The sacrament formerly known as confession is barely alive among ordinary Catholics. This is not good. It might be a big part of the reason why we don’t appear to have the unity we once had.
Although not exactly popular, confession was at least common and expected to be a regular feature of life among Catholics up to a half-century ago. Deep changes were at work all around the world at that time, and the Church was affected. One of the most powerful movements was a desire for freedom. Fear of hell was evaporating at the same time.
Like an emerging adolescent sensing her own strength and capacity to move and act on her own, people everywhere became restless under traditional rules. Authority of all kinds was questioned. Limits were pushed.
A German scholar and churchman named Joseph Ratzinger was so frightened by the turbulence of the time that he shifted from encouraging reform during the Second Vatican Council of the early 1960s to defining limits on freedom in the Church and defending the rule of authority.
But no amount of official teaching from the center could stop people from voting with their feet. Vatican II had acknowledged the presence and action of God outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church, so there was no automatic fall into hell from questioning, even disobeying, Church authorities. They didn’t control God in the way we had imagined. We didn’t have to fear their power.
That fear — which today’s young Catholics can hardly imagine — disappeared almost overnight, like air rushing out of a balloon. One result: priests who had normally scheduled two or three hours for confessions on weekends, needed less than an hour, if that, for the few people who continued to show up.
We tried tinkering with the sacrament, changed its name to reconciliation, made a face-to-face option available, and even devised a communal celebration that was never exploited. It did not require individual confession to a priest, a tradition for God’s mercy as the Church has understood Jesus’ commission to his disciples in John 20:23: “Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven….”
None of this bureaucratic tinkering has worked to restore the sacrament as a popular feature of Catholic life. Now a new thread of emphasis in our language may work its way through the Church to revive it. That thread is mercy. Pope Francis has made it a theme of his papacy. More Church leaders are picking up on it.
In an interview with editors of Commonweal magazine, German Cardinal Walter Kasper called mercy “a critical point for the Church. She has to preach it. We have a sacrament of mercy, the sacrament of penance, but we have to reevaluate it, I think. And it has to be done in social behavior and in social works.”
“We have a sacrament of mercy.” That language alone makes a difference. The emphasis is no longer on the dark side, no longer the painful exposure of confession, no longer the restorative work of penance, no longer suggesting the stern God holding a scale of justice. Now we are pointing toward the God of love beyond imagining, like a mother who has no boundaries when it involves her children. Her arms are always open. Reconciliation and communion, not confession, really is her priority.
We need that sacrament. Every one of us needs to examine ourselves regularly, to be honest and acknowledge our misses as well as our hits. We need this as food for growing up and becoming ever more what we can be. We need new rituals, celebrations of sinners together seeking wholeness as part of our common faith life. Let’s at least begin by following the Francis and Kasper lead and use that language: the Sacrament of Mercy, one of God’s seven great signs.