Edmond Grace SJ clarifies some issues on the sacrament of reconciliation and explains the reasons for personal celebration of this sacrament.
I once heard of an American bishop who announced that if people were to gather at a certain football field he would give a general absolution. The response was prodigious. Unfortunately, the bishop was prevented from continuing this practice in the future. Why is it that the Church has the authority to use this general form of absolution and yet individual confession is the prescribed norm? I always wanted to ask this question for reasons other than curiosity – not least the issue of apprehension akin to a dental appointment.
Your closing remark suggests that your feelings about confession are rather like your feelings about going to the dentist! What might be described as the dentistry view of confession is one which reflects the experience of many people.
Remembering that the sacrament of reconciliation is intended to be a personal experience of the forgiveness of Jesus, this view is a sign that things have gone very badly wrong. While in no way impugning the good intentions of priests, the fact is that over a number of generations many people have been terrorised in the confession box.
If they were asked to choose between two images of the priest in confession – the healing hand of Christ reaching out to forgive or the dentist with his drill ready for work – there can be no doubt as to how most people would see things.
The result is that confession is usually seen as something to be got through with gritted teeth, a bit like medicine which has to be swallowed, if we are to get into a state of grace. It is impossible under such circumstances to see confession as something to be celebrated.
In recent years the phrase used to describe confession is ‘the sacrament of reconciliation,’ but while this new terminology points to the heart of the matter, I can’t help feeling that a mere change of words is like applying an elastoplast to a gaping wound – quite inadequate, even if it is trying to do the right thing.
The wound will be healed when people realise that the sacrament is not primarily about ‘having to tell all our sins’. It is about the realisation that we, as sinners, are loved by Christ, and this helps us to change and to come closer to God.
Whenever we approach the sacrament it is important for us to understand that we are already forgiven, but that we need to let the experience of forgiveness deepen. After all, God is not in a huff waiting for us to say sorry, nor does he want to rub our noses in it by insisting that we tell it to a priest. The recently published Catechism of the Catholic Church describes ‘the sacrament of penance and reconciliation’ as one of two sacraments of healing. The other is the sacrament of anointing which is given to the sick.
A personal touch
Each of the sacraments reveals to us something of the personal style of Jesus who always dealt with people as individuals. He never healed whole crowds of people although crowds of people came to him to be healed. What is more, as he healed people of physical ailments he often told them that their sins were forgiven. True, he didn’t demand that they tell their sins but he spoke to them in the context of a personal encounter in which they were making an act of faith by presenting themselves for healing.
The key to the sacrament of reconciliation is being able to say: ‘This is me and I have done this and that and failed to do the other and I am sorry’. We are all sinners, just as we are all human. Each one of us, however, is human in a particular way. We are so tall, we weigh so much, we speak in such a manner, our hair, eyes and skin are this, that or the other colour, and so on.
In the same way, we all sin by doing particular things or failing in particular duties. We can’t grow if we can’t admit to ourselves – and even on occasion to others – specific, identifiable failures.
As with any problem, we can only do something about it when we begin to break it down into manageable units. It is also good to recognise that we only sin in some areas of our lives while often doing a lot of good in others!
It is not easy to be open with another person in this matter, but in services of reconciliation there is one advantage: the priest’s reactions are always on public view!
He can’t register disapproval; in fact he is much more likely to be moved by a person’s honesty in an environment which is both very public and yet completely confidential. That is certainly my own experience.
When I speak the words of absolution to a person who has honestly named quite serious wrongdoings, those words can have an extraordinary power, which certainly does not come from the priest. I have no doubt that the healing power of the words of absolution is in direct proportion to the openness and faith of those who come to hear them addressed to their broken lives.
I am aware of this from my own experience of the sacrament, not as a priest but as a sinful man in need of forgiveness. If I have done something for which I feel ashamed, naming it is not always easy. Yet, when I do name them, being able to hear the words of absolution spoken afterwards gives those words a healing power in my life which they would not otherwise have. That is why gathering people into one big crowd and pronouncing words of absolution over them misses the point. It may enable people to ‘get’ confession in a painless way, but as each person hears the words of absolution at such a moment those words are addressed to the crowd.
A general absolution avoids that sense of encounter between the Lord and an individual person which is the hallmark of each sacrament.
There is something about water poured over a particular head in baptism and a host placed on a particular hand or tongue in communion which is a sign of the Lord’s love as unique to each individual.
Likewise, the experience of naming my sins and hearing the words of forgiveness spoken in Christ’s name to me personally is a sign that I personally am loved in spite of having failed.
It is a healing experience which reconciles me with God, and that is something to celebrate.
This article first appeared in the Messenger, a publication of the Irish Jesuits.