Persons, places and things: Penance: it’s all about conversion

Barb Arland-Fye

Ten years ago, Pope John Paul II appealed to his brother bishops to “undertake a vigorous revitalization of the Sacrament of Reconciliation” out of concern for a crisis of “the sense of sin” apparent in our culture. He ad­dressed his concern in an apostolic letter titled Misericordia Dei, one of the resources that Deacon Frank Agnoli provided last weekend in a class he taught on the sacraments of reconciliation and anointing of the sick. As one of his students (along with deacon candidates, their wives and others), I came away with a better understanding of both sacraments. His class was the second in a two-part series on the sacraments, which began last month when we studied marriage and holy orders with Professor Corinne Winter of St. Ambrose University.
The material we covered on each of these sacraments would benefit adult Catholics around the diocese who recognize that faith formation didn’t end when we were confirmed. I’d like to share some of the insights I gained, focusing this week on the sacrament of reconciliation.
Theologian German Martinez observes that a theological understanding of sin includes these major dimensions: a relationship to God, self, and the community. He notes that the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls sin a “failure in genuine love for God and neighbor … (that) wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity.” Martinez describes three aspects of sin: as an offense against the truth of God, an offense against the truth of the person, and an offense against the truth of the community (“Signs of Freedom,” p. 209-210).
Early in its history, the Church had to confront or even exclude individuals whose conduct failed to show the world God’s grace and holiness (cf. 1 Pt 2), Deacon Agnoli said.  The intention of this exclusion was to bring about conversion and to return people to the community and the Eucharist. That continues to be a focus today.
Like Christians today, the early Church was shaped by the times and conditions in which its members lived. Initially, the Church saw penance as a way to win back the errant Christian and reintegrate that individual into the community. Over time, penance for serious sins became so harsh and unrealistic that people avoided receiving the sacrament until the end of life. You can see why: In the fourth and fifth centuries penitents were treated for the rest of their lives like second-class citizens in the Church. They were forbidden to bear arms, engage in business, take a case to court, marry, be ordained, hold public office, have marital intercourse, and were required to wear distinctive clothing in some places.
A curious thing happened, though. Sinners avoided penance until the end of their lives while saints embraced the asceticism. They, however, were in the minority. The bishops sought to retain this Canonical penance, but received little public support. “People drive the process. The sacrament is there to meet a need; if it’s not meeting a need, there’s a problem,” Deacon Agnoli said, an observation that seems relevant today but perhaps for different reasons.
In the following centuries, private confession developed, thanks to itinerant Irish monks, and by the 13th century private confession was well developed. Confession had become a completely private affair and the ecclesial connection was lost, Deacon Agnoli explained.
Reformers rejected confession and absolution as sacrament, but the Council of Trent defended the practice as consistent with what Christ intended for the Church. In the early 20th century, Pope Pius X encouraged more frequent Communion and established a lower age for reception, the age of reason, which was figured at 7 years old. A renewed interest in the communal nature of the sacrament developed as a result of historical studies.
Vatican II brought about the understanding that “Through the sacrament of reconciliation the faithful are ‘reconciled with the church which they have wounded by their sins and which by charity, by example and by prayer labors for their conversion’” (Martinez, p. 214).
Today we have three different ways to celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation: Rite for Reconciliation of Individual Penitents, a Rite for Reconciliation of Several Penitents and — in emergencies only — a Rite for Reconciliation of Several Penitents with General Confession and Absolution.
So where do the deacon candidates fit into this discussion? Because only priests and bishops confer the sacrament, deacons serve in a catechetical role, as a bridge to the sacrament, Deacon Agnoli observed, and “by the lives they live.”
Barb Arland-Fye

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