livingfaith2How does the Church bring us God's forgiveness and reconciliation?

In creating us, God accepted the fact that the abuse of our freedom would complicate the realisation of a plan to make creation a worthy masterpiece. Our world is disfigured by the abuse of our freedom. The story told in the Scriptures is filled with the selfishness, destructiveness and injustices which frustrate God's plan. In our own lives, we all have some share in this sorry story, individually and collectively.

We live in a world that finds it difficult to accept responsibility for this and reassures itself with the rationalisation that 'sin' is an outmoded notion. Our Christian faith puts us on our guard. From the beginning of his mission, Jesus called his hearers to repentance: 'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news' (Mk 1:15). The 'forgiveness of sins' is a constant theme in the gospel story.

God's decisive achievement in the Saviour's 'paschal mystery' is an act of reconciliation. God's wisdom and generosity has turned even the tragedy of human failure and infidelity into a reconciliation, a healing of the world's ills. Listen again to Paul: 'if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation' (2 Cor 5:17-18).

God's work goes on in and through the Church. The Church's 'ministry of reconciliation' found expression in the sacrament of reconciliation. In this sacrament, the Church must show the world the generous and reconciling ways of God expressed in Jesus Christ; and at the same time the Church must call to repentance those who have worked against the designs of God by abusing their God-given freedom. The long history which we must now review shows that balancing these two responsibilities has not been an easy task - perhaps we are still finding the balance.

Reconciliation in New Testament communities

It was only with the passing of time, as we have seen, that the unique place of the seven sacraments in the life of the Church was clearly recognised. The sacraments are grace-filled signs.

Later theology came to recognise that the sign which is essential to the sacrament of reconciliation is acceptance back into the Christian community for someone whose sin has been destructive of the community. This acceptance is an effective sign of God's acceptance in forgiveness and reconciliation.

According to the Gospel of Matthew, if the destructive behaviour of a Church member can not be corrected by admonition, Jesus instructs his disciples to exclude that person from the community; and he addresses to the Church at large the words addressed to Peter in person:

'Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven' (see Mt 18:15-18).

Paul instructs the Corinthians to exclude scandalous members from the community (1 Cor 5:5,13) for their correction and salvation:

'so that his [sic] spirit may be saved.'

Paul instructs the Thessalonians in dealing with those who disrupt the community by disregarding his directives:

'have nothing to do with them, so that they may be ashamed. Do not regard them as enemies, but warn them as believers' (2 Thess 3:14-15).

This exclusion for a time from the community concerned notorious misdemeanours. The admonitions in Paul's letters leave us in no doubt, however, that the early Christian communities were burdened by human failings all too familiar in every age of the Church.

How, then, did the first Christians find God's forgiveness for sins committed after the rebirth of baptism? The New Testament indicates numerous ways in which the common sins of our frailty found forgiveness.

We have already been alerted to the first Christians' vivid awareness of their sharing in the victory of the `paschal mystery' through the Eucharist in which the Saviour himself invited them to drink 'my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins' (Mt 26:28).

They remembered Jesus had taught his disciples that they would find the Father's forgiveness in forgiving others (Mk 11:25; Mt 6:14). They recalled the parable of the tax collector whose humble prayer, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' was commended by the Lord: 'I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other' (Lk 18:13-14).

The Letter of James, after speaking of the anointing of the sick, continues: 'confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective' (5:16).

If their practical love was genuine, they were instructed, they would find forgiveness for their sins: 'whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner's soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins' (5:20). Compare the First Letter of Peter. 'Maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins' (4:8).

The emergence of institutionalised reconciliation

With the passing of time, the reconciliation by the bishop, of those guilty of public sins destructive of the community, became more institutionalised.

In the second and third centuries, sacramental reconciliation was only permitted once in a person's lifetime. Because of human weakness, those who were guilty of apostasy in times of persecution were numerous.

Their reconciliation was a challenge to Church authorities who hesitated and permitted reconciliation only once. If they failed again, such people were to entrust themselves to the mercy of God.

This rigour shocks us today. It was a shadow side of the Church's life during a period of great heroism. In its concern to maintain high standards, the Church had not found a balanced expression of God's ways.

This rigour, in fact, was condemned by the Church's first Ecumenical Council, the Council of Nicea (325), which permitted a further reconciliation and the Eucharist to such people - but only on their deathbed. The balance was still proving hard to find.

Q: I understand most people in the early centuries were not baptised until late in life. I have also heard that St Augustine never went to confession. Could you explain these things?

The ritual of 'canonical penance'

This ruling of the Council was one of numerous 'canons' of Church law in this period through which Church authorities sought to provide a satisfactory pattern of practice. The sacrament thus came to be called 'canonical penance'.

During the period from the fourth to the sixth centuries, Church practice became fairly uniform, in an impressive ritual. Canonical penance was required for sins seriously destructive of Church community, such as apostasy, murder and adultery.

The sacrament was still available only once in a lifetime before the moment of death. As a consequence, it became customary to postpone baptism - the sacrament of initial reconciliation - until middle age.

When the penitent had acknowledged the need of conversion to the bishop, he or she was made to perform public penance at the entrance to the church, They were permitted to join in the celebration of the Word, but had to withdraw once the eucharistic ritual began.

After appropriate penance, the bishop invited the penitent to rejoin the community and to receive the Eucharist with them: reconciliation with the community pronounced by the bishop was the sacramental sign of the blessings of reconciliation with God.

This ritual was not without its practical difficulties. What sins called for canonical penance? Endeavouring to clarify this question, St Augustine taught his people that only sins of malice, not sins of frailty, were liable (De Div. Quaest, 83, q 26). In some places, a lingering spirit of rigourism led to the imposition of lifelong penitential practices upon those who had done canonical penance (even perpetual celibacy!)

Faithful observance of this discipline clearly placed a heavy burden upon the typical Christian community. It is not surprising that canonical penance fell into disuse. The sacrament became in many places a devotional practice made use of only by those who were preparing themselves for death.

Irish practice taken to the Continent

It was the Irish who came up with the solution! In the chaotic period from the seventh to the eleventh centuries, a change took place through the influence of Celtic missionary monks.

In Ireland, with the population dispersed throughout the country in small hamlets, and ministered to periodically by itinerant clergy belonging to monastic communities, it was impossible to follow the procedure of canonical penance.

Having already adopted the custom commended by the New Testament of confessing faults to one another, the Celts modified the order: whereas the old ritual required penance before sacramental reconciliation, absolution was now given after the confession of sins, and a penance was imposed which was to be performed afterwards.

Elaborate 'penitential books' were drawn up which itemised the penances to be imposed. By our standards, they were extremely severe: the confession of some sins, for example, called for the spending of a period of time in an icy pool.

These Celtic missionaries played a large part in revitalising the Church in various regions of the Continent. Their manner of celebrating the sacrament became widespread. Initially, it was condemned by Church authorities in various places, including Rome, as a departure from the ancient canons.

With the passing of time, however, it became universal throughout the West. Apart from the severe penances, we recognise that it is the ritual Catholics have taken for granted for many centuries.

Q:How, do you answer the question of a Protestant friend: `Why do you confess your-sins to a man who is as sinful as anyone else?'

Q:: When l was young we were expected to go to confession before our monthly Communion; now, while few people go to confession, most go to Communion each week. Does that mean many are receiving unworthily?

Q:If you are not sure you are in mortal sin, should you go to confession before receiving Communion?

The practice of recent centuries

The practice introduced by the Celtic monks had prevailed for many centuries when the great medieval theologians made their interpretation of the sacrament. They identified the four essential components of the sacrament familiar now to those who remember our old Catholic catechisms:

  • confession of sins,
  • contrition (or sorrow, with a firm resolve to renounce sin),
  • satisfaction (or the performance of some penitential act), and
  • absolution (the declaration, in the name of God, by the Church's minister that the penitent is received into the full communion of the Church).

In the Reformation crisis, in the sixteenth century, Catholics and Protestants were in disagreement concerning the sacraments. Many Protestants so emphasised the faith brought by the life-giving message of the Scriptures that they tended to lose their appreciation of the Christian sacraments as the continuing action of God in the community of faith.

The Council of Trent defended the 'sacrament of penance', as one of the seven sacraments of Catholic faith. The theologians of the sixteenth century, however, were incapable of the full appreciation of the complex history of the sacrament available today.

They defended the sacrament - as Church discipline had administered it for many centuries - as an authentic expression of the Church's sacramental life.

During the twentieth century the sacrament became a far more frequent experience for Catholics. At the beginning of the century, only a few people took Communion at Mass. The liturgical renewal, initiated by Pope Pius X, fostered more frequent Communion.

The sodalities of men, women and young people which became an important part of parish life in the mid twentieth century had as their principal objective the promoting of monthly Communion.

Under the influence of lingering overtones of Jansenism, however, most took it for granted that they should 'go to confession' before receiving Communion, even though they were conscious of no serious problem in their moral life.

As the reception of Communion became more frequent, people approached the sacrament of reconciliation more frequently. They were encouraged to avail themselves of the sacrament as a source of grace, even though they were not conscious of any serious sins.

To appreciate the place of the sacrament in the lives of these people, we must recall the impersonalised style of the Church's liturgy at that time - a matter which was one of the first concerns of the Second Vatican Council. For many people, in the mid twentieth century, their confession was the most personalised experience they had of involvement in the Church's sacramental life.

Q: I’m sure I speak for many sincere people when I say that I found the Third Rite of Reconciliation a very inspiring experience of Cod's mercy and forgiveness. Could you explain why it has been disallowed?

Renewal after the Second Vatican Council

The Second Vatican Council called for a reform of the sacramental rite, so that it may 'more clearly express both the nature and the effect of the sacrament'. The reform commission which was set up eventually gave notice that it intended to provide three forms of celebration of the sacrament for use in a healthy Christian community.

These were:
(1) a renewal of the familiar individual form;
(2) a community ritual leading to individual confession to a number of priests;
(3) a community celebration with a general absolution given to those who declared themselves desirous and properly disposed.

Strong resistance to this proposal within the Roman Curia led to the reconstituting of the membership of the commission.

As a consequence, when it was finally promulgated, the reformed rite included the provision for general absolution only in restricted circumstances: for example, for people facing imminent disaster, for troops about to go into battle, and for large congregations who would otherwise be seriously deprived of the sacraments.

The interpretation of the case of large congregations given by leading canoeists meant that it was used on great feast days in various parts of the Church.

Church authorities have since insisted upon a more restricted interpretation of the existing discipline.

In the late Middle Ages, general absolution was given by bishops and abbots on certain great occasions with the proviso that those who were guilty of publicly known sins which had caused serious scandal (in other words, sins which would have required 'canonical penance' in the early Church) must later make an individual confession.

The question of wider use of general absolution had already been put on the Church's contemporary agenda by Pope John XXIII, in responding to difficulties brought to his attention by missionaries working in Africa.

These itinerant missionaries found themselves too exhausted after many hours' hearing confessions to be able to carry out other important works of ministry.

Pope John authorised the use of general absolution. Subsequently, however, Church officials drew up directives for the use of general absolution which so limited its use that the practical problem the Pope had wished to solve remained unresolved.

Seeking a balanced solution

While there can be no doubt as to the validity of such a general absolution, at present the Church's legislation severely restricts its use. The question of whether it should be used more widely is today the subject of vigorous debate.

The twists and turns of the history we have reviewed make it clear that there is no simple and evident answer to the question being debated.

From the first, it will be recalled, the Church faced a considerable challenge in giving sacramental expression to the gospel truth: its call to a genuine conversion and, at the same time, its reassuring message of God's redeeming and reconciling love. We may well judge that we are still seeking the balance that the lessons of history and our present experience can teach us.

We should listen carefully to the experience of the committed faithful. Sincere and generous people tell of their dissatisfaction with the old practice.

They found themselves repeating the same list of faults in a ritual which seemed far removed from the wonder of a meeting with the mercy and forgiveness of God who they were coming to appreciate from the message of the Scriptures.

Reconciliation within the community, essential to the sacramental sign, was not clearly experienced in the individualism of the traditional 'confessional box'. Many generous Catholics declare that they have experienced the mystery of God's mercy and forgiveness in a most profound and moving way in a well-conducted communal rite.

We must all ask ourselves to what degree the permissive culture of today's Western world is robbing committed Christians of the sense of sin. On the other hand, we can gratefully leave behind yesterday's exaggerated fearfulness before God.

This fearfulness has often been associated undoubtedly with the discipline of this sacrament - and with the distorted notion of 'mortal sin' which burdened many good people as they approached the sacrament - a fearfulness echoed in the questions which have often been asked when I have spoken to parish groups.

In the Church of yesterday, the sacrament could be a very personal encounter. Today, however, the renewal of the liturgy provides many more opportunities for personal involvement.

Let us not neglect the many means of reconciliation with God mentioned in the New Testament, especially the Eucharist.

If we take seriously the words of the eucharistic liturgy, as we should - words which so solemnly and confidently speak of God's forgiveness and renewing grace - we shall recognise that the Eucharist is truly a sacrament of reconciliation.

In the penitential rite in which sprinkling is used, for instance, the Church makes this typical prayer: 'May almighty God cleanse us of our sins, and through the Eucharist we celebrate make us worthy to sit at the Lord's table in the heavenly kingdom'.

Those of us who think of this question in terms of Church discipline must take care not to confuse a wholesome order and discipline in the Church with an accentuation of the power which an excessive clericalisation of the Church in past centuries has put in the hands of the ordained.

The 'big picture' of the gospel message must bring an antidote to such temptations.

We may well reflect how inward-looking this recent discussion has been. What a pity our energies are being taken up with such issues when the world in which we live needs us to be a 'light to the nations', showing them, in the name of God, the meaning of the reconciliation they yearn to achieve.

Poschmann, B 1964, Penance and the Anointing of the Sick, Burns & Oates, London. This work contains much historical material.

Copyright © John Thornhill - Questions Catholics Ask in a Time of Change. For more, see The Emmaus Series


Article from The Tablet: Reconciliation, Forgiveness and Trauma

When the Revd Julie Nicholson, a fellow Anglican priest, revealed that she was giving up her position as an inner-city vicar because she no longer feels able to preach forgiveness and reconciliation following the murder of her daughter in London's 7 July bombings, I could well understand it.

Imagine having to cope with such work following the murder of one of your beloved children.

Grief needs its own time and space, and carrying the pain of others or celebrating their joys while deeply grieving is not something we should expect of any priest.

What does it mean to forgive in the face of senseless violence?

Understandably, Julie Nicholson speaks of needing to redefine her priesthood in the light of what has happened.

Eight months after her daughter Jenny was killed, she has said: "It's very difficult for me to stand behind an altar and celebrate the Eucharist, and lead people in words of peace and reconciliation and forgiveness when I feel very far from that myself."

Yet because of her obvious courage and integrity I can't help thinking that she is more qualified to be a priest now than she was before the tragedy that shattered her life and changed it for ever.

Perhaps, in taking the path she has chosen at present, she is being utterly true to her priestly calling: her action challenges all Christians to reflect more deeply and sensitively about those words we repeat every week, often with little thought, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us."

How much do we increase the pain of people already suffering deeply by preaching the kind of forgiveness that is inhumane in its unrealistic expectations? What does it mean to forgive in the face of senseless violence?

Forgiveness and its Meaning

The Forgiveness Project, of which I am a trustee, is a non-partisan charity set up to promote conflict resolution by collecting and sharing the stories of those who have experienced conflict and violence.

Writing for the Project, Archbishop Desmond Tutu said: "Forgiveness does not mean condoning what has been done. It means taking what has happened seriously and not minimising it; drawing out the sting in the memory that threatens to poison our entire existence."

This means that forgiveness requires that we give space to our grief, anger and incomprehension regarding the violence we have experienced, and have our pain recognised and given due regard.

Living forgiveness has nothing to do with not feeling hate for the one who has hurt us. It is about acknowledging the validity of our sometimes violent emotions in the face of what has happened.

Forgiveness is always a gift

Some years ago, when someone I loved hurt me badly, my husband recognised my need for the space to rage against the treatment I had experienced, and to own the hatred I sometimes felt for the person who had caused it.

I could not have moved on if I hadn't found a way of accepting the very reactions that some people believe are alien to what it means to live forgiveness.

For them forgiveness is perceived as that which we give for the sake of those who have committed violence against us. There is a place for forgiveness of this kind, but it can never be forced. It is always a gift.

There are no "oughts" and "shoulds" about it, neither can it be given by anyone but the one who has been wronged, and to no one but the one who has done wrong and is seeking forgiveness.

Living Forgiveness

Such forgiveness cannot happen in the abstract.

For this reason it isn't an option that is open to Julie Nicholson. Mohammad Sidique Khan, her daughter's murderer, is dead, blown up by the bomb he planted. He died believing what he was doing was right, not wanting to be forgiven any more than Julie feels able to offer this kind of forgiveness.

On the other hand, Julie is already walking the path of forgiveness as it is defined by Tutu. With great honesty she is living the way by which we come to terms with a past experience that cannot be changed, in order to live as fully as possible in the present and, in time, to look with hope to a better future.

As such we might define forgiveness as the search for understanding. Understanding doesn't mean condoning violent acts but if we are not to remain victims, we have to go eventually beyond condemnation to understanding what has happened, why it happened, how it has impacted upon us and what we can do to free ourselves to be someone whose identity is more than that of being the victim of a particular tragedy

When the Jesus of Luke's gospel cries out on the Cross, "Forgive them for they know not what they do" (23.34), perhaps his words are a profound recognition of the blindness and ignorance that lie at the heart of violence and revenge, not a making out that everything is all right now, when clearly it isn't.

I know from my work with the Forgiveness Project that forgiving others their trespasses against us is often a lifetime's work.

Choosing Direction and Strength

I'm reminded of some wisdom passed on to me by my friend Rabbi Professor Jonathan Magonet. When Jethro said farewell to Moses he used the Hebrew phrase, "lech l'shalom", literally "go to peace" (Exodus 4.18) to which the rabbis added, "and he succeeded", going on to return to Egypt and liberate his people.

When David said goodbye to Absalom for what turned out to be the last time, he said, "lech b'shalom", literally "go in peace" - "and he died" (II Samuel 15.9). The rabbis explained this difference by saying that since peace means completeness or wholeness it is possible only when we are dead.

In life we can only work towards it.

With this in mind, forgiveness might be seen as a way of going to peace as opposed to walking the way of repeating cycles of violence and revenge.

We may well go to pieces on this way of forgiveness, experience violent responses to what has happened, and move one step forward only to fall back time after time, but we will have made a choice about our direction that can become a source of strength, not guilt, to us.

If Christian tradition has led us to a place where we preach the kind of forgiveness that alienates those who are struggling to find a way forward in the face of great trauma, then we are doing a disservice to humanity.

In the process we will also lose the crucial insights of those who are working to live through such anguish with honesty and integrity. Since they are often the greatest teachers we have in this field that is a tragedy indeed.

This article, by Ruth Scott, first appeared in The Tablet. Copyright © 2006, The Tablet Publishing Company.