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Are your confessions doing any good?

"But if we acknowledge our sins, he who is just can be trusted to forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrong" (1 John 1:9).

When I was growing up, Confession was never fun. In fact, it was very embarrassing--slipping into that dark little space, whispering all my sins to a shadow behind a screen. Did the priest know who I was? Could my CCD classmates waiting their turns hear me?

The experience of a high-school friend seemed typical: he'd sown some very wild oats by the age of 16 and decided it was time to give this Confession thing an honest try. Into the box he went, told of every oat sown (it took a while) and came out with a burning red face and a penance of three complete rosaries. He swore he'd never go back, and he probably hasn't.

With examples like that forming my main impression of the sacrament, I felt little need for it. In fact, I felt an aversion, and gradually I drifted away from Confession. Around that time Reconciliation rooms became widely instituted, and the thought of telling a priest my sins face-to-face did not appeal to me. So for seven years, I stayed away. I wasn't sorry and didn't miss it.

Then, a compassionate parish and priests convinced me to attend a communal Penance service, after which individual Confessions would be heard. I was impressed with the service, which reminded me that this sacrament was supposed to be a good thing. It helped me to honestly search my conscience and made me aware of not only personal sins but also those we commit as a community.

When my turn came for individual Confession, I very nervously went into the little room, sat across from the priest, and told him it had been seven years since my last Confession and that I'd never done this face-to-face. I expected a stern admonition for staying away so long, but instead he just smiled, took my hands, and asked, "What areas of sin are you struggling with in your life?"

And it was easy. I told of my failings; he offered positive actions for Penance and suggested some Bible passages for guidance and then gave me absolution. I walked out of there feeling so relieved and, more important, so reconciled.

But while I am now happily reconciled with this sacrament, I realize that many Catholics are not. A poll appearing in The American Catholic People: Their Beliefs, Practices, & Values (Doubleday, 1987) by George Gallup, Jr. and Jim Castelli that asked Catholics if they had gone to Confession in the past 30 days showed an increase from 18 percent saying yes in 1977 to 23 percent in 1986--which still leaves a majority of Catholics who do not receive this sacrament frequently, if at all. Some ask if it is really necessary to confess our sins to a priest. Why can't we just privately examine our consciences and then confess our sins directly to God? After all, the Catholic Church has said that private Confession is not essential except in cases of serious (mortal) sin.

Forgive us our trespasses

Our faith also teaches that our venial sins are forgiven each time we sincerely pray the Our Father ("Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us ...") and at each Mass during the Liturgy of the Eucharist when we say, "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word, and I shall be healed."

In fact, the Eucharist is the primary sacrament of redemption since Jesus told us, "for this is my blood, the blood of the covenant, to be poured out in behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins" (Matt. 26:28).

"If we recognize what we're receiving in the Eucharist," says Father Albin C. McGinnis, a pastor in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, "then our desire for the right relationship with God is enough for God to forgive us."

So why bother with private Confession to a priest? One good reason, according to McGinnis, was brought up during a weekly meeting he has with a nondenominational group of college students. "One of the Catholic students was talking about how good it is to be able to go talk about your failings to somebody who you know isn't going to tell somebody else," says McGinnis. "If you tell your friend, he might tell someone; if you tell your mother, she might tell your father; if you tell your uncle, he might tell your parents. Who can you go to who won't say anything? Who you can trust? And who has the power to forgive, given through Christ? The non-Catholics in the group said that would be really wonderful to have someone to go to that you had that much trust in."

Missindy Wilkins, an actress living in the Chicago area, says she discovered another important benefit of individual Confession when she converted to Catholicism two years ago. "I grew up Protestant and always felt rather condescending toward Catholics about Confession," says Wilkins. "Catholics had this need for an intermediary between themselves and God, while I knew I didn't need a priest to get to God. Anytime I wanted to go to him for forgiveness, I could."

But Wilkins believes she was missing the point, "Yes, it's true that anyone, Catholic or Protestant, can go directly to God for forgiveness. But when you go to a priest, when you actually sit down and tell someone your sin, it's not an abstract idea anymore. It's a real thing, and you have to deal with it. Are you going to stop? Are you going to change? When you don't tell anyone about something you've done wrong, you can make excuses and put it in the back of your mind. 'I can talk to God about that anytime,' you think, 'so I'll do that tomorrow.' And often you never do."

Many cradle Catholics, such as Larry Newell, a husband and father of three living in northern Virginia, consider receiving the sacrament of Reconciliation an importnat part of their faith. "I was raised Catholic, and as part of that, I know I am supposed to go to Confession," says Newell. "Even if I can't think of anything that I did that was wrong, I usually go three or four times a year around the time of Catholic holy days, such as Easter and Christmas. I feel closer to God after Confession. It enriches my relationship with God."

Newell always feels better afterward, "even though there were no bad sins there," he says. "There's something to be said for some level of stress reduction or some level of comfort that I feel when I'm done."

Heal our separation anxiety

Confession is good for the soul. It forces us to look honestly at ourselves and our relationships with God and others. According to McGinnis, our church teaches us to approach our sinfulness not in a "grocery list of sins manner but instead to think about what things are really separating us from God."

Looking closely at the attitudes, actions, and inactions that separate us from God can be painful, but through the sacrament, we can then move on to experience forgiveness with our entire beings. We hear out loud the words that we are forgiven; we feel the priest's healing hands on our heads; we remember Jesus' words that what God's church forgives on earth is forgiven in heaven.

The ways of administering the sacrament of Reconciliation have changed dramatically through the years since Jesus gave his followers the authority to forgive sins. In the early years of the church, Confession was much more loosely defined. The communities were small, and people knew each other intimately. When people would fall into sin, they would publicly confess to their fellow believers.

Church writings up to the time of, and including, Thomas Aquinas mention confession of sins to other members of the church, and not only to priests. In the third, fourth, and fifth centuries, public Penance became the way of the church. These penances, which could be imposed for decades or even an entire lifetime, included exclusion from the military, from public office, and from most of society. The penitent was often required to wear rags and ashes.

And for serious sins, such as murder, idolatry, and adultery, forgiveness was granted only once. This, along with the thought of receiving such a severe penance, made many people avoid the sacrament throughout their lives in an attempt to save it for their deathbeds.

Over the next few centuries, thanks in great part to Saint Columban and the Irish monks who in the 500s preached fewer and private Penances, public Penance was gradually limited to the Lenten season. During this period the church also stopped preaching that forgiveness could be had only once in a lifetime and returned to Jesus' command to forgive 7 times 70 times.

With the growth of the church, people stopped confessing to their church communities and began to confess all sins privately to a priest who represented the church. By the 13th century priests were no longer praying, "May Almighty God forgive you," but instead were saying, "I absolve you from your sins." Also, during the 13th century that listing of sins specifically became part of the sacrament.

The sacrament of Reconciliation remained relatively the same from the Middle Ages until Vatican II. Today's changes return us to the sense of community found in the early church, and while I doubt any of us would like to return to the practice of standing up in our local church and listing our sins, our popular communal Penance services have recaptured the understanding that our individual sinfulness hurts our entire Christian community.

"When we have a communal Penance service, we get many more people than come on a typical Saturday, and most stay for individual Confession," says McGinnis. "I think they like it because they feel that 'Here I am amidst this group of sinners, and I'm not being singled out necessarily as the only sinner.' What takes place when all the people are there together is very powerful, and somehow that power of the communal prayer has to be emphasized. We can't approach it saying 'Let's just get through this because it's what the church asks us to do.'

"Unfortunately, I've been to Penance services like that, where I thought the people were getting shortchanged. There wasn't an attempt to give a decent homily, the readings were done haphazardly, and there wasn't much music to draw the people together as one, which I think makes a big difference."

Some Catholics are concerned that churches offering communal Penance services are not strictly following the church's guidelines and are offeirng general absolution improperly. More likely, according to McGinnis, those situations involve larger turnouts than expected, with too few priests available to hear individual Confessions. "If hundreds of people show up, how could two or three priests realistically hear their Confessions? So we give general absolution in those cases and then call the diocese and tell them what happened. You can't always predict."

According to the recently published Catechism of the Catholic Church, the communal celebration of Reconciliation with general Confession and general absolution should be held only in cases of "grave necessity," considered to exist "when there is imminent danger of death without sufficient time for the priest or priests to hear each penitent's Confession...[or] when, given the number of penitents, there are not enough confessors to hear individual Confessions properly in a reasonable time.... In this case, for the absolution to be valid the faithful must have the intention of individually confessing their sins in the time required."

In spite of the church's recommendation to receive individual Confession following communal services, McGinnis says, "a lot of people come to communal Penance services [most of which do not include general absolution] and choose not to go to the individual sacrament of Reconciliation. They leave the Penance service feeling as if they've been reconciled."

Three's a crowd

Colleen Stewart, who attends a Seattlearea church with her husband and three children, prefers the general absolution communal Penance services that are sometimes offered by her parish due to too many parishioners and too few priests.

"I like the communal absolution better than one-on-one because it's less stressful," explains Stewart. "When another human being is an intermediary between you and God, you feel more judged by that person even though you know that's not what's supposed to be happening. I find it intimidating, even though they've tried to take some of that out of it. It's nicer to be anonymous in a communal celebration. It's just between you and God when your confession is in your heart."

Stewart also experiences a deeper examination of conscience during a communal service. "Everybody's life is different, so at a communal celebration they have to cover a broad variety of sins. Because they're reminding us of so many different aspects of our life, they're going to uncover areas of sin we're not even aware of, and it opens our eyes to ways we can improve."

In the future, if the shortage of priests continues, general absolution may by necessity become widely practiced and could conceivably become the accepted form of the sacrament. Whatever the future holds, we can trust that the Holy Spirit will continue to guide us. I am grateful for the changes the Spirit has already made in my lifetime. Now after receiving the sacrament of Reconciliation, I no longer feel only relief that an uncomfortable ordeal is over, but instead, I feel full of grace and very thankful that "as far as East is from West, so are my sins from me."

And now for a little refresher course ...

1. Reception of the Penitent

After the priest warmly welcomes and kindly greets the penitent, both together make the sign of the cross.

The priest then prays for the penitent who, at the end, answers: Amen.

2. Reading the Word of God

The priest either from memory or by reading may, if the situation is suitable, recite a passage of Scripture which speaks about God's mercy or calls us to conversion and a change of heart.

When circumstances permit, he may invite the penitent to read the text with him.

3. Confession of Sins and Acceptance of Satisfaction

The penitent confesses his or her sins; the priest, after discussing with the penitent his or her spiritual state and giving appropriate counsel, assigns an act of penance or satisfaction.

4. Prayer of Penitent and Absolution

The penitent expresses sorrow for sin by reciting the traditional formula, one of the ten new prayers given, or similar personal words of contrition.

The priest then extends his hands over the penitent's head (or at least extends his right hand) and pronounces the formula of absolution.

The penitent listens prayerfully and, at the conclusion, responds: Amen.

5. Proclamation of Praise of God and Dismissal

The priest says:

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.

The penitent concludes:

His mercy endures forever.

The priest then dismisses the penitent with a prayer or suitable phrase and the penitent responds:

Amen or Thank you.

Excerpted from Together in Peace: Penitent's Edition (Ave Maria, 1975) by Msgr. Joseph M. Champlin.
COPYRIGHT 1994 Claretian Publications
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Collins, Mary Smalara
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Oct 1, 1994
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