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