Though we might not like to acknowledge it, human beings – corporately and individually – are not perfect. Christians in particular, well aware of the absolute goodness of God, are all too aware that we don’t get it right all the time, and at times have been known to fail in spectacular fashion. The challenge of the Gospel, as we are reminded each year on Ash Wednesday, is to “repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15).
This constant call to repentance, or conversion, means that Christians are invited to reflect on our lives and to become aware of those acts in which we haven’t heeded the call of the Gospel. Recognising our failures is the first step towards changing our lives and better embracing the teachings of Jesus.
Christians refer to these failures as sin, those human actions which disrupt our relationship with God and with our brothers and sisters. Christians also know that while sin disrupts our relationship with God, God’s absolute mercy means that our relationship with God is repairable. This repairing of relationship is where the Sacrament of Penance comes in.
It might seem strange to refer to the Code of Canon Law in seeking to describe the Sacrament of Penance, yet the definition found there is perhaps a good place to start: “In the sacrament of penance the faithful who confess their sins to a lawful minister, are sorry for their sins and have a purpose of amendment, receive from God, through the absolution given by that minister, forgiveness of sins that have been committed after baptism, and at the same time they are reconciled with the Church, which by sinning they wounded” (Canon 959).
And there, in that one definition, are found the basic elements of this sacrament: confession, contrition, amendment and absolution. There, too, is the purpose of the Sacrament of Penance: reconciliation and forgiveness. The Sacrament is not about judgement and condemnation but, rather, about celebrating God’s abundant mercy and love for God’s creation.
In celebrating the Sacrament of Penance, Christians are celebrating the love and mercy of God, calling to mind the Gospel Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) in which the father welcomes back his wayward son, running out to meet him while the son was still a long way off. In the same way, God welcomes the penitent Christian who, like the Prodigal Son, recognises failure and seeks to return to God’s embrace. Sometimes the hardest part of celebrating the Sacrament of Penance is recognising our need for the sacrament in the first place.
Like all sacraments, the Sacrament of Penance is given expression in a liturgical form, known in this case as the Rite of Penance. It is also known by use of the words “Confession” or “Reconciliation”, both of which capture something of the nature of the Sacrament that is being celebrated. The Rite contains liturgical forms for three specific circumstances: a Rite for Reconciliation of Individual Penitents (“First Rite”), a Rite for Reconciliation of Several Penitents with Individual Confession and Absolution (“Second Rite”), and Rite for Reconciliation of Several Penitents with General Confession and Absolution (“Third Rite”).
The first two of these liturgical rites are well known to most members of the Church. The “First Rite” is celebrated in most parishes on a weekly basis, and takes the form of a one-to-one encounter between a priest-confessor and an individual seeking reconciliation. The “Second Rite” features prominently in parish preparations for Easter and Christmas each year, and takes the form of a communal celebration, featuring the proclamation of the Word of God and communal preparation, then confession and absolution are celebrated through a one-to-one encounter between an individual and one of the priest-confessors present. These communal celebrations of the “Second Rite” can be very joyful and powerful occasions with everyone present celebrating the mercy and love of God.
The “Third Rite” is meant for use in the most extreme and unusual circumstances, and should be a rare occurrence in the life of the Church. There have been, and occasionally are, calls for the greater availability of this “Third Rite” for any number of reasons, but it remains the exception. The “First Rite” and “Second Rite” remain the usual means of celebrating the Sacrament of Penance in the contemporary Church.
One of the important dimensions of celebrating the Sacrament of Penance, and one that is sometimes an issue of contention, is the question of secrecy. The Church maintains that the confidentiality of the confessional, referred to as ‘seal of the confessional’, is absolute. This means that what a person confesses during the celebration of the Sacrament is never revealed, under any circumstances, by the priest-confessor. It also means that the priest-confessor will not reveal if someone has celebrated the Sacrament, nor use anything he learns within the celebration of the Sacrament outside the celebration of the Sacrament. The ‘Seal of the Confessional’ is absolute and inviolable, and there are very severe penalties imposed in Church law for any violation of that obligation.
The reason for the seriousness of this obligation is simple. The Sacrament of Penance focuses on the love and mercy of God, and the ability of penitents to restore their relationship with God and their brothers and sisters in the Church. This is firstly and foremost a spiritual act, and the imposition of the ‘Seal of the Confessional’ allows Christians to focus on their relationship with God, and its repair and restoration, free from fears that what they may well consider to be shameful parts of their lives, will not become known in the wider community. It is not an ‘easy out’, as any penitent or priest-confessor will tell you, but about keeping the focus of the Sacrament of Penance where it should be: on God, and on God’s mercy.