Communal Reconciliation Services are held twice a year, at Advent and Lent. Watch the bulletin for scheduled dates during these seasons.
CELEBRATING THE SACRAMENT OF PENANCE
God is as close as the door of your heart. God is waiting there eager for you to open it. God wants this more than you do. - Meister Eckhart
I am writing today about an often misunderstood and underused gift to us, a gift that images the very purpose of our Christian discipleship, a gift that taps into a basic yearning within all of us, a gift that symbolizes God’s deepest yearning for us as individuals, for us as a people, and for all of creation – the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Penance).
Before I speak about the Sacrament itself, let me offer some “bigger picture” reflections…
THE BIGGER PICTURE
The quote that begins this article, taken from a sermon of Meister Eckhart, a 14th century theologian and mystic, captures the startling good news about the God whom we seek. God wishes – even more than we do – that creation be made whole, that all of creation be united with God and bask in the radiant goodness and love of the Creator.
We believe, as Catholic Christians, that such a dream – God’s yearning for wholeness – was remarkably made visible in the gift of His Son, Jesus. Through Him, with Him, and in Him, God wished to show us that the pain of being separated from one another, the frustration of feeling disjointed within ourselves, the anguish of seeing a violence-ridden world, the torment of the unforgiven and marginalized, the scandals of hypocrisy and abuse within our family, church, and civil leadership, the destruction of the earth’s resources, the plague of poverty, of unfulfilling work, of disease and death – need not and WILL NOT be the final word.
Each week we Catholic Christians gather at Eucharist to retell the story of God’s desire and plan for unity and reconciliation. We nurture our hope in God’s dream as we hear the stories of struggle and victory of our ancestors of faith as the scriptures are proclaimed. We nurture our hope in seeing fellow parishioners of all ages and life experiences sharing the same struggles and seeking the same victory, inspired by their faith, their optimism, their joy and sense of peace while confronted with pain and suffering. We nurture our hope as we remember and share in the struggle and victory of Jesus himself and partake of His very “being” in the Eucharist to nurture ourselves with Love itself.
LENT AND RECONCILIATION
The Lenten season offers us an opportunity to look at our lives of Christian discipleship- to reflect on what really matters to us and how we spend our time demonstrating our commitment to those values in all the “worlds” in which we walk. It’s a time to “break away” from our busyness (no matter how much good we are doing) to reconcile our lives. We pause and acknowledge our deep desire for wholeness – that fitting together of thoughts and actions, interior esteem and exterior behavior, of prayer and service. We seek to conform our deepest desires to the desires of God, that our heart beats with the rhythm of the heart of God.
We seek reconciliation of the divided “self” and our divided world. We pray in hope the prayer of Jesus himself that the all may be one as you, Father, and I are one.” (See the Gospel of John, Chapter 17, particularly verses, 20-22.)
THE SACRAMENT OF RECONCILIATION-PENANCE
In our Sacraments, we Catholic Christians celebrate the sign of the Sacred, the great Mystery (sacramentum in Latin means mystery) that God faithfully blesses us, cares for us, loves us. The seven sacraments of the Catholic faith tradition are rituals (ceremonies/liturgies) that celebrate that God is eternally with us. Our gathering in prayer helps to awaken us to that mysterious, blessed gift that God is present everywhere – in every life circumstance.
The Sacrament of Penance (Reconciliation) is a powerful ritual of prayer that honors God’s care for us, that acknowledges our ongoing search for understanding God’s wisdom and truth along our path of life.
Confession does not concern itself merely with a confession of sins but a confession of our sinfulness. As a sacrament of healing, reconciliation focuses on the disease (sinfulness) not merely the symptoms (the sins). We are invited in this Sacrament to look at source of our poor behavior: the struggles, the value conflicts, etc. that cause the sinful acts. How fitting then to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation-Penance in this season of Lent as we seek to turn our hearts, change our lives, and move more deeply into our friendship with God and our discipleship with Jesus!
Yet the true focus of the Sacrament is not on our sinfulness! The underlying focus, the foundation of the Sacrament (as with all Sacraments) is God’s healing love for us. Like the Father in the story of the Prodigal Son (the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 15, verses 1-32)
God joyfully seeks our return to Him. The father welcomes the son back to him – doesn’t even wait for him to get to the house but runs out to him on the road, even after he has been so deeply wounded by his son’s rejection of him.
Our God is much like the parent in Jesus’ parable – not out to catch us and humiliate us in our sin but intent on reaching out and hanging on to us in spite of our sin. As with the mind of parable’s father, the mind of the Church in the Sacrament of Penance-Reconciliation is the celebration of the one’s turning away from sinful ways. It is a ritual celebration that God has already forgiven.
This is the Good News: that God’s forgiveness, God’s love, does not stop. The priest and the penitent (and the assembly, too, at communal celebrations of the sacrament) celebrate that God continually invites us to a deeper self-knowledge, a deeper sense of love – of God, our neighbor, and our self. Stunned, humbled, and relieved at the gift, we go forth from the Sacrament refreshed, energized, and at peace – renewed to be God’s instruments of God’s healing and reconciliation in a good but tarnished and humbled world.
WHY CONFESS MY SIN TO A PRIEST?
The question often arises: Why confess my sins to a priest? Why not simply confess directly to God? There are several reasons, I believe. The first has to do with our humanness. Sandra DeGidio, OSM, puts it well: “…as human beings we who do not live in our minds alone, we need to externalize bodily – with words, signs, and gestures – what is in our minds and heart. We need to see, hear, and feel forgiveness – not just think about it.” The ritual of the sacrament and the experience of praying together with the priest enable us to encounter the power of God’s Spirit in a profound, more complete way that honors the communal, social character of our relationship with God and His creation.
In our tradition, the priest represents the image of Christ and his ever-forgiving presence of truth in love that we see so often in our Gospel stories, and most profoundly in the stories of Jesus’ passion and death in which he forgives even his persecutors. Yet the significance of confession to a priest is also found in that the priest also represents the community, the Church and therefore reflects the communal character of sin.
any of us have experienced the social character of sin. For example, we may have started the morning with a harsh argument with a family member and carry the frustration and pain of that experience into impatience with work colleagues or classmates. We may be harsh with store clerks and slow drivers, etc. Every sin, every shortcoming, every failure has a ripple effect, the extent of which we cannot see. How can we possible apologize to everyone affected by our sin? As a representative of the larger community, the family of humanity, as well as the representative of Christ himself, the priest does serve as mediator in the process of reconciling one’s self with God and the human family.
So, do expect that the priest (certainly here at SJV) are best seen not as faceless and impersonal judges, but as guides in our search for healing, compassionately helping us experience and proclaim the mercy of God in our lives – even if you can’t remember the format and prayers of the Sacrament! Do join us in our celebration of this gift of God’s healing love!