By Corinne Winter
We have just entered the season of Lent, a time when we are called to prayer, fasting and almsgiving for the sake of our conversion. The emphasis on repentance and conversion makes Lent a great time to avail ourselves of the sacrament of reconciliation. According to the “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” the sacrament of penance or reconciliation “Makes sacramentally present Jesus’ call to conversion (CCC 1423).”
The sacrament of reconciliation is grounded in the teaching and work of Jesus Christ who, by his words and actions, calls us to believe in the infinite mercy of God. The New Testament treats repentance and forgiveness primarily in the context of baptism and does not describe a rite for confession of sin or for granting of pardon after baptism. The ways in which the church expresses belief in divine mercy have developed over time.
We are called to recognize that God’s offer of mercy is constant as is our need for conversion. We should make asking God’s forgiveness and help part of our daily prayer. We should also understand that the Eucharist is offered not as a reward for the perfect, but as a banquet of mercy. In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas asserted that the presence of the reconciling sacrifice of Christ in the Eucharist could not fail to be a source of forgiveness for those who participated.
During the eucharistic liturgy, we ask God’s forgiveness in the penitential rite. We note our dependence on his healing mercy when we proclaim, “Lord, I am not worthy…” The Council of Trent established the law that a Catholic is to confess all mortal sins at least once a year but did not abrogate the teaching on the healing power of the Eucharist for venial sins.
The sacrament of reconciliation took shape as the church recognized a need to deal with serious instances of post-baptismal sin. In the beginning, it was viewed as an opportunity to be offered rarely, perhaps only once in a lifetime.
During the Middle Ages, a new form of private and more frequent confession was introduced. Gradually it became the practice throughout the church. Those of us who remember the years before the Second Vatican Council recall standing in line with other penitents every several weeks and confessing our sins privately in a confessional.
The rite, revised after the Council, called for the reading of Scripture prior to confession of sins. It provides an opportunity for the penitent to sit facing the priest and to express sorrow in her or his own words. Penances are often tailored to the penitent’s confession and may include actions as well as prayers. We also may participate in communal penance services during which the Scripture reading, reflections on types of sin and prayers of contrition are experienced in common surrounding the opportunity for individual confession and absolution.
Some Catholics have suggested that since the Council, Catholics (and others) have lost the “sense of sin.” We have, they suggest, abandoned the sacramental practice because we are not as strongly exhorted that the sacrament of reconciliation is essential if we are to receive the Eucharist worthily. Interestingly, in the early middle ages, when frequent private confession was becoming the common practice, people raised similar objections.
In fact, the post-conciliar rite is intended to provide a richer sense of sin as well as of God’s mercy. We are reminded, for example, that we sin not only against God but also against the community. During the early centuries of Christianity, those who sinned gravely were excluded from participation in the sacraments until they had completed their penances and been publicly received back into the community. While we no longer have such a practice, we should understand that the priest to whom we confess proclaims not only the mercy of God but also healing of the bonds of community broken by sin (see CCC 1444-5).
Reconciliation with the church can be expressed particularly well in communal reconciliation services, which, in the Davenport Diocese, are encouraged during Advent and Lent. Reflecting together before and after individual confession and absolution, we also recognize social as well as individual sin.
We acknowledge that both individuals and institutions are in need of conversion and that we have a responsibility to work for social change as part of our call to build God’s kingdom. Thus, we may pay more attention to sins of omission. Have I paid sufficient attention to the call of Christ? Have I reached out to others, sharing the gifts God has given me? Have I been involved in efforts to make a better world or have I thought that avoiding personal faults was enough?
The church continues to proclaim the good news that in Christ we are called to repentance and conversion. That message takes on a particular intensity during the season of Lent, making this an especially good time for us to participate in the sacrament of reconciliation as a sacrament of conversion.
(Corinne Winter is a professor-emerita of St. Ambrose University, Davenport.)