general confession of sins, act of contrition, and absolution. No individual confession is heard; if someone is aware of a serious sin in their lives, they take this to an individual Reconciliation in the future, if they are able.
As we witness in the teaching of Pope Francis the emphasis in the celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation is on God’s love and mercy. Our sins are never greater than the mercy of God. The healing of our broken relationship with God, others and ourselves give us hope to step into a new day, and rise from the death of our sins to a new life in Christ and in the Church.
There is nothing more beautiful than to witness a burdened person, hear God’s Word and the Church’s reconciling prayer, and then see their eyes brighten and their very body and soul arise as they know Mercy anew!
Fr Patrick Bridgman is parish priest for the Parish of Te Awakairangi, a Wellington hospital chaplain, Archdiocese of Wellington Liturgy adviser and teaches Sacrament and Liturgy courses at The Catholic Institute.