Bookroom: Penance and Reconciliation
Pope John Paul II, Misericordia Dei (By the Mercy of God), Apostolic Letter in the Form of a Motu Proprio On Certain Aspects of the Celebration of the Sacrament of Penance, 2002.
David M. Coffey, The Sacrament of Reconciliation, Lex Orandi Series, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, 2001. [0-8146-2519-3] Australian price $55.95.
When Church ritual seems to be well-attuned to the national psyche (or, if you wish, to the zeitgeist) we might expect ritual to flourish. Our sacrament of reconciliation seems to be thus well-attuned, since reconciliation has become a national goal for many Australians. Why, then, have the stirrings of the national conscience not supported a revival of our sacramental practice? Why does the sacrament of reconciliation continue to languish despite our best efforts to find new and creative ways of celebrating it? The low esteem for this sacrament deserves a nation-wide study; perhaps as a case-study of failed dialogue between Church culture and secular culture.
With Misericordia Dei (By the Mercy of God) (7th April 2002) Pope John Paul returned yet again to the question of the sacrament of penance and reconciliation. This Apostolic Letter in the form of a Motu Proprio concerning ‘certain aspects of the celebration of the sacrament of penance’ is not intended to advance our reflections on the current experience of the sacrament, but is a disciplinary intervention with a specific purpose: that of correcting some ‘too broad’ interpretations of the use of the third rite of reconciliation. The pope is clarifying existing norms, not changing them.
For a treatment on the meaning and binding power of various forms of papal documents, cf. Francis Morrisey, Papal and Curial Pronouncements: Their Canonical Significance in the Light of the Code of Canon Law. Faculty of Canon Law, St Paul’s University, Ottawa. 1995. On Motu Proprios, see page 17.
The pope speaks of arbitrary extensions of the conditions required for ‘grave necessity’ which have been deemed to call for the use of the third rite. The result of these abuses, the pope states, has been a lessening of fidelity to the ‘divine configuration’ of the Sacrament, specifically regarding the need for individual confession, with serious harm to the spiritual life of the faithful and to the holiness of the Church.
This document, then, is outlining the basis for the clamp-down on the use of the third rite in the late 1990s. It leaves priests and people who have participated in the third rite in Australia before the clamp-down somewhat nonplussed. Lessening of fidelity to the ‘divine configuration’ of the sacrament, specifically regarding the need for individual confession? Serious harm to the spiritual life of the faithful? Serious harm to the holiness of the Church?
No-one would dispute that truly arbitrary interpretations of ‘grave necessity’ which go against the spirit and meaning of the Sacrament are reprehensible. Many would dispute that interpretations that were relied upon for celebrations of the third rite that they have participated in were arbitrary; on the contrary, they would claim that the interpretations were pastorally responsible and that the effects were entirely positive for the renewal of the sacrament itself and for deepening of the spiritual lives of the participants.
The diocesan bishop, the letter rules, is to determine in the light of criteria agreed upon by the Episcopal Conference what ‘grave necessity’ means in his diocese. The Episcopal Conferences are to send as soon as possible to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments the text of the norms they intend to issue in the light of this Motu Proprio. This would be standard procedure according to Canon 455, so that the norms may be ‘reviewed by the Apostolic see and lawfully promulgated’.
This Motu Proprio is a juridical document, hence a certain legal training is required to interpret it correctly. Perhaps the canonists and the bishops can show that it is somehow assisting us in our efforts to rejuvenate the sacrament of penance and reconciliation.
David Coffey, a priest of the Archdiocese of Sydney, currently professor of Catholic Theology at Marquette University, Milwaukee USA, has written a theological exposition of the sacrament that priests and students of theology will find very helpful. The Sacrament of Reconciliation won second place in the liturgy section of the US Catholic Press Association awards.
Pope John Paul exhorted us to make every effort to face the crisis of ‘the sense of sin’ and rediscover Christ as ‘the one in whom God shows us his compassionate heart and reconciles us fully with himself’ (Misericordia Dei). David Coffey presents a theology of sin suited to the practice of the sacrament of reconciliation today that is based on tradition and recent Church documents, especially The Rite of Penance (1974). He recommends that the distinction be between ‘grave’ and ‘non-grave’ sins rather than between ‘mortal’ and ‘venial’, arguing that this terminology is theologically more precise and pastorally more helpful.
He suggests that the most influential reasons for the present malaise of the sacrament are two.
First, many of the faithful are resistant to being instructed by the Church on moral matters, and they are more prone to forming their own ideas of right and wrong, often at variance with Church teaching. They are influenced by a spirit of independence that characterises post-modern Western cultures disillusioned with institutions, and this spirit is only strengthened by scandals and the revelations in the media of corruption of officials. Official Church teaching is often met with hostility, disagreement, skepticism and indifference.
It cannot be denied that some of the faithful have this mindset. If rejection of the teaching ministry of the Church is so widespread among the people as Coffey seems to suggest, then we must conclude that our people are generally without divinely appointed guides.
Possibly there are other ways of interpreting what is happening. Especially, one might conclude that the people are more prone now to bring their own consciences into the process of judging right and wrong, and that is not at all to resist being instructed by the Church in these matters. When a confessor is approached by someone who has this more mature moral attitude he should rejoice, for this is the kind of person who should be most at home with the new reformed rites of reconciliation. The sacrament is for people who are on a journey and who are seeking light and grace for the next steps on their way. Consequently, the onus is on confessors to work with and make these new attitudes a basis for reviving the practice of the sacrament of reconciliation.
Second, Coffey argues, the restored Rite of Penance makes greater demands on the spiritual maturity of the penitent. The new rites expect people to confess as adults and, brought up in the unreformed rite as many have been, they often do not know how to do so. Coffey points to the personal emphasis in the ritual:
The sacrament of penance includes the confession of sins, which comes from true knowledge of self before God and from contrition for those sins. However, this inner examination of heart and the exterior accusations should be made in the light of God’s mercy. Confession requires in the penitent the will to open his heart to the minister of God, and in the minister a spiritual judgment by which, acting in the person of Christ, he pronounces his decision of forgiveness or retention of sins in accord with the power of the keys.
What the penitent now does is ‘open [one’s] heart’ to the minister, a beautiful phrase which is also a very great challenge, too great for most without some prior assistance towards greater spiritual adulthood.
Furthermore, the former anonymity of the penitent is largely gone in the new ritual. The Rite of Penance presumes a human encounter, which is in the circumstances quite counter-cultural. We live in a competitive culture and always need to project the most positive image of ourselves; there is little room for admissions of weakness or failure. David Coffey suggests that part of adult catechesis should be a frank recognition that confession is a counter-cultural exercise embarked on in faith, in which we put ourselves on the line, and that the reward for doing so is not an experience of the contempt, rejection, or derision that our worldly involvement might lead us to expect, but of the acceptance, understanding, compassion, and love of a brother in Christ, and the merciful forgiveness of God.
David Coffey has some excellent pages on the role of the confessor. The priest confessor is a brother, countering any paternalism that was there in the past. He is also described in The Rite of Penance (n. 10) as healer, teacher, judge, father and pastor. Fatherhood derives from the motif of the Fatherhood of God, and this is combined with the motif of Christ the Good Shepherd, that is, pastor. Taken together these motifs convey a sense of divine authority mediated by a human being. The respect and trust that a penitent has for the confessor goes beyond regard for personal qualities to a deference to his professional competence and prudence, and a recognition that the confessor is entrusted with a divine ministry—he represents Christ and the Church. This is an attitude of faith. As judge the confessor is invested with authority to exercise judgment wisely and well in the name of God. The Rite of Penance (n. 10a) speaks of ‘discretion’ to guide and advise appropriately; not innate discretion but acquired from God though study, guidance of the magisterium, prayer. It is the gift of ‘discernment of spirits’.
Recalling St Augustine’s declaration to his people: ‘I am a bishop for you, and a Christian with you’ (Serm. 340,1), David Coffey concludes:
There is therefore no need for the experience of confession to be for the penitent a regression to a childish state. It can be, and ideally is, a structured meeting of two adults, brothers, or brother and sister, from the one Christian community, with one by virtue of his office and competence ministering to the other, to help them discern their fidelity or lack thereof to the law, of God and the Church, under which they both stand; to help this person attain and express a true repentance for their sins thus confessed; to mediate God’s pardon to them in the Church, the divinely appointed place of reconciliation; and with them to give praise to God for his mercy. There is no reason why the relationship thus characterized should be paternalistic. (p.99)
David Coffey does not have any easy solutions to the problem of the decline of the sacrament of reconciliation. He offers only labour-intensive remedies such as Christian development, adult education and formation. But his study is an excellent resource for anyone engaged in administering the sacrament and/or trying to recommend to others that they return to it.
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