Sacraments : Penance

In this series of essays Father Manny considers the nature of The Sacraments and reflects upon their meaning in our lives.

The Sacrament of Penance

As a young boy I remember the queues of penitents outside Fr. Lynch’s confessional and in contrast the one or two brave souls outside Fr. Rafferty’s confessional door. He was renowned for his severity and would sometimes require you to say a whole Rosary for your penance! Fr. Lynch however was gentle and easy going and more often than not would let you off with three Hail Marys.

We appear have moved a long way from those days of my childhood. Undoubtedly much of our confessional practice was based upon fear and discipline rather than a genuine sense of repentance and trust in God who is ‘The Father of Mercies’. Today it would seem that the pendulum has swung too far. Not infrequently I emerge from the confessional not having received a single penitent. Either I am blessed to have lived and worked in parishes where there is not a single sinner or something is amiss?

It is often said that our age has lost a sense of sin and yet I believe that the loss is of a much more serious nature. We have lost our sense of the utter goodness and holiness of God. It is only in the context of God’s holiness that we discover our unworthiness and the need for his mercy and forgiveness. William Barclay tells the story of journeying in a train through the countryside and noticing a beautiful little whitewashed cottage, bright and pretty in the morning light. Overnight there was a heavy fall of snow and as he returned past the same cottage set amongst the fresh white snow glistening in the morning sun he thought how, in comparison the same little cottage now looked grey and grubby. It is only in the light of God’s love and beauty that we can see our sin and our need of His mercy.

The loss of the sense of sin is in essence a loss of the sense of God’s goodness. The sacrament of penance enables us to draw close to the Lord and in so doing we discover our sinfulness and the greatness of His mercy and Love. St John Vianney who spent many hours each day hearing confessions tells us that our sin is but a tiny grain of sand alongside the great mountain of God’s mercy. So why do we not seek to experience this mountain of God’s mercy?

Fear or embarrassment can often prevent us from approaching the confessional. “I am not letting the priest know my sins!” We should never allow fear to keep us away from encountering Christ in this sacrament. The priest is only interested in being an instrument of God’s mercy and he does not dwell upon our sins. There is something remarkable in this sacrament in that it truly does blot out all our sins. They are gone and in my experience gone from the consciousness of the priest also.

Not infrequently I hear it said by people that they can tell God that they are sorry directly and don’t need to go to confession. Why do we think that in this sacrament we can set aside the need for the Church and the Priest. We would never dream of doing this with the other sacraments such as anointing of the sick or the Eucharist. Yes the Lord is merciful but the Sacrament of Penance is about reconciliation and therefore involves at least two parties. Alone I can forgive someone who hurts me but I can only be reconciled if I communicate with the other party. The problem or the hurt needs to be named and the gestures of reconciliation made.

Sin is an offence against God and his people and so we need to be reconciled with Him and with His Church. It is truly wonderful to hear the words “I absolve you from all your sins, go in peace”. These tangible words and signs bring a joy and lightness to our hearts. I know this from my experience as a penitent. We priests must go to confession regularly too. In fact I could not survive and function as a priest without this sacrament. Both spiritually and psychologically it is invaluable.

The Council of Trent tells us that the Resurrection appearance of Jesus to the Apostles in the upper room towards the end of John’s Gospel is the foundation of this sacrament. The Crucified and Risen Lord breathes upon the Apostles and tells them that those whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven. The sacrament of Reconciliation is the first gift of the Resurrection. A gift won for us through the blood and suffering of Christ. This is a precious gift, one to be received with a generous and open heart. We should never allow fear or a lack of faith to keep us away from so great a gift. The sacrament bestows upon us grace to help us to resist temptation in the future and it renews the grace or our baptism. Often it is said that the Church in the West is tired and weary. If we returned in great numbers to the sacrament of penance I am certain that this would be a vital key in our efforts to reinvigorate of our Church.

Rev. Emmanuel Gribben

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