Cleansing Fire

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Reconciliation Rant: Part II

April 25th, 2018, Promulgated by Diane Harris

Reconciliation Rant, In Four Parts: Part II

This 4-part series, on use of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, aka Penance or Confession, is simply a view from the pew. It is an opinion, although making an effort to be consistent with Catholic Teaching. It is presented without being aware of any inconsistency with Catholic Teaching, and will be corrected promptly if any conflict with Catholic Teaching is brought to the author’s attention. Nevertheless, please note that the author’s opinion claims absolutely no “teaching authority,” with or without “correction.”

In Part I of the “Reconciliation Rant” post we focused primarily on the many drawbacks of confessional structures, or lack thereof. But, in addition, in this Part II, there are three implicit ‘mindsets’ which play strongly into a lack of interest in (or perceived lack of need for) confession. Those attitudes provide a foundation of sand, upon which rest erroneous perceptions of the Sacrament.

1. Not requiring confession before First Communion seems to be a very significant lost opportunity for proper ScreenShot260introduction to the life-long need for (and potential delight in) the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  (Delight? See Luke 7:47 “… [one] who is forgiven little, loves little.”) It is rather encouraging to see some recent return to the practice of First Reconciliation before First Communion, but much damage has already been done by years of accepting children for First Communion before First Confession, which definitely sends multiple wrong messages. Besides, some of those “children” are parents today of children preparing for First Communion, and can bring their own misunderstandings and lack of catechesis to their current parental priorities.      ScreenShot259

The practice of ignoring “First Confession” misses an important opportunity for proper preparation, for assessment of readiness, for lifelong guidance . To imply, through lack of “First Confession,” that children of 7 years old can’t commit sin, is erroneous and decreases the chance that a Communicant will ever step into a confessional as an adult. The practice is important to begin at the onset. Seven-year-olds can’t commit sin? Wrong. Perhaps many adults don’t remember their own childhoods. What might not seem to be a sin to the adults doing the preparation of communicants, may merely be lack of sensitivity of their own consciences. The “hand in the cookie jar” against a parent’s orders may seem to have no connection to shoplifting or cheating on taxes, but isn’t it a matter of degree? And, without good preparation, at what stage does the conscience convict?

The refusal to require a First Confession is unfortunately supported by a culture which dares not hold anyone accountable, least of all children. It leads to pass/fail grades in school (with ‘fail’ a rarity) and it leads to everyone’s receiving a “participation” award, so there is no winner or loser. There is much emphasis on what is called “self-esteem” and very little, if any, calling for humility.  We all win. Nobody loses. Nobody sins. Nobody goes to hell. Such attitude may, indeed, cause  many Christian religious leaders to say there is ‘no hell,’ even though the New Testament mentions its existence over 20 times.

2. Penance Services have caused much confusion and further damaged perception of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Penance Services are confusing to the laity, as they mean different things to different people at different times.  It is clear why some priests liked to use it; doubtless it reduced the number of confessions that actually had to be heard, the need to help out in nearby parishes during an intensive period of Reconciliation like Advent, Lent, Divine Mercy Sunday, Retreat. Because the Church significantly limits the occasions permitted for a group forgiveness (e.g. being on a sinking ship), and even then requires confession for the survivors who were ‘forgiven’ during such a group confession, many Penance Services seemed to be misunderstood even by the clergy in justifying their use. In some sense, those presiding over Penance Services seemed to understand (or be embarrassed about) offering a non-sacramental substitute for the Sacrament, and they often explained it poorly. Good for those who still had a conscience about the matter, and refused to participate!

ScreenShot252The ambiguity involved in guidelines such as “You only have to come to confession for really serious sins” forces the penitent to decide on the basis of what may be an already distorted conscience. It easily translates to “Well, I think contraception is fine, so I don’t have to go to confession now, as all my sins were forgiven in the Penance Service.”  There is also social pressure NOT to go to confession after a Penance Service. Think about the awkwardness of one family member’s needing to go to confession, when the rest of the family has just heard that they only have to confess in case of “mortal sin.”  Obviously, the words can be revised, but the uncertainty or misunderstanding is harder to remedy, i.e. the lack of privacy by electing to get on line or not for confession is intrusive, and potentially damaging to relationships as well.

Fortunately, in some dioceses, Penance Services have stopped completely. But in others, the attendees are still caught up in an erroneous perception of the event. Worse, it would seem, is the attitude that confession wasn’t needed by the vast majority of attendees who had “only” venial sins. ONLY! The teaching in the First Epistle of John (5:16-17) is clear:

“If anyone sees his brother sinning, if the sin is not deadly, he should pray to God and He will give him life. This is only for those whose sin is not deadly. There is such a thing as deadly sin, about which I do not say that you should pray. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not deadly.” (NAB)

Why then are we exhorted to pray for someone with venial sin, if it hardly matters? No, do not say “all sin is the same”, which a new ordinand mistakenly professed to some parishioners in his first assignment. The ‘grey hairs’ responded with strong push-back.

Somehow, the idea of “only” a venial sin falls far short of “a sin that is not deadly.” So Penance Services become a way, in essence, of weeding out the ‘venial-only sinners’ and essentially keeping them from the SaScreenShot251crament and the consolations and insights which might be obtained in confession, and thus distancing the soul from the care and advice it needs, and to which it has a right, from God.  And, even, in one view, a Penance Service may involve a soul in further sin in the disobedience to the laws (precepts) of the Church. The second precept (after the one about attending Mass every Sunday) is “You shall confess your sins at least once a year.”  CCC 2042. A sin of omission might be somewhat mitigated by the guilt of the leaders who circumvent the exact wording  of that Church precept, but many Catholics must have known, from their own ‘growing up in the Church,’ that there was something intrinsically wrong about those changes purported to have been made in the Sacrament. For those who led their flocks in this way, was it a mortal sin? Or ‘only’ a venial sin? They will eventually find out.

3. Diminished Sense of Sin: Lack of good confessional materials for examination of conscience can also be a drawback; e.g. skipping over the 5th Commandment with a fleeting thought “Nope, haven’t killed anyone this month,” does a disservice to the penitent and to the opportunity to be educated on contemporary issues. Where does the family divided in anger fit into the examination of conscience? Or not trying to dissuade a friend from seeking an abortion or using contraceptives or looking at pornography? Where does not witnessing to Church teaching fit into the list of sins? What about not being good stewards of God’s gifts — wasting time or other resources? Taking unnecessary risks, like texting while driving? Neglecting our least favorite works of mercy? Repeating “fake news?” Not guarding our eyes when temptation is all around? Voting for those who support legislation which promotes sinful lifestyles? Not using prudential judgment well? Not protecting those for whom we are responsible? Oh– and is OMG blasphemous or not?

So much in modern culture isn’t on the “check-list” for confession, and then the same sins become the recitation, over and over. One can see a good exercise here for teens to assemble an examination of conscience for their own age group. It does make sense to have various materials available for examination of conscience (and for an act of contrition) not only outside the confessional, but also inside so the priest can call attention to its availability. An adolescent, a young single man, an older married woman, a widower, and a person with a serious medical diagnosis will not likely all have the same temptations. There is much which could be done to lead to better and deeper examinations of conscience. The quick list of sins is, of course, better than nothing, but it’s not the real cause of the diminished sense of sin.

The culture of relativism in which we live suppresses our sense of sin.   Without a sense of sin, there is little impetus for confession, or even of noticing sin in our lives.  In Psalm 51, verses 3-4, David (who had some rather notorious sins!) asks God to cleanse him, and prays:

“For I know my transgressions,

And my sin is ever before me.

Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned,

And done that which is evil in Thy sight ….”

So the question isn’t really “Oh, if I go to confession, what would I confess?” If our sin is ever before us, how can we NOT know? If it is not always before us in the Davidic sense, then do we have an adequate sense of sin? But we have the world, the flesh and the devil telling us something is ‘not so bad,’ and even confessors saying ‘oh, that’s not a sin’ or ‘I’ve done that too.’  All this leads to diminishing the sense of sin, and ignoring the need for examination of conscience. It is more than a daily examen; it is about continuous self-awareness; about St. Paul’s words  in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-17: “Rejoice always. Pray constantly.”

ScreenShot287Another way in which we ‘diminish’ sin and may fail to be bothered by it, is by redefining sin. (Beware: controversial statements ahead!) David did not sin against Bathsheba and Uriah. He murdered Uriah, caused the death of a child, and abused Bathsheba by using his power to lead her into sin. But his sin (and hers) was against God. Against God only did they sin. Perhaps it is easier to see the point as follows:  if we rob a bank we sin against God (violating the 7th commandment) but we don’t sin against the bank, or its depositors or its insurers. We financially injure them, of course, maybe put them in physical danger too. But “sin” really only applies to God, and it is important to not forget WHO we are sinning against, which is what makes it ‘sin.’ That is reason enough not to get caught up in expressions like “sinning against the environment.”

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