THE CHRISTIAN MYSTERIES : PENANCE
MINISTRY OF RECONCILIATION
The forgiveness of sins occupies a considerable place in the early Church and in the Gospel message. To be reminded of this, it is sufficient to recall the request to the Father that He forgives us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us. That is the Christian’s constant prayer, even for the most perfect. Mutual forgiveness among Christians is thus constantly set in relation to God’s forgiveness of us. The Church is, therefore, and has been from the beginning, a society that knows of reconciliation among brethren and with God.
But, even more, it is the Church that has received the Divine power for this. This causes no surprise for this power is but an extension of that Power of spiritual resurrection which is exercised so potently at Baptism. When Jesus announced to His Apostles: “Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven.” (Mt 18:18) (…). The fullness of this power would be assumed by Peter who was charged with the Supreme ministry (Mt 16:18). Furthermore it is Peter who questioned Our Lord on the measure to be applied in this ministry and who received this answer: “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.” (Mt 18:22). Jesus thus teaches Peter that the only measure to be applied is to have no measure (…). This means that every fault can be pardoned except that which consists precisely in no longer believing in pardon, in no longer hoping, in no longer loving, desiring, or asking the Church who has the Power of the Keys.
Thus the Sacrament of Penance was truly instituted by Jesus Christ and has been established from the Church’s origins, if not in the exact ritual form that we know today, at least in its essential ministry as it was conferred by Christ on His Apostles.
According to Poschmann, the most competent historian on this subject, the foundations of the Primitive Church’s practice of Penance are evident. Each sin demands penance, but there is no sin, not even the gravest, that is excluded from pardon, when true repentance is manifest. The means for obtaining absolution are prayer and charitable works. Personal prayer is effectively supported by the prayer of the faithful. A certain confession of sin would appear to be bound up with this last aspect. In the case of grave faults, the leaders of the Church have the duty of reprimanding those guilty of such grave sin but if no result followed they then had to exclude the sinners from the Community. If the excommunicated one was converted he obtained ecclesiastical pardon, which, in accordance with the Lord’s promise, equivalently guaranteed pardon in Heaven. (…)
All that remained to be fixed was the formal procedure for this penance.
DEVELOPMENT OF THE PENITENTIAL DISCIPLINE
If we sum up and over simplify what we know of this period we can retrace this history, which is of something living and therefore horribly confused. From the second generation, the Church very soon began to distinguish between two sorts of reparation for sin. The first was for light faults only and consisted of prayers accompanied by tears, prostrations in Church during the course of liturgical assemblies, fasting and almsgiving. (…). The priests then gave the repentant faithful God’s pardon by means of some liturgical blessing (…).
For grave sins, both secret and public, an excommunication would be pronounced against the sinner with a view to his amendment. If the sinner undertook the penance fixed by the Bishop, he would eventually be reintegrated into the community and, by that token, absolved (…). It is noteworthy the Church delayed instructing the catechumens in the possibility of a further, more onerous remission of sins after their baptism… Then, every fresh possibility of having sins remitted was presented as the very last chance (…) Nevertheless, the practice of absolution that was given more and more easily became general. It caused some laxism, the consequence of which was a first great gust of rigorism in the middle of the second century (…).
There is no question of the Catholic Church ever refusing to absolve sins including the very gravest (…) The quarrels of Saint Cyprian’s times concern the moment of absolution for the sinner and his reintegration into the Church. The solution to this debate would lie in restoring balance to the penances exacted and to the facility of gaining forgiveness..
In the middle of the third century, the practice of “Peace Certificates” was challenged. These certificates were signed by one of the martyrs in favour of members of his family. They formed a credit on the martyr’s merits to the extent of entitling the holder to demand the Bishop, as of right, to be reintegrated into the Church without further delay. The idea behind the practice was good, namely that of the communion of saints and of the treasury of merit. But there was certainly abuse when the martyr’s blood was used to procure an uncalled for arrogance on the part of the sinner! What the Church did not admit in this practice, however, was that excommunication should have been considered thereby annulled without recourse to canonical procedure and outside the Bishop’s jurisdiction.
It would be necessary, however, for the persecution to end and for the life of the Church to emerge in the full light of day before the rites of the sacrament of Penance acquire all their fullness in the 4th century. When the risk of persecution had passed there were masses of people seeking admittance to the Church and the Church was faced with the difficult problem of the public sinner’s condition within the Christian assembly. The solution rested on a solid basis, namely Baptism which was an immediate and gratuitous remission of sins through the ministry of the Bishop. The Bishop would also be the minister of this other remission of sins, which was open to all Christians who had relapsed into serious sin (…). These rites were not for daily sins of human weakness and ignorance, resulting from frailty and inconstancy of will, they concerned sins of malice, which cause a spiritual death and rupture with the Christian Community. Such sins were apostasy, murder and in particular abortion, adultery, etc.
The worst consequence of the rigorism that continued to afflict the Church was the stigma with which reconciled penitents were marked. This problem led the practice of the Penance known as Canonical Penance into an impasse. It was called canonical because it was pronounced by the bishop before the assembly after after the penitent had observed a long penance and received the rite of reconciliation. Instead of being an outright absolution, which would have been truly evangelical, entailing the sinner’s return to his original integrity and to all the Church’s rites and to the Christian’s honour, the reconciled penitent status was that of a diminished Christian who had fallen and who was bound for life to the stringent demands of perpetual continence (…). The result of such a practice was foreseeable. Sinners waited until they had reached an advanced age before seeking Penance (…).
Salvation came from distant Ireland (…) In reality, the practice of private confession that was established so successfully by the great missionaries and converters of barbarian Europe – men such as St. Columban (†615) – was none other than the age old monastic Chapter of Faults. It was adapted for missionary use and became so successful because it answered an urgent need in souls. We know for a fact that the monks were considered to be vowed to the state of perfection and so never practised public penance. Their need of spiritual direction and desire for purification was satisfied by the Chapter of Faults made to the Superior, normally followed by a blessing equivalent to sacramental absolution. This is the practice which the monks spread among their converts. « To receive this absolution consisted in making a confession, accepting the satisfaction fixed by the priest and finally reconciliation. Confession has no ignominious consequences; it is open to everyone and at all times. »
At the Council of Châlons in 650 the acquisition was gained (…). By 800, public penance had practically disappeared (...). What did continue to exist, however, was the solemn penance which amply satisfied the faithful with their need for imaginatively striking symbols and manifest action. Such solemn penances were the pilgrimages and the Crusades, or conversions marked by abandoning the world and taking the monastic tonsure. Later there were public flagellations, which were inaugurated in a grand way and promoted by St. Peter Damian (...). By contrast, our private confession seems so much more simple and sincere, so free of display and false appearances.
Thus became established the discipline as we know it today and which was carefully codified by the Council of Trent in answer to the criticisms and negations of Protestantism. With the establishment of this discipline came an extraordinary change of mentality, without anyone being very much aware of it (…). The notion of confession gained at the expense of penance (…), under the pretext that the very shame of revealing one’s sins to a priest and the courage needed to do so was in itself a harsh penance, a true expiation and satisfaction enough to merit and obtain absolution there and then! (…) Moreover, the ministry of the priest began to appear as the decisive element, the essence of the sacrament. Forgiveness of sins by the Church in the name of the Christ-God was gaining over the penitent’s personal ascetic efforts; the Sacrament of the Church therefore took priority over man’s efforts (…).
PENANCE OR RECONCILIATION
It is therefore very important to pose the question: What is it that obtains God’s forgiveness? Is it the sinner’s effort and, if so, is it his work of expiation or is it his contrition? Is it both at once: satisfaction and contrition in the very shame of confessing one’s sins to a priest? Or is it the episcopal act, or by delegation, the sacerdotal act? And if so which act – the Church’s prayer or the ritual absolution? And is this absolution primarily a reconciliation with Mother Church, the Community of Brethren or with God the Father? Sacramentary discipline will vary according to how these questions are answered. It has varied in the course of past centuries and can do so again, in which case it would be preferable for its development to be controlled and directed by a Church in perfect possession of her doctrine (…).
Let us summarise the answers given by St. Augustine, Abelard, St Thomas Aquinas, the Council of Trent and finally the Second Vatican Council. They form a doctrinal advance in the understanding this sacrament, which would result in a significant pastoral advance.
Here, then, is a definition of the sacrament which seems to us the most traditional and most profound. The sinner’s action in asking for forgiveness is the foremost consideration, as the Church has always maintained. Asking the Bishop for his Peace is both the aim and the means in reaching the ultimate end which is, in fact, God’s forgiveness, justification and grace.
Whether contrition be perfect or imperfect, whether it be a rudimentary attrition, with or without tears, is not the essential. It is useless for us to scrutinise our own feelings to determine whether or not we are worthy of the sacrament, or at the other extreme to decide whether our contrition is perfect enough to do without the sacrament and so obtain God’s pardon directly! (…)
The truth is that the Church is that human will endowed with the Power of binding and loosing on earth and in Heaven; it is Divine Power to decide on the spiritual life and death of souls, from the highest in authority to the lowest in power, in accordance with the Holy Spirit of Her Head and Founder – Spirit of mercy and redemption, of wisdom and strength.
The Matter of the sacrament is the reconciling encounter of the sinner with the Church – the assembled Church in Her Bishop or his delegate the priest. No matter what liturgy or procedure accompanies this encounter – and there have been many and there will doubtless be others – the meaning is made manifest in the penitent coming to see the priest and in the priest’s gesture of welcome; in this encounter we see the common will of the sinner, of the Bishop and of God. It is true that the sinner’s repentance is expressed by this encounter, but as for the degree of perfection in the contrition so expressed, pastors, apart from and in spite of the theorists, have never wished to dwell on, and quite rightly! The encounter in itself expresses the desire for and the will to make satisfaction, to the extent of the sin, because it contains within it an acceptance in advance of the penance to be fixed by the Church. It is the encounter which manifests the firm proposalnever to sin again – a proposal that cannot be insisted on too much for who, of his own accord, can ever promise for sure?
We ought to spend more time praying for contrition than examining our conscience. Contrition is the balm of the soul. It consists in saying: “My God, I am truly sorry for having displeased You, for having disobeyed You. It displeases me greatly, and I want to do better.”
« Saint John Vianney, Curé d’Ars »
In this perspective, the more perfect the Christian, the higher his degree of contrition and the more he will desire this encounter, the better he will undertake it (…). This encounter, the touchstone of God’s forgiveness, works in the sinner, thus imploring absolution, an increase of faith, confidence and attachment to His God and Saviour Jesus Christ, in and through the Church, the “milieu divin” – the Divine setting – fountain of grace and unique means of salvation.
The form of the sacrament is the Church’s word of absolution, or rather it is the Church’s prayer and indulgence, pronounced by the Bishop or his delegate over the repentant sinner so as to obtain for and grant him Divine absolution (…). In the ancient liturgy and still in the words of absolution found in our Roman Ritual (before the Reforms of Vatican II) “the Church interceded for Her members, taking part in their prayers because She suffered with them in their sins” (…). It is an admirable perspective, which overflows from the sacrament of Penance alone to embrace every kind of sacramentals, with forgiveness of sins for its end, and which even informs that famous direct forgiveness from God for the one who repents with perfect contrition (…).
That is the inspired part of Poschmann’s erudite historical work, namely to have recovered the form, constituting the specific perfection, the supernatural efficacy and Christian meaning of the sacrament (…). It is the hypostatic union of Christ Crucified with God Himself that makes Christ Lord of all the grace of forgiveness and Head of the Army of Salvation. It is the mystical and meritorious union of Holy Church to Her Spouse Jesus Christ that makes the Church the distributor of every grace through Her irresistible prayer and Her merits that touch the Heart of God. There is no measure to the Church’s distribution of forgiveness, therefore, other than Her will of intercession and forgiveness.
When the priest gives absolution, one must think only that the Blood of the Good God is flowing through our soul to cleanse it, purify it and make it as beautiful as it was after baptism.
The praying and forgiving Church is the instrument of Christ’s Divinity, from whom She is filled with power, to direct where She will, from whom She is filled with grace, to distribute visibly or invisibly in accordance with Her good pleasure to those who implore it. This impetratory or supplicant form of prayer, which for long was the form of absolution rather than the imperative form it has taken in our day, (…), indicates better the source of forgiveness sought for in the sacrament, not from the human Church but from God through the Church’s ministry. It also manifests better how totally the Church makes available absolution and forgiveness of sins in accordance with Her prayer, particular or universal and in accordance with Her penitential discipline, Her various gifts of indulgence and all Her sacramentals. Through Her supplicatory prayer the Church obtains from Christ the power to confer absolution and forgiveness of sins in accordance with Her maternal heart.
A MINISTRY OF RECONCILIATION RENEWED
After twelve centuries of constant and universal usage auricular confession has proved its indisputable and irreplaceable worth (…). It is perfect and answers the needs of thousands and millions of men (…). However, there were certain questionable or abusive aspects of the practice that could be corrected or even suppressed. The secretive and hurried character of confession is too much of a departure from the deepest Tradition, which is one of temporal and public penance and of the intention of sharing in the Church’s merits and demerits among Christian brethren. One could also discuss, but with fearful prudence, the formidable obligation of making a complete and circumstantial avowal of every mortal fault. One could also protest that all the penitential sacramentals have been devalued to the advantage of Confession alone, an abuse which ends in filling the confessional with penitents reeling off tedious lists of indefinitely repeated peccadillos to the great weariness of confessors and total lack of regard for this admirable sacrament (…).
The only serious inadaptability about auricular confession is concerning the sexual domain. With Anglo-Saxon Puritanism having been joined and aggravated by French Jansenism, there is a boundless obsessional shame about sins of impurity, which are considered to be mortal outright, and which keeps masses of Christians away from Confession. From the time of adolescence and its oft-accompanying faults, which may continue for a long time, an enormous percentage of Christians renounce the Sacrament of Penance, but with what regret and what remorse! (…) In revolt or despair, they reach the point where they abandon the practice of confession altogether in a state of distress and troubled soul that often leads to loss of faith and sometimes to a stubborn anticlericalism. I speak of what I know and what priest who has ever been in education will deny it? There, as in the 6th century, is an acute pastoral problem, which is overdue for a solution and which only the Supreme Authority of the Church can consider and resolve (…).
The post conciliar innovation could have been the best of liturgical restorations (…). Yet, at a time when the Pope and the Bishops accommodate themselves to every kind of vice and make excuses for them, these celebrations appear as though sinners can by-pass the obstacle of Confession and that anyone can receive Communion without Confession or repentance.
Nevertheless, in a Catholic Church restored to its true faith and holiness, I believe that communitarian penitential celebrations will have their place parallel with and complementary to private confession, as another mode of reconciliation with the Church and therefore with God (…).
SOLUTION TO THE DILEMMA
BETWEEN INTEGRISTS AND PROGRESSIVISTS.
For the Integrists the essence of the sacrament lies in the obligatory confession of all grave faults: the very difficulty and shame of confession are a necessary means of obtaining remission. For the progressivists, confession is an ignominious priestly invention contrary to the will of Christ and His liberality: did He Himself not forgive sins without any confession of faults? So why do otherwise than He did? And so the dispute goes. To resolve it, we must come back to the admirable mystery of reconciliation.
In the first place we recover the good spirit of Christian piety. The bad spirit consists in assuming that sinners detest making a confession of their faults and that priests delight in hearing them. The good spirit of Christian piety knows that sinners desire ardently to make a thorough and sincere confession of all their faults to a priest so that with full knowledge of the case he may make a judgement and so give absolution. For his part, the priest prompted by holy zeal and deep compassion will be eager to grant absolution at the first sign of true contrition. The sinner’s confession of sin is really no more than proof of his contrition; it is not the essence of the sacrament (…).
By leaving the old controversies aside we also come back to a really profound theology of this sacrament. The Church is endowed with the power of absolving whichever of Her sinful members She wishes and for this purpose She has only to heed Her maternal heart. The conditions fixed by the Church for granting pardon will also be ratified by God: they will, therefore, be God’s conditions. Going further still we find that by entering the Church the catechumen obtains his justification and the gift of sanctifying grace; his very reconciliation with the Church gains God’s pardon for him as a penitent through the prayers of Mother Church, the Mother of Mercy. As for all the rest, the degree of contrition, the extent of the confession of sin and the length of penance… Jesus ruled nothing and stipulated nothing. He left all that to the judgement, wisdom and indulgence of His Spouse, the Church.
And if by heeding Her heart the Church shows Herself to be generous and compassionate and runs to meet sinners, who is to take exception? Many priests wrote me to say that they read my proposals with great interest and approval. One needs to have been a confessor to know what remains to be done in this domain.
Integrist denunciation here obviously finds its excuse in today’s anarchy: the new legislation concerning penance is shaky and leads to the total suppression of private confession followed by loss of the very notion of sin, which brings the sacrament of Penance into disrepute. It will be said that this is not the time to relax any of the former discipline and I agree. In fact we cannot express any enthusiasm for the half measures whereby collective absolutions are authorised without any seriousness or discipline. Such a procedure destroys the certainty of forgiveness, which is one of the perfections of this sacrament. We clearly affirm, therefore, that the diversification of absolution rites proposed by us has nothing to do with post-conciliar disorders.
Let us close this section by reaffirming our preference for the title “Sacrament of Reconciliation”, which is much richer, more profoundly traditional and “Catholic” than the title “Confession” or even “Penance”. The great pity is that the restoration of the title was not followed by the restoration of the thing itself at the time of the Council. Instead we have witnessed its destruction. One would hope that if just priority is given to the act of reconciling the sinner with the Church, and therefore with God, priests will be inspired with the love of this ministry whereby they pardon the repentant sinner with no restriction or condition other than that of the Roman discipline (…).
One would like to see the faithful have a greater love for the sacrament of Reconciliation because there is expressed the Church’s human mercy which is divine in source and inspiration like Her model Jesus Christ. More especially, I would like to see the faithful free of excessive fear and unhealthy scruples with regard to confession so that they make a full and sincere self accusation sure in the knowledge that no matter how shameful or oft repeated their sins may be, the priest will always grant pardon to a sincerely repentant sinner. The Church in fact is the envoy of Him who said: “I am come not to condemn but to save”
Ah! How beautiful all that will be when we shall be rid of the moderno-progressivist cancer and of the integrist canker!
Fr. Georges de Nantes
Excerpts from CCR n° 95, February 1978, p. 3-14