Celebrating Penance


It is possible that the sacrament of penance has become meaningless for some people because it has become an isolated sacramental act instead of being but one experience in an ongoing process of conversion. The sacrament has been expected to carry the burden of satisfying all the needs of people seeking reconciliation with God and with each other - and it simply cannot do the job. It is like trying to build a satisfying, growing relationship between two people on sex along. Just as sexual intercourse gains integrity and meaning only in the context of numerous everyday expressions of mutual love and consideration, sacramental celebration of penance should be the culmination, an occasional event, in a continuing conversion process. It is this lack of context which has been at the basis of much of the criticism by Protestants that Catholics can do anything they want and then run to confession to get absolution.

The shift in focus from confession to conversion dominates the theology of the Rite of Penance. The introduction to the Ordo says:

We can only approach the Kingdom of Christ by metanoia. This is a profound change of the whole person by which one begins to consider, judge and arrange one’s life according to the holiness and love of God, made manifest in his Son in the last days and given to us in abundance.

This conversion/metanoia which is both individual and communal results from God's grace. It occurs when one considers, judges and changes one's life in the light of God's holiness and love revealed in Jesus Christ.

If conversion is to be ongoing, there are very many ordinary experiences of reconciliation which must be everyday realities in the life of the Christian. These range from conflict resolution between spouses and neighbours, to working for justice and peace, from daily prayer and penitential services to the eucharist itself.

The eucharist is the most fundamental sacrament of reconciliation after baptism. The Council of Trent clearly taught that our daily sins are forgiven by our participation in the eucharist. The eucharist reconciles us to God and to each other through our participation in Jesus' paschal mystery. Perhaps a renewed understanding of the reconciling power of the eucharist is one reason that people are less frequent in approaching the sacrament of penance.
The sacrament of penance will be renewed if the Church commits itself to assisting people in their everyday struggle to be forgiven and forgiving, to discover the divine gift of reconciliation in their own lives. This could be done by making better use of the many means for conversion suggested by the traditions of the Church - fraternal correction, "lay" confession, prayer, fasting, charity - as well as the eucharist. To undervalue these means asking too much of the sacrament. Should it not rightly be a rare thing, reserved for peak moments and for cases of genuine mortal sin?


Elizabeth Harrington