A time for penance…

At his opening address to meeting of the USCCB, Cardinal Dolan reminded his brother bishops, and indeed all of us, that evangelization must always start with our own conversion.

But I stand before you this morning to say simply: first things first. We gather as disciples of, as friends of, as believers in Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, “the Way, the Truth and the Life,” who exhorted us to “seek first the Kingdom of God.”
We cannot engage culture unless we let Him first engage us; we cannot dialogue with others unless we first dialogue with Him; we cannot challenge unless we first let Him challenge us.
How easy it is for us in our daily lives, on the blogosphere, in our work, and at our homes, to allow our lives to become too cluttered with the busy-ness of the times such that we forget to listen to the Word who speaks so eloquently to our hearts.
But [at the ad limina visits of the U.S. bishops] Pope Benedict did not stop with his gracious hospitality. No. He also gave us plenty of fatherly advice — for our ministry as pastors of the Church and our personal role in the New Evangelization.
Here’s an especially striking example from his first ad limina address: “Evangelization,” the Successor of St. Peter noted, “. . . appears not simply a task to be undertaken ad extra; we ourselves are the first to need re-evangelization. As with all spiritual crises, whether of individuals or communities, we know that the ultimate answer can only be born of a searching, critical and ongoing self-assessment and conversion in the light of Christ’s truth.”
For Dolan, this self-searching manifests itself in frequent returns to the Confessional. Echoing the pope, He sees Penance as the Sacrament of the New Evangelization…

 the Sacrament of Reconciliation evangelizes the evangelizers, as it brings us sacramentally into contact with Jesus, who calls us to conversion of heart, and allows us to answer his invitation to repentance — a repentance from within that can then transform the world without.

​What an irony that despite the call of the Second Vatican Council for a renewal of the Sacrament of Penance, what we got instead was its near disappearance
What can each of us do as contributors to and readers of this blog and others, but more fundamentally as brothers and sisters in Christ to participate in this Year of Faith, to carry the mission of the Church? Much, it seems to me, must be changed, but all the talk of change can only occur if we ourselves will allow the Spirit of the Lord to change us….

The premier answer to the question “What’s wrong with the world?” “what’s wrong with the church?” is not politics, the economy, secularism, sectarianism, globalization or global warming . . .none of these, as significant as they are. As Chesterton wrote, “The answer to the question ‘What’s wrong with the world?’ is just two words: ‘I am,'”

I am! Admitting that leads to conversion of heart and repentance, the marrow of the Gospel-invitation….e want the New Evangelization to work, it starts on our knees.
A welcome message. We are indeed in desperate need of conversion.
H/T – Whispers.
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  • Sacerdotus

    If the bishops hadn’t tampered with Rites and outlawed general confession and absolution, the sacrament would have remained a central and important source of grace for the faithful.

    • http://giftofself.blogspot.com/ Joshua B

      Thanks for reading and commenting Sacerdotus. I think your explanation, while not without merit, is far too simplistic. Other potential driving factors include the general loss of faith, the tendency among some priests to turn the confessional into something more like an exercise in pychiatry, and the general unwillingness of many of the faithful to talk about and think about personal sin.

      • Sacerdotus

        I guess I would like to see the data. I know that when we offered communal reconciliation the church was full.

        • dominic1955

          Who wouldn’t line up to be slopped at the trough of cheap grace? We have “general absolution” (the 1st and 2nd Confiteor) at my parish every day, but everyone knows its just general-for venial sins. No one is ever under the impression that its the same as proper confession.

          Of course, in the rare instances when this practice is licit, folks who had mortal sins have to go back for individual confession if they made it through the grave situation they were in and make a proper integral confession.

      • elizabeth00

        “the general unwillingness of the faithful to talk about and think about personal sin.”

        Therein lies the rub…what does sin mean? It seems to me that though we confess personal sin (which always has universal consequences), the act of confession in itself reconfigures personhood.

  • crystal

    Perhaps one reason people don’t go to confession is that their personal relationship with God allows them to ask him directly for forgiveness. In the past, it may have been felt that we needed the church to intercede between us and God, but I don’t think most people believe this anymore. I don’t, myself.

    • KImberley


      I am guessing that in the religion that you follow, you get to define what sin is as well.

      • crystal

        The religion I follow? I’m a Catholic, and apparently I’m one of the majority of Catholics who don’t go to confession.

        I guess what you mean is that people cannot be trusted to be aware of the wrongs they’ve committed if they decide to ask forgive directly from God. But one can still be aware of what the church teaches about sin without then going to confession. When Jesus was asked about prayer, he gave the example, “Father … forgive us our trespasses”.

        • http://profiles.google.com/JohnMcG johnmcg

          Yes, God can certainly forgive our sins outside of sacramental confession.

          But relying on that ignores two things.

          Jesus HImself told the Apostles that what they bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and what is loosed on earth will be loosed in heaven.

          Second, our sin doesn’t just damage our relationship with God; it damages our relationship with the whole Church. In sacramental confession, the priest stands in for Jesus, but also for the community of believers.

          The next line of the Lord’s Prayers is , “as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

        • http://profiles.google.com/JohnMcG johnmcg

          Did not realize I was directly echoing Julia’s comments below, but glad to see I’m not alone.

      • http://www.facebook.com/ron.chandonia Ron Chandonia

        KImberley, I wish there were a way to “like” comments here. I certainly like yours.

    • http://profiles.google.com/JohnMcG johnmcg

      I’m not much for “kids today…” lamentations, but I have great difficulty believing that today’s Catholics enjoy a more intimate relationship with God than previous generations, rendering the sacrament of Reconciliation an unnecessary middleman.

  • Julia Smucker

    As a convert – both in the sense of having chosen to be Catholic and of being in a continually ongoing conversion process, along with the whole Church – I believe in the sacrament of reconciliation as one of the Church’s great gifts, which I think is underrated and often misunderstood.

    One good explanation I’ve heard is that when we sin, it is not only against God but against the whole community – we injure the Body, so to speak. So yes, we can confess directly to God, but the priest’s role in confession is to help us see beyond the merely vertical dimension of our behavior by representing the Church with which (and in which) we also seek to reconcile, and when appropriate asking us to redress the wrongs we have done to others. As I think someone else said on here once, I don’t go to confession because I have to, I go because I can.

    I also read an interesting summary someplace of the paradigms the Church has moved through in its history with regard to confession: from a patristic view modeled on baptism, to a Celtic view modeled on a doctor visit, to a Roman juridical view modeled on a criminal court, to a sacramental/communal view modeled on the Eucharist. These may be broad strokes, but I think there’s something to it. I suppose we need a better way to catechize this latter paradigm that the revised rite of penance has moved us into.

    • notnac9

      I recommend this reply, Julia. Thank you for posting it.

    • http://giftofself.blogspot.com/ Joshua B

      Thanks for this Julia. Do you know where you read about the paradigms of confession? Do you have any ideas about catechizing to the Eucharistic paradigm? Or could you perhaps spell it out a little bit more?

      • Julia Smucker
        • dominic1955

          It also seems to me that Confession has always included these “paradigms”, even if at times folks didn’t see it that way or had a distorted sense of them to one degree or the other.

          In the usual practice associated with Confession, we’ve retained a little bit of all of these. As a ritual side note, we even had a vestigial version of the public dismissal of penitents in the pre-Vatican II Pontificale Romanum.

          While folks might pooh-pooh the “old way” as old lady sentimentality or a seedbed for scruples, I personally see the wisdom of how it developed and the pastoral wisdom contained in its simple and “private” shape. I myself see in the development towards “triffling” pennances of a few Ave’s vs. the old fasting or sackcloth for years as a very profound acceptance of Jesus’ work in the Sacrament and in us as opposed to what we do. I see the individual encounter with the priest from behind the screen as the overwhelming mercy and good favor of Holy Mother Church giving us something palatable for such a sensitive situation yet still holding us accountable. The priest is truly privileged in this action as he is in many things. He is truly in Persona Christi, he is in this sacrament the conduit of the Divine Physician and the Divine Judge and he is the representative of the Church-the Mystical Body of Christ which we have also wronged by our sins. What is profounding personal is thus profoundly communal-without any need for trying to artificially make it communal in a visceral sense.

          Folks all develop spiritually at different paces and different levels. There is never, nor will there ever be a rite or ritual for any one of the Sacraments that will ever grab every single person by the collar and drag them into the new and glorious light of moralizing didacticism, “full participation”, individual relationship with Jesus, etc. etc. etc. ad naseaum. This is why I thank God that they didn’t really screw with Confession that much, at least not mandated.

          The last bit described by Fr. Richstatter seems like this attempt to reinvent the wheel to make it more “meaningful” to “modern man”. What he describes is great, but we already had it and had it in a much more organic and ancient form that the prophets of the New Order were too busy to see in their slash and burn campaign. It looks like to me (in my area, ymmv) that folks who bother to go to confession have made it abundantly known that we want it business as usual. You come to one of our larger cities in the two larger dioceses and I can get you to confession any day of the week, often at multiple times to choose from. St. Pat’s parish might host one of these pennance services during Advent and Lent, but we go for the individual confession. My impression (again, ymmv) is that the rest of it is just so much litnik shellac we’d rather just fast-forward through.

  • crystal

    The fact seems to be, though, that less than half of Catholics do go to confession. I was suggesting a reason why. The quote of Jesus and the disciples and binding or loosing seems less than obvious to me as far as it relating to priests and confessions, though I know this is the church’s backup scripture passage. The idea that people will not realize their responsibilities/relationships to their community without going to confession first is a depressing comment on human nature. Most Christians somehow seem to find a way to do this without being prompted by a priest – surely part of being a moral agent with a conscience is the ability to do so.

    • http://giftofself.blogspot.com/ Joshua B


      1)I believe that far fewer than half of American Catholics go to Mass regularly, much less Reconciliation. I don’t think an argument attempting to establish a truth can be based on such percentages. Although I understand your point.

      2) It is not simply that the binding and loosing is the church’s backup scripture passage, but that the Tradition bears witness both to the reality and importance of the Sacrament.

      3) ” Most Christians somehow seem to find a way to do this without being prompted by a priest – surely part of being a moral agent with a conscience is the ability to do so.”
      I suppose that depends on how seriously you take our fallenness and our need for grace, but also how seriously you take the instrumental (or sacramental) manner in which God tends to distribute his grace.

    • Thales

      My thoughts on confession:

      1. In order to be Catholic, the Church doesn’t command very much of us, except for 5 commandments or 5 precepts. One of them is to go to confession at least once a year. (Another commandment is to attend Mass on Sundays.) So we kind of have to go if we want to be Catholic.

      2. I think going to confession is great because it’s a sacrament. That’s a big deal. That means it’s a way to get sacramental grace. People are missing out big time on all the sacramental grace and all the sacramental power being poured out by God, if they’re staying home and only making a personal confession with God privately.

      3. The other reason confession is great because you’ve got a guarantee from the priest that all your sins have been forgiven when you step out of the confessional. And you’ve got a guarantee that you’ll be going to Heaven if you pass away at that moment. I don’t know how you can get that kind of guarantee in the privacy of your home.

    • Julia Smucker

      The individual conscience is certainly part of the picture, in both the Christian life as a whole and sacramental confession in particular. Doesn’t moral agency include owning up to how one’s actions and attitudes have affected the whole community? It would be a mistake to reduce it all to something personal and private.

    • http://profiles.google.com/JohnMcG johnmcg

      I would find this more convincing if it were accompanied by an example of a segment of the Church or Christian faith that rejected sacramental confession, and grew in holiness.

      My experience is that long lines at the confessional correlate with holiness in the parish.

      • Julia Smucker

        The Anabaptists spring to mind – but then they also had a Pelagian focus on worthy reception of communion for a long time (before my time, but I’ve heard the stories).

        • crystal

          The Quakers, Presbyterians, and I think Lutherans too don’t practice confession.

        • http://branemrys.blogspot.com Brandon Watson

          Lutherans vary considerably in how important they consider it, and they don’t ever have the penance part of confession, but they do have confession itself, and it is (depending on the context) considered an extension of baptism or a sacrament in its own right. The basic idea is that we should confess all our sins to God, including those we don’t know, but that we should use the sacrament of confession when we recognize ourselves as having sinned, as a way of being healed and hearing what God is telling us. One of Luther’s major complaints against Catholic preachers (found in his Exhortation to Confession) was that they failed to tell people just how beneficial the sacrament was for healing the soul.

          The book that in my opinion is the single best work ever written on the subject happens to be Lutheran: Kierkegaard’s Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing. (Not the sort of thing that can be read quickly, but it is exceptionally good.)

  • crystal

    Thanks for all the responses to my comments. I’m a convert to Catholicism and there’s a lot about the basic theology, like gaining grace through sacraments, that I find hard to understand and accept. Must do more reading.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    I am coming late to this conversation but I did want to interject that a lot of good sociological work has been done on the precipitous decline in regular confession even among Catholics who attend mass weekly (which is more or less the benchmark used for defining “serious” Catholics). Interpreting the data is controversial, but a number of authors have drawn a connection to the turmoil surrounding discussion about artificial contraception in the 1960’s. Andrew Greeley has argued forcefully that the data shows that it was not the reforms following Vatican II that led to the decline but rather the promulgation of Humanae Vitae.

    I do not think I can do justice to the many analyses I have read, except to say that the situation appears to be much more complex than a simple “liberation of conscience” (a liberal trope) or “sinners refusing to accept correction” (a conservative trope). Rather, there seems to be a complex interaction in which many priests on the front lines began giving mixed advice as part of the regular formation that occurred in the confessional, and laity staying away because their own sense of rightness was in conflict with a Church teaching they were expecting to change. Out of this evolved a new understanding of the role of conscience and the role of the priest as the arbiter of conscience.

    I raise this point not to argue that changing Church teaching on birth control is a magic bullet to get people back to a regular celebration of the sacrament. Rather, I want to suggest that there has been a major sea change in how Catholics view themselves, the Church and the sacrament, and that incorporating it into the new evangelization (which I think is an excellent idea) will require some pastoral sensitivity and catechesis that understands and respects the new reality. By “respects” I do not necessarily means “accepts” but rather acknowledges that it exists and is where people are starting from.

    • dominic1955

      It would seem though that if people really took confession seriously, Humanae Vitae should not have done anything to the practice. It certainly is more complex than the two tropes you present. Just because folks stopped going to confession doesn’t mean they had a view contrary to the Church and decided they were right. Some folks also took all the changes as signaling the end of the Church as they had learned it-Semper Idem. If eating meat on Friday was a mortal sin last week and no longer is or Fr. A says contraception is mortal sin yet Fr. B says it isn’t, etc. etc. then to hell with all of it! Yes, not the proper way to look at it, but I’ve met older folks who thought exactly that and the ones who still go to Mass seem to do it out of old habit, one they couldn’t break.

      Casti Conubii was issued back in 1930 and laid out the Church’s teaching pretty clearly on the matter. If people really thought that the Church’s teaching on this matter was going to change, then the problem seems to be that we need to do some serious catechetical work and should have done a better job at reining in dissenters. We let dissenting theologians run their mouths without proper correction and it scandalized the laity. By the time HV came out, the damage had been done on that front. If folks knew their moral theology, at least what would pertain to them in every day life, Humanae Vitae should never have come as some sort of shock.

  • Ronald King

    My first impression of the Church as a child was a sense that it was missing something. It seemed stern without any warmth. The “it” that I am referring to are the religious, except for Sr. Jean-Louise who was a great ballplayer and the first love of my life in 6th grade until I saw Daina that summer sitting on her porch while delivering newspapers. I digress. The other “it” were the laity who seemed to mirror the religious until they left church and went on about their real lives which seemed to be in conflct with the Church. All they had to do was go to confession and it would be ok. I learned the meaning of hypocrite very young and when I left home at 18 I stopped being a hypocrite, at least within the church. The church seemed to be a place of empty tension, if you know what I mean, when it was packed. When it was empty I remember it being filled peace.
    Now I realize that the empty tension was the relationship between every member of the church which is the result of the fear of being discovered as a pretender no matter how many times they attended mass during the week. Love was missing on a conscious level although it was always present behind the wall of fear. It seemed to me that we went to mass because we were afraid and that fear of not being good enough for God and man became a cornerstone of my human identity and hardwired into my physical existence with the consequential damage done to a soul which only instinctively knew through the senses that something was terribly wrong with the church and me.
    So I searched for Love elsewhere because I also knew instinctively that it was Love which made me. People leave the church to find Love and I returned to the Church because I learned that God is Love–that was before Pope Benedict’s first encyclical.
    If we increase in Love, they will come.

  • Jordan

    I do not love many of my Catholic brothers and sisters. Why should I confess? Why should I receive the Eucharist?

    The challenge of the Eucharistic table is the reality that I share the same living Christ with my enemies. I am quite anticlerical — I have spoken here of my not insignificant disdain for the hierarchy and will speak no more. But what of those in the parish who show only a superficial care for the poor, who act vainly, who curse LGBT people — must I kneel beside them (yes, my parish still has an altar rail)?

    A worthy communicant must resolve to forgive in order to participate at that table. And yet, when I see sanctimony in others, why do I not see intellectual pride in myself? My understanding of Christianity is a tangled web of academic constructs, while others simply try their best to live according to the Church’s teachings. ‘They’ are simple; I am learned. ‘They’ are bigots and provincial; I am open-minded and charitable. ‘They’ know nothing but to mumble rosaries; I can read Aquinas in the original.

    The deflation of all this pride resolves not only in the confession of failures in the penance sacrament but also the recognition that all in the assembly suffer from material want and personal inadequacy. Personal pride only deflates in the recognition of this suffering. And even with this recognition I am quite unable to believe that the bishops mean what they say about penitence. Even so, the bishops are my brothers; I cannot approach the table without at least a modicum of trust in their judgments. Even if some bishops were to openly advocate for theonomy, I would still share the one Christ with them.