I hope you recognise these words: “God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his only Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from all your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
Yes, they are the words of sacramental absolution. They tell us why the sacrament of penance or reconciliation exists, what gives it its power, who owns that power and to whom it has been entrusted, as well as what its effects are upon those who seek it out.
So, why does the sacrament exist? Because sin exists and because humanity, the world, both individually and collectively needs to be reconciled with God. What gives it its power? The death and resurrection of the only Son of the Father, the Father of mercies. By the action of the Holy Spirit, this sacrament re-immerses us – as if in an echo of our baptism – into the very death and resurrection of Jesus. By it, the eternal power of his death (which destroyed all the sin and death of humanity) and the eternal power of his resurrection (which conferred all grace and life upon humanity) are applied to the individual person confessing. Who owns that power? The Blessed Trinity. The work of our salvation is the work of the Trinity and it is in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, that we are absolved from all sin, just as we were baptised and cleansed from original sin in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
To whom has that power been entrusted? Jesus entrusted it to the Church, depositing it in the hands of the Apostles. In the Upper Room, after his resurrection, he appeared to the Apostles, breathed on them, said “peace be with you” and said also, “receive the Holy Spirit. Those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; those whose sins you retain, they are retained.” Through the successors of the Apostles, the Bishops, and through their co-workers the priests, the Blessed Trinity continues to forgive the sins of human beings.
And what are the effects of this power of forgiveness. Pardon and peace. Pardon means that our sins are removed definitively. Peace means that an inner harmony of grace and love is restored to us within ourselves, between ourselves and God and between ourselves and the rest of the Church.
So you can see that the formula of absolution used by the priest sums up the origin, meaning and effects of the sacrament of penance or reconciliation. It is one of the principal ways by which the grace of salvation is continually made available to us. We will never grasp the importance of this sacrament if we are unwilling to recognise with a deep and personal realisation the gravity of what sin is both in general terms and in terms of what it does to one’s own personal life. If we don’t have that realisation or if we don’t want to have it or bother ourselves to seek it out, then some serious consequences follow. For if I do not take sin, my personal sin, seriously then neither do I take the death and resurrection of Christ seriously. It follows from that, that I don’t take God or the love of God seriously. And, tragically, it follows from that, that I do not really take myself or the meaning of my existence seriously. If we have lost or allowed to diminish in ourselves the sense of sin, it means that sin itself has hoodwinked us into thinking that the whole Christian Gospel and Mystery is of little or no consequence. The loss of the sense of sin inevitably leads, therefore, to the loss of the sense of God and therefore to the loss of faith.
By a sense of sin, I don’t mean an obsession with sin or a scrupulous preoccupation with it. A true sense of sin is born of a true sense of the divine love at the core of my life, for sin means that I freely choose to diminish or lose that love. Sin is always a negative, a deficit, a non-love, an absence of communion with God and others either fully or partly. Sin is comparable to ill health: it means something is not right, is not working, is impairing the full and healthy functioning of my soul. Just as we need to attend to health problems in time, so we need to attend to the problem of sin in time, otherwise we are playing with death, and not just the death of the body but the death of the soul.
And before we say that not every health problem leads to physical death and so by the same token not every sin will lead to spiritual death, what we must first remember is that every sin led to the death of Christ. The least we can do to show our gratitude and love to him is to be rid of our sins through the power of his death, that is through sacramental absolution, as soon as we possibly can. In a relationship of love, small offenses, if left untended, weaken and threaten the survival of that love. This is all the more so in our relationship with Christ. What is worse is that we would take advantage of his faithful love and mercy and ignore our offenses against him on the convenient pretext that “he will forgive me.” He will certainly forgive you if you ask for that forgiveness, but how can he forgive you if you don’t? And what kind of love is it for him who died for love of you that you would not bother to say sorry to him and simply presume that he will forgive you? If you presumed in the same way upon the love of another human being you would be told in no uncertain terms where to go.
And while sin is before all else an offense against God, a rupture of communion with him, it also damages our communion with the Church. For the Church and Christ are one body and one soul in the Holy Spirit. No sin is somehow purely vertical in its repercussions, as if we lived in some kind of bubble of total isolation with God. Every sin, no matter how secret, has horizontal repercussions towards our neighbour, every neighbour, since we are all one body in the Church and all one race with humanity. Every sin poisons the health of the whole body that little bit more, and when our sins are serious, the poison is all the more deadly. If your neighbour were ill, you would help them. If you had made them ill, you would feel all the more obliged to do so. Well, then, when we sin, we make our neighbour that bit more ill spiritually. We deprive them of that little bit of health that could make all the difference. Our sin renders the “amen” we say to the Body and Blood of Christ at Holy Communion that little bit less credible, because by our sin we are offending and hurting and weakening the very Body we receive. Our sins also diminish the presence and power of the Spirit of confirmation in ourselves and in the Church. They weaken the grace of our baptism and, if they are mortal, they remove sanctifying grace altogether from our own souls and therefore diminish its presence in the Church. Our sins also have a knock-on and combined effect on the grace of marriage and of holy orders. The whole of the Christian life in ourselves and in the Church is compromised and damaged by our sins. This weakens the Church in her mission and renders her less credible as the sign of salvation which Christ has given for the redemption of humanity.
For this reason, conversion away from sin entails both God’s forgiveness and reconciliation with the Church, and these are expressed and accomplished by the sacrament of penance and reconciliation. While only God forgives sins, Christ by virtue of his divine authority gives this power to men to exercise. The whole Church should be the sign and instrument of the forgiveness and reconciliation that he acquired for us at the price of his blood. But he entrusted the exercise of the power of absolution to the apostolic ministry. During his public life, Jesus not only forgave sins, but also made plain the effect of this forgiveness in reuniting forgiven sinners into the community of the People of God. Sin estranges or excludes us from that People, but Jesus shows that he receives the repentant sinner at his table, a gesture which expresses in an astonishing way both his forgiveness, his pardon, and the return of the forgiven one to the bosom of the People of God, the gift of peace.
In his words to Peter, Jesus gives the office of binding and loosing to both Peter and the other Apostles. The words bind and loose mean: whomever you exclude from your communion, will be excluded from communion with God; whomever you receive back into your communion, God will welcome back into his. Therefore, reconciliation with the Church is inseparable from reconciliation with God.
Over the centuries, the actual form in which the Church has exercised this power received from the Lord has varied considerably. Beneath the changes in discipline and celebration that this sacrament has undergone over the centuries, the same fundamental features can be seen. It comprises two equally necessary elements: on the one hand, the acts of the man who undergoes conversion through the action of the Holy Spirit: namely, contrition, confession, and satisfaction; on the other, God’s action through the intervention of the Church who, through the bishop and his priests, forgives sins in the name of Jesus Christ and determines the manner of satisfaction, also prays for the sinner and does penance with him. Thus the sinner is healed and re-established in the communion of the Church.
I don’t think anyone wants a return to the kind of frequent confession which was prevalent until the early 1980’s, with people being marched to the confessional every Friday or Saturday. The problem is, though, that the loss of that approach to confession has led also to a loss of the deeper truth and grace of this sacrament for most Catholics. The proverbial baby has been thrown out with the bath water. Changes in society have also meant for many Catholics a disconnect with the Church’s teaching on this sacrament and on many other things. People today live as if God did not exist. Many Catholics only have a notional understanding of God. They can more or less recite the creed and can remember some things from the catechism. But in terms of the actual relevance of any of this, or of God himself, for the decisions they take in their lives, they actually do not in fact believe in God. The result of this is that they don’t relate the decision they make to God and so they see no need, even no meaning, in talk about sinful decisions or even virtuous decisions: there are just decisions you make, end of story. By implication, you then have to wonder what people who function in this way believe they are doing when they receive Holy Communion.
There are also a lot of cultural reasons for the abandonment of the sacrament of confession. For example, secularism which permeates every level and dimension of our society and which at its most benign considers God-talk as a fringe reality for an increasingly shrinking and older group of people. Then we have psychologism, which reduces guilt or shame to the level of emotional pathology. The implication of this is that personal sin is just a leftover from social conditioning from the religiously superstitious world now behind us. See a psych, and you’ll be fine!
The Church herself is to blame at some level because of deficient catechesis and a failure to show the relevance of this sacrament for true human and spiritual maturity. Things were left at primary school level and the fuller and deeper reach and power of this sacrament for adult life and spirituality were ignored. Then mixed messages were being sent out: some priests were too rigours and strict; others were too lax. There was a tendency to focus on rules and laws without showing the importance of morality for a deep relationship of love and faith in Christ. The examination of conscience was reduced to a check list instead of being an opening out of the heart and soul to the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. Absolution itself was considered as magical instead of as a deep encounter of faith with the risen Christ and a renewed personal commitment to love him and live for him.
On top of this, society has in its own laws debunked the greater part of the divine law. Of the ten commandments, only the seventh, as far as I can see, is still upheld by Western democracies. Thou shalt not steal, but if you can do so without being caught, good on you. But we can forget about there being only one God, or respecting his name, or keeping the sabbath, or honouring parents, or killing, or adultery, or lying or coveting. Certainly, in some of these areas, civil and criminal law put some boundaries, but they largely overrule the will of God. And so, in such societies, Catholics like everyone else will be easily influenced, not only because society makes life easier than God, but because it is now human law, and not divine law, which is the source of morality.
Only if I return to God as the foundation of my life, only if I make a personal and radical acceptance in my heart of the person of Christ as he has revealed himself, and not as I want to make him, only if I welcome the ministry of the apostolic Church as proceeding from the will and love of Christ, and accept its teachings on the truth of what is necessary for salvation, only if I take a personal responsibility for learning and educating myself in the knowledge and love of Christ and his teachings, only if I pray and worship as an irresistible need and demand of my heart in response to God, only if I constantly renew my baptismal promises of rejecting evil and embracing God: am I likely to find my way to a deep and life-giving religious practice in the heart of the Church of which the liberating, renewing and cleansing sacrament of reconciliation and penance will be an integral part.
For it to be humanly and religiously authentic, confession needs to come at the end of a process. For sin dwells in the “dark and hidden places of the heart”[cf. 1 Cor 4:5]. To reach there, the light of the Spirit is required [cf. Jn 16:8], exposure to the Word, courageous discernment of spirits: in a word, the true examination of conscience. It is not a question of an anxious psychological introspection, but a sincere and calm comparison between one’s soul and the moral law in the presence of Jesus and of the Father. Moreover, just as the penance imposed carries the process of conversion and the power of the sacrament into the person’s subsequent life, it can be argued, and maybe even more so, that the examination of conscience, if performed diligently, anticipates the power of the sacrament in the penitent’s life.
The inner recognition of, and sorrow for, grave sins is not enough. The verbal confession is needed because: 1) the priest needs to know the sinner; 2) to evaluate the seriousness of both the sins and of the repentance; 3) to acquaint himself with the condition of the sick person so as to heal him; 4) confessing is itself a sign since it is the meeting of the sinner with the Church in the person of the priest; 5) it is a sign of the person’s self-revelation as sinner in the sight of God and of the Church, of his facing his sinful condition in the eyes of the loving God – it is not just a form of psychological self-liberation, however natural and good that may be; 6) it is a liturgical act, humble and sober in its performance, solemn in the grandeur of its significance.
Someone who believes in a God-love but not in a God-judge does not believe in a personal God, but in a vague deism, that there is some god or other out there. “Confessing your sins to God in private” smacks of deism, for it inevitably leads to silencing God and to projecting onto him one’s own interpretations. At the very least it is indifferent to the very means which Christ himself provided for the forgiveness of sins, the sacrament of forgiveness. A religion of the spoken and incarnate Word requires our word of response, both spoken and incarnate: we profess faith with our lips and actions and likewise we witness to it. The sacraments, which are our encounter with the Word in action, beckon our corresponding reaction in word and deed. Confession of sins is both word and action, and exposes our sins both to the Word of forgiveness and the “action” of the Paschal Mystery. The psychology of the spoken word finds its fullest accomplishment in the sacramental theology of the spoken word. By confessing we profess and witness to our faith in the forgiveness of sins. It is a specific form of witness which “feeds” further witness in the areas of truth, justice and reconciliation.
Sin diminishes us as human persons and renders us unworthy, or less worthy, of God and of one another. Since personhood is a “relational” category [you cannot flourish as a person on your own], it implies relation with every other person, human, angelic and divine. Despite globalization and the interconnectedness it brings, the prevailing understanding of the human person in the West is reverting fast to a lonely individualism. “Individual” better preserves the self-will ideology and its desire for absolute autonomy. Yet it radically impoverishes the person’s dignity and freedom. This dehumanization goes hand in hand with the privatization of sin and, eventually, with its elimination. The notion that we only need to confess sins privately before God is actually offensive towards all persons, including self and God. It is a way of “absolving oneself” and refusing to assume responsibility for oneself in the community of others. It is a practice which will most probably not even endure in the life of the person who advocates it. The true confession of sins must return to the fundamental conviction of faith in the living and personal God and accept that such an intimate bond has its demands and implications also in our relationship with all other persons.
The sacrament of reconciliation is in crisis for many reasons today and yet there is probably no other time in history when it has most been needed. We praise and thank the Lord for this immense grace and ask him to enlighten our Church and our world once more with the light of his mercy. May the sacramental formula of absolution ring out once more in silent majesty in our confessionals and in our hearts.