About us



Vol 36 No 3


John Ryan

John-Baptiste Bornand

Terry Lyons

Charles Hill

Mark Raper SJ

Michael Trainor

Peter Malone MSC

Editor, JSD, Stephen Hackett MSC, Kevin Mark


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.


New religious books by Australian Authors - Kevin Mark

Ancestral Power: The Dreaming, consciousness and Aboriginal Australians; Lynne Hume; Melbourne University Press; PB $39.95 [052285012X]; 224pp; 230x150mm; 2002
Exploration of Aboriginal spirituality through an examination of the religious concept of the Dreamtime, or The Dreaming, from a Western perspective. Examines a range of existing literature on Aboriginal cosmology and spiritual practices, as well as studies of Aboriginal art, anthropological and ethnomusicological data, and statements by Aboriginal people from a wide range of regions across Australia. Considers links between aspects of the Dreaming and experiences in altered states of consciousness. Notes; bibliography; index. Author is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Studies in Religion, University of Queensland. Previous book is Witchcraft and Paganism in Australia (1997).

Ascension Now: Implications of Christ’s ascension for today’s church; Bishop Peter Atkins; Liturgical Press, USA, dist. by John Garratt Publishing; PB $45.95 [0814627250]; 162pp; 210x135mm; 2001
Examination of the importance of the doctrine of the Ascension of Jesus for the church today. Presents the biblical evidence for the Ascension, then considers the implications of the doctrine for theology, liturgy, personal prayer, preaching, and future liturgical practice, and as well as its personal implications for the reader. Footnotes; reference book list; index. Now retired from active ministry in the Anglican Church in New Zealand, the author was Bishop of Waiapu and Dean at St John’s College, Auckland.

Australian Genesis: Jewish convicts and settlers 1788-1860; John S. Levi; G. F. J. Bergman; Melbourne University Press; HB $89.95 [no ISBN]; 480pp; 245x175mm; 2002
Updated edition of a history of Jewish migration and settlement in Australia, first published in 1974 by Rigby. Tells stories of individual lives and chronicles the struggle for political emancipation and religious tolerance. New edition examines the gold rush period and includes new stories of the founding families of today’s Jewish community. Photographs; maps; notes; bibliography; index. Levi was the first Australian to be ordained a rabbi, is a President of the Council of Christians and Jews, and a Member of the Order of Australia. Bergman (1900-79) published many articles on Australian Jewish history and contributed to the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

Come Back!: The Church loves you; Cardinal Edward Clancy; St Pauls; PB $17.95 [1876295481]; 80pp; 200x130mm; 2002
Clear, simple account of modern Catholic belief and practice, written for Catholics who no longer practise their faith but are considering returning to the Church. Each chapter concludes with a personal reflection. Appendices present some classic Christian texts, such as the Nicene Creed, as and a biographical note on the author in also included. Author is the retired Archbishop of Sydney and was appointed a Cardinal in 1988.

Created or Constructed?: The great gender debate; Elaine Storkey; University of New South Wales Press; PB $24.95 [0868406422]; 141pp; 215x135mm; 2001
Australian edition of a book first published in the UK in 2000 by Paternoster Press. Released as part of the New College Lectures series, it is based on the author’s series of lectures presented at New College, University of New South Wales, in 1997, but expanded to take into account recent scholarship. Presents analysis of three significant phases affecting the development of feminist theory and the pursuit of sexual equality in the last century - the pre-modern traditional fixed-gender approach, the modern approach associated with the 1960s and 1970s, and the post-modern approach of the 1990s. Foreword by Christine Alexander of the New College Lectureship Trust. Further reading; index. Author teaches Theology and Sociology at the University of London, is UK President of Tear Fund, and a member of the General Synod of the Church of England. Other publications include Contributions to Christian Feminism (1995) and Magnify the Lord (1997).

The Enlightenment and the Origins of European Australia; John Gascoigne; Cambridge University Press; HB $69.95 [0521803438]; 248pp; 255x180mm; 2002
Study examining the formation of Australian society, emphasising the role of the Scientific Revolution and its commitment to enquiry and progress. Analyses the political and religious background of the period from the First Fleet (1788) to the mid-19th century and progress in fields such as agriculture, education, penal discipline and race relations that shaped attitudes. Developments in Australia are compared and contrasted with those in Britain and North America. Photographs; notes; bibliography; index. Author is Associate Professor in the School of History at the University of New South Wales. Previous titles include Cambridge in the Age of Enlightenment (1989) and Science in the Service of Empire (1998). Research assistance for the new book was provided by Dr Patricia Curthoys.

The Gift of Saint Benedict; Vera A. Holyhead SGS; Lynne Muir (illustrator); John Garratt Publishing; HB $19.95 [1875938923]; 127pp; 155x155mm; 2002
Gift book presentation of the spirituality of St Benedict for modern readers seeking a more balanced and centred life. Presents extracts from the 6th-century Rule of Benedict, accompanied by original colour illustrations and calligraphy by artist Muir. The texts and illustrations are grouped into the major themes of the Rule, such as Conversion, Humility, Prayer, Hospitality and Peace, and each section is introduced by Holyhead. Guide to further reading. Holyhead is an Australian religious in the Benedictine tradition whose previous publications include Following the Cross (1998).

God as Communion: John Zizioulas, Elizabeth Johnson, and the retrieval of the symbol of the Triune God; Patrica A. Fox; Liturgical Press, USA, dist. by John Garratt Publishing; PB $79.95 [0814650821]; 275pp; 230x150mm; 2001
Theological study seeking to contribute to the retrieval of the Christian symbol of the Triune God in the contemporary context. Explores ancient and new meanings of the symbol of God as Trinity and brings the Christian traditions of the West and East into dialogue through an examination of the trinitarian theologies of Greek Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas and Catholic feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson and by bringing them into a mutually critical correlation. Proposes the reclaiming of the Trinity as an eminently practical doctrine that challenges Christians and the Christian churches to transforming changes in our times. Footnotes; select bibliography; index. At time of publication author was president of the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of Australia. She had taught Christian spirituality at the Adelaide College of Divinity, Flinders University, South Australia and coordinated the Spirituality Office for the Catholic Archdiocese of Adelaide.

Is Jesus God?: Finding our faith; Michael Morwood; Spectrum; PB $18.95 [0867863684]; 128pp; 210x150mm; 2001
Work of popular theology that develops selected themes from the author’s previous, controversial book, Tomorrow’s Catholic (1997), which was banned by the then Archbishop of Melbourne, George Pell. Author proposes a radical rethinking of how the identity and role of Jesus is understand, rejecting notions of Jesus being an incarnate god-figure and putting emphasis on the significance of Jesus’ ministry rather than his death. The implications of the author’s views are also explored with respect to liturgy and ministry. Each chapter concludes with questions for discussion. Bibliography. Author was formerly a Missionary of the Sacred Heart priest and continues to work in adult faith education in Australia and the United States. His other books include God Is Near (1992).

Joseph; Anna Fienberg; Kim Gamble (illustrator); Allen & Unwin; HB $24.95 [1864481730]; 32pp; 255x245mm; 2001
Picture storybook for children based on the story of Joseph, son of Jacob, found in the biblical book of Genesis. Joseph is a master of dreams but is betrayed by his jealous brothers. But when his family are in need, Joseph has the opportunity to help them from starvation. Colour illustrations throughout, created by oils on paper. Author and illustrator have previously collaborated on a number of other children’s books including The Magnificent Nose and Other Marvels (1991) and The Hottest Boy Who Ever Lived (1993).

Mystics for Every Millennium: Heart of Life 2000; Brian Gallagher MSC (editor); Heart of Life Spirituality Centre/Nelen Yubu Missiological Unit; PB $15.00 [095878695X]; 140pp; 205x145mm; 2002
Collection of nine profiles of Christian mystics, originally presented as a series of talks at the Heart of Life Spirituality Centre, Melbourne, in the Jubilee Year 2000. Chiefly of recent times, those profiled are Jean Vanier, Clare of Assisi, Thomas Merton, Etty Hillesum, Bede Griffiths, Sheila Cassidy, and Hildegard of Bingen. There is also a chapter on Aboriginal mysticism. Contributors are Paul Castley MSC, Wendy Chew, Brian Gallagher MSC, Frank Gerry SVD, Eileen Glass, Verna Holyhead SGS, Elizabeth Pike, Sue Richardson PBVM, Angela Slattery, and Majella Tracey FMM. Foreword by Richardson, Director of Heart of Life. Photograph; notes; bibliographies.

The Naked Fish: An autobiography of belief; Ian Hansen; Wakefield Press; PB $27.50 [1862545936]; 226pp; 210x140mm; 2002
Autobiography in which the author charts both his life story and his journey of faith. Recounts his experiences growing up in a middle-class, suburban Christian family in the 30s and 40s in Adelaide and Melbourne. Traces his journey from teenager to teacher to university lecturer, and through his roles as father and grandfather. Presents the challenges to his faith as the world changes around him, and reflects on the author’s search for meaning in life and an understanding of the world that will satisfy his spiritual yearnings.

Reasons of State: To kill a Polish priest; Kevin Ruane; HarperCollins Publishers; PB $24.95 [0732271754]; 416pp; 210x135mm; 2002
Detailed investigation of the murder of young Polish priest Jerzy Popieluszko (1847-84) and its aftermath. Popieluszko was kidnapped and killed by security policeman after speaking out in support of Solidarity (the free trade union outlawed by the Communist authorities). For the first time a Communist government was forced to try and condemn its own secret police, but doubts remain whether all those guilty were brought to justice. Photographs; appendices; endnotes. Author was a journalist with the BBC for 30 years and now lives in Canberra.