Saturday, March 24, 2012

Some Thoughts on Penance

I came to Catholicism from a religious background that emphasized that we obtain forgiveness directly from God. That background led me to investigate the Catholic Church’s teaching on confession carefully, because I wasn’t sure I wanted to confess my sins to a priest. But I certainly wanted the grace that comes from doing so! Now, as a Catholic, I believe in the validity and the importance of the sacrament. But especially in the first 5 years of my Catholic life, I think I also expected to have a more dynamic experience in the sacrament than generally occurred for me.

The issue, for me, centered mostly on penance. I sincerely desired to do penance! But the penance most priests assigned – in my limited experience – just didn’t seem like penance to me. I realized, of course, that there was nothing I could do to fully “pay” for offending God, but I really desired to do something meaningful to show the depth of my contrition.

In answer to my questions, my spiritual director recommended that I read the apostolic exhortation Reconciliation and Penance (Pope John Paul II, 1984). The portion of the document that addresses personal reconciliation and penance made a huge impact on me, because it seemed to address all of my questions and concerns. For instance, it discusses the real meaning of penance, noting that “doing penance is something authentic and effective only if it is translated into deeds and acts of penance” (par. 4).

In addition, the document notes that we should detach ourselves from our sin by “doing penance in the fullest sense of the term: repenting, showing this repentance, adopting a real attitude of repentance…” (par.13). It suggests that our “sense of sin” has been diminished and diluted, in part because some priests have downplayed the importance of confessing venial sin, but also because the sacrament of penance itself has been watered down.  That was definitely my experience. 

In my initial experiences of the sacrament of confession, when a priest listened to my confession, and then told me to pray one Our Father as a penance, a couple of things occurred to me. First of all, I was given the impression that the priest must not see those sins as very severe, and I was tempted to congratulate myself on the fact that I just had these “small” sins in my life. Yet, in my heart, I knew that even these “small” sins had offended God.  Second, it occurred to me that this was not penance, because praying is almost always a joy, and praying the Our Father is second nature…I was praying it multiple times per day. I wondered how it could be a penance to do something you love to do. (I have since read St. Teresa of Avila’s discourse on praying the Our Father, and I have a whole new sense of what it means to pray a prayer that we often recite.) 

Also, at communal penance services (which I was once told we are to call “reconciliation” services to avoid a punitive connotation), I had observed that a “standard” penance was assigned for everyone at the beginning of the service (e.g., three Hail Mary’s and an Our Father). It struck me that this was what Blessed John Paul II was talking about when he mentioned “routine ritualism that deprives the sacrament of its full significance and formative effectiveness” (par. 18).

In Reconciliation and Penance, Blessed John Paul II urged “an ever more careful practice of the sacrament of penance” (par.18). Although I am still not sure exactly what this would entail, it seems clear to me that the Pope was insisting that the concept of penance cannot be divorced from the idea of punishment and sacrifice; it’s supposed to cost us something! He also recognized that there were problems with how the sacrament was being administered 25 years ago; maybe it’s even worse now. He wrote:

For the sacrament of confession is indeed being undermined, on the one hand by the obscuring of the moral and religious conscience, the lessening of a sense of sin, the distortion of the concept of repentance and the lack of effort to live an authentically Christian life. And on the other hand, it is being undermined by the sometimes widespread idea that one can obtain forgiveness directly from God, even in a habitual way, without approaching the sacrament of reconciliation. A further negative influence is the routine of a sacramental practice sometimes lacking in fervor and real spontaneity, deriving perhaps from a mistaken and distorted idea of the effects of the sacrament (p.28; emphases added).

Here’s one of the final paragraphs from Reconciliation and Penance:

Satisfaction is the final act which crowns the sacramental sign of penance. In some countries the act which the forgiven and absolved penitent agrees to perform after receiving absolution is called precisely the penance. What is the meaning of this satisfaction that one makes or the penance that one performs? Certainly it is not a price that one pays for the sin absolved and for the forgiveness obtained: No human price can match what is obtained, which is the fruit of Christ's precious blood. Acts of satisfaction – which, while remaining simple and humble, should be made to express more clearly all that they signify – mean a number of valuable things: They are the sign of the personal commitment that the Christian has made to God in the sacrament to begin a new life (and therefore they should not be reduced to mere formulas to be recited, but should consist of acts of worship, charity, mercy or reparation). They include the idea that the pardoned sinner is able to join his own physical and spiritual mortification – which has been sought after or at least accepted – to the passion of Jesus, who has obtained the forgiveness for him. They remind us that even after absolution there remains in the Christian a dark area due to the wound of sin, to the imperfection of love in repentance, to the weakening of the spiritual faculties. It is an area in which there still operates an infectious source of sin which must always be fought with mortification and penance. This is the meaning of the humble but sincere act of satisfaction. (p. 31, III; emphasis added)

I think that paragraph sums up what I was looking for in my experience of the sacrament of reconciliation.

My thoughts have changed a bit over the years, though: I have come to realize that “the meaning of this satisfaction that one makes” probably depends as much on me as it does on the priest assigning the penance.

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