27 February 2014, The Tablet

Off to Confession – hooray!

by Br Kieran Fenn FMS

There have been calls from some quarters to reform Confession, and a recent Tablet article listed many reasons why Catholics said they had stopped going. Even a cardinal, Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, has called for “proper reform to the sacrament” – an idea Pope Francis has signalled he does not want to look at.

Recently I came across some models of the life journey. The first was of a wavy line that began with the ‘I’ at the bottom and ‘God’ at the top. Life was a journey to God, and was about taking up one’s cross, denying self, acquiring virtue, learning to pray, and stop sinning. That was the way to get to God. I suspect that model will resonate with older people but I have been told by younger Catholics that they, too, drift into that mind set as well. Weekly confession, especially for priests and religious was part of the journey in this model.

Model two was the same wavy line but right beside the contours was a second parallel line, the God who was with us, from birth to death, encompassing, carrying, accompanying us every step of the way. In this case, life is a journey with God. The faithful covenant that God established with us in Baptism means “I embrace you” and “I am with you” (Emmanuel). While life may have its ups and downs, we may be assured that God will never leave us. Strikingly, God would even love us if we were evil!

Obviously there are shortcomings with both models – what role does Jesus Christ play in this, what of my brothers and sisters in the human family, where does mission feature in this? The third model is the spiral which takes our faith out to the world. But our understanding of the sacrament of reconciliation is affected by which model we come from. Pope Francis urges us to “never stop asking God for forgiveness”. We talk about the sacrament of reconciliation as a celebration. I think we all know that we need at times in our lives to ask for forgiveness. I am not sure that we understand our motivation in the sacrament. In our first model sin is a side track on our journey upwards and the grace to continue the journey becomes imperative. In the second model the sin of our broken relationship, of being unfaithful to the immense love of God, is foremost. In the third model sin is a failure to love our sisters and brothers as ourselves, for the sake of bringing about the reign of God that was the dream of Jesus.

It’s not all as cut and dried as that, but sin and grace and sacrament all intertwine, as does our experiences of the sacrament. The healing of hurts (this is one of the Sacraments of Healing) that should and must take place in life – that is a critical part of this Sacrament. At a conference of Directors of Religious Studies in Catholic Schools we asked a bishop to pass on a request to Rome to allow the use of the third rite (general absolution) within a class celebration of the sacrament. We saw this as part of educating the young into the fullness of the rites of reconciliation. But we were refused. Surely there is a place for all three rites to progressively educate in sacrament, grace and sin that this vital area of the life of the Church and its members should be a celebration of our reconciliation with a loving God and God’s people, rather than a penance or ordeal. We are a forgiven people.

Br Kieran Fenn is a Marist teaching Brother who lives in a young adult community in Wellington, New Zealand, and has spent many years teaching the Bible in New Zealand and abroad

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User comments (4)

Comment by: Paul Heiland
Posted: 08/04/2014 13:55:28

I hope I'm not spamming your blog, but is not the reluctance to go to confession (not shared by me, just for the record) related to this terrible Humanae-Vitae-slant we've had in church teaching for forty years? Many people want to keep their sexuality strictly to themselves and in confession, such questions are seen as virtually posed: One has to own up to one's bedroom practice whatever.
But this is nonsense, the whole thing is a side issue and confession is about one's faith journey and just that. Your three journeys are surely all correct - mine is no. 1 - and priests should encourage the maximum overview, not focus (as is feared by many) on events in the bedroom. Confession is always about the big picture and where I am in it, never about the small room and what I did in it.

Comment by: Kieran
Posted: 15/03/2014 20:21:18

It is hardly surprising that a conversation on the Sacrament of Reconciliation draws a few but valued comments. Both of them draw attention to the priest in the sacrament. After having Fr. Adolfo Nicolas, the present Superior General of the Jesuits as our lecturer in Sacraments at the EAPI Manila, I have held on to his words that 'Reconciliation is a celebration of a forgiveness already received.'

To this I add the parable that ends Matthew 18, a chapter on life and leadership in the church, the Unforgiving Debtor, whose debt is the equivalent of 140,000 years of wages. The only one with such debts in the church are popes, cardinals, bishops, and priests! It surely isn't the little people of the church! Those who assure us of forgiveness and celebrate it with us, must first know how much God has forgiven them. Isn't it time for the ministers of the sacrament to ask themselves what responsibility they might have for the decline of the sacrament?

Comment by: [email protected]
Posted: 06/03/2014 09:48:10

I recall as a young boy waiting anxioulsy in the pew to go into the confessional box. Suddenly I heard a loud shout and the door of the confessional box flew open. A young woman with tears streaming down her face stared at me then ran out of the Church. I bgan to quake as I checked and re-checked my "shopping list" of sins and misdemenaours fearing that I might be next in line to feel his angry blast.

D J Kearney

Comment by: Kippy
Posted: 04/03/2014 14:56:57

Our parish shares a priest with another twenty miles away. He lives there. While it is possible to make an appointment for a confession, the only time confessions are regularly scheduled at our church is AFTER the Saturday night Mass.
I always go to church on Sunday morning (I'm a music minister), and I just don't think to head over to church at 7:00 on Saturday evening. Besides, some of our parishioners live at least a half-hour's drive away. The reason it has to be after Mass is that he's doing our 6:00 right after doing their 4:00, then driving back there to sleep.
During Lent and Advent, there are services in which priests from neighboring parishes come and maybe 100-150 people make individual (relatively short) confessions, so the desire is there.

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