"Penance And The Gift Of Forgiveness"

(part one of Archbishop John C. Neinstedt's Advent series on the sacrament of penance)

(Catholic Spirit)
Within the first verses of St. Mark’s Gospel, Jesus appears in Galilee, proclaiming God’s Good News:

“This is the time of fulfillment. The reign of God is at hand! Reform your lives and be­lieve in the Gos­pel!” (Mark 1:15).

From the very be­ginning of his public ministry, then, Jesus calls all men and women to conversion from sin. But, one might ask, what is sin? Why are we call­ed to conversion? What kind of reform is being asked of us?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church indicates the answer:

“To try to understand what sin is, one must first recognize the profound relationship of man to God, for only in this relationship is the evil of sin unmasked in its true identity as humanity’s rejection of God and opposition to him...

“Without the knowledge Revela­tion gives of God we cannot recognize sin clearly and are tempted to explain it as merely a developmental flaw, a psychological weakness, a mistake, or the necessary consequence of an inadequate social struc­ture, etc. Only in the knowledge of God’s plan for man can we grasp that sin is an abuse of the freedom that God gives to created persons so that they are capable of loving him and loving one another” (CCC. 386-387).

Who has sinned? St. John gives us the answer in his first letter:

“If we say, ‘We are free of the guilt of sin,’ we deceive ourselves; the truth is not to be found in us” (1 John 1:8).

Therefore, to be truthful, we must all admit that we have sinned. Sin affects both our relationship with God and with our neighbor. But the truly good news is that Jesus came to save us from sin and that he has entrusted the power to absolve sin to his apostles. That power of forgiveness is offered to us in the sacrament of penance, otherwise known as reconciliation.

The ordinary, and therefore most appropriate, way of celebrating this sacrament calls for a verbal confession of our sins to a priest. Why? Allow me to give three reasons for this.

The first reason is that, during his earthly ministry, Jesus himself always forgave sins in a one-on-one encounter with the penitent. While other miracles in the Gospels may have involved groups of persons, the gift of forgiveness is always given to an individual, who hears Jesus speak the words, “Go, your sins have been forgiven.”

Second, as human beings, one of the most difficult things we ever have to say is, “I’m sorry.” Yet, once we have said it, we are freed to accept our guilt and then to begin the process of reconciliation. We can inevitably find all kinds of self-justifying reasons for what we have done or failed to do. Yet, once we have spoken out loud the reality of our guilt, it is often only then that we accept responsibility for what we have done, and only then can we begin to reform our ways.

Finally, the actions that we call “sins” very often betray an attitude or an inner disposition that ultimately led us to commit a particular sin.

Over the next weeks, I plan to share with you some thoughts as to how we can move forward with a total re-catechesis for the sacrament of penance Having taught a penance practicum to seminarians for 13 years, I have learned that there is an art on the part of the confessor in hearing a confession. The priest has to listen closely to what is being said “between the lines.” It is one thing to know that one has been uncharitable, hurtful or unfaithful, but that doesn’t necessarily lead one to know why he or she committed the particular act, i.e., what prompted this action in the mind or heart.

Only by getting “behind” the objective sinful act, can one begin to change one’s life with a firm purpose of amendment. The assistance of a confessor can be invaluable in this process.

Historically, the Second Vatican Coun­cil, contrary to what some may think, never envisioned the use of Form III with General Absolution as the ordinary way to experience the sacrament of pen­ance. The church has never approved its use, even though it has been widely practiced in some places.

In response to a question regarding this very point, Archbishop Harry Flynn wrote clearly in his pastoral letter of Feb. 20, 1996, that general absolution is not acceptable as a normal practice. This is also the position of the last two popes, a synod of bishops as well as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ general assembly. It is now codified into law.

But my concern here is much more a pastoral one than a legal one.

A regular use of general absolution is bound to have a negative effect on the spiritual well-being of the penitent because general absolution involves a depersonalized experience of the sacramental grace of forgiveness.

Without the one-on-one encounter and an explicit confession of guilt, penitents also risk developing a superficial understanding of their willing participation in the personal evil that is sin.

I am pleased to be receiving requests these days from pastors who are planning penance services using Forms I or II during the upcoming Advent season. I encourage all pastors in the archdiocese to do the same. To be clear: The use of general absolution is simply not allowed.

I appeal to all of our priests to be obedient to the promises they made on their ordination day and offer our Catholic people the sacrament as it is meant to be celebrated. I likewise appeal to our faithful laity not to participate in celebrations prohibited by church norms.

It is my sincere hope that the clergy, religious and laity in this local church may reflect in practice the unity that Jesus himself desired as we join in a common celebration of the sacrament of penance.

Over the next weeks, I plan to share with you some thoughts as to how we can move forward in this archdiocese with a total re-catechesis for the sacrament of penance so that it may be the powerful help in our growth toward holiness that it is meant to be.

Until then, let us pray again and again for the grace of that conversion from sin that Jesus announced so long ago: “This is the time of fulfillment. The reign of God is at hand! Reform your lives and believe in the Gospel!”

God love you!

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