The Sacrament of Reconciliation is in crisis. As a result, as one of the most eminent canon lawyers in the Church warns, the flow of mercy through the Church – its most precious commodity – has dried to a trickle
“The Church from time to time ought to examine herself in the mirror of the Gospel” was one of the favourite sayings of Yves Congar, the French Dominican theologian who played an influential role at the Second Vatican Council. The Council, of course, did a great deal of such examination, but the process is a never-ending one. More than 50 years later, in the papacy of Francis, who never ceases to proclaim that “the name of God is mercy”, it may be the right time to let this holy exercise be repeated for what might be called “the sacrament of mercy” – penance, or reconciliation.
Acknowledging that “with the passage of time, there have crept into the rites of the sacraments certain features which have rendered their nature and purpose far from clear to the people of today, some changes have become necessary to adapt them to the needs of our own times” (62), the Council decreed in its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, that “the rite and formulas for the Sacrament of Penance are to be revised so that they more clearly express both the nature and effect of the sacrament” (72).
In other words, the Council made it clear that it judged that the present external rite and formulas are inadequate expressions of the internal gift of grace, and it therefore mandated the Church to search for a better framework for the administration of the sacrament. “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52). In this spirit, I would like to reflect on the present state of the Sacrament of Penance, to explore what we might find in the tradition of the Church that might help us refresh and renew the sacrament for the needs of the faithful today, and to suggest what kind of changes to the rite and formulas might make God’s prodigality more manifest than the present ones do.