The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation (also called Confession) is meant to help an individual turn back to God, be forgiven of sin and restores a relationship with God and the Church that was damaged by sin. The sacrament involves various components: an examination of conscience, the confession of sin, an act of contrition, a purpose of amendment, and the fulfillment of the assigned penance. When used properly, it is a supernatural means towards effecting a conversion in one’s life—a turning away from sin and a turning back to God. The sacrament involves God’s grace, forgiveness, mercy and love.
A simple way of looking at the sacrament is as the cleansing of one’s soul—a spiritual clean-up. There is a restoration back to the baptismal innocence we once had, if we are honest and do not deliberately conceal or hide sin in the sacrament and we are truly sorry (and not just going through the motions). The priest is the instrument of God’s forgiveness and grace because Christ does the forgiving. That is why, despite the personal sinfulness of any individual priest, Christ still forgives.
A Catholic can make the choice not to avail himself or herself of the sacrament for a short time or even a lifetime. A person can conceal certain sins because of guilt or embarrassment: I can never tell that sin to the priest! A person might misunderstand how Christ acts in the sacrament through the priest: I’m not going to tell my sins to those hypocrites! They need to get their act together first! A person may decide to go directly to God forgetting that all the other sacraments of the Church employ the working of us weak, sinful human beings. Christ set it up this way using the apostles as clear examples of the first weak, sinful human instruments that He personally called.
When one chooses to deny the invitation to grace and forgiveness in the sacrament, it results in a type of cover-up. There may be the outward appearance that things are fine, but inside there is still hidden, unforgiven sin. This cover-up provides no healing, no forgiveness, no mercy.
I thought about applying these principles of the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation to the sinfulness within the Church during the ongoing priest sex-scandal. Are we trying to clean-up or cover-up the mess? A spiritual clean-up would involve looking seriously at what was done (an examination of conscience) with complete transparency and honesty. What was done wrong must be confessed (not lied about, kept silent or deliberately concealed to save face). If moral scandals or crimes were committed they should be acknowledged as such. True, heartfelt sorrow in word and action (contrition) must be visibly expressed and not just some pious platitudes recited, or legally-constructed public statements made. There must be a desire that this never happens again (a purpose of amendment) and the example set from the top of the Church (pope, cardinals, bishops, priests, etc.) on down. Maybe there needs to be some resignations submitted at this point. Public and private penance (especially by the Church’s clergy) needs to be done for the sanctification of the Church. A life of prayer and penance, which a priest should already be practicing, needs to be taken seriously.
As I try to navigate through the current tempest and the various storms which lie ahead, I hope and pray for the Lord to calm the situation as He did for the apostles at sea (See Mk. 4: 35-41).
I plan to pray for all of you next week as I make my annual retreat with the Trappist monks. Please pray for me. I depend on it.
Fr. Ed Namiotka