Sacraments of Initiation
During the period of canonical penance, there were many ways in which the penitent received counsel and support from the community throughout the time of penance: the prayers of the assembly, the homilies of the bishop, the counsel and advice from the sponsors, directors and the ministers of the community. With the shift to the tariff system, the support of the community was one of the elements that was lost to the sacrament. The monk gave a penance and prayed with the penitent, but then the penitent was "on his own" to do the penance. The dialogue with the confessor in tariff penance was mainly to help determine accurately the penance necessary to remedy the effects of the sin.
This concern for knowing and telling the sins accurately continued during the transition to the modern period. The role of the confessor began to be interpreted in juridical terms; a judge needs to know accurately the extent and circumstances of the crime. The confessor was to question the penitent to be sure that the confession was integral and complete.
Confession became a time when the priest would give the sinner advice and spiritual direction. In order for the advice to be more suited to the individual situation, the penitent was directed to give the confessor additional data besides the naming of the sins. The penitents were directed to indicate their state of life (married, single, cleric, religious, etc) as this would be important in determining the gravity of certain sins. The penitents told how long it had been since their last confession because this would help the confessor know the relative frequency of the sins. As more and more Catholics began making "confessions of devotion" (confession directed not toward reconciliation with the Church, but directed toward the eradication of venial sins) these words of advice and spiritual direction became an increasingly important part of the sacrament.
Some confessors were better at this type of direction than others. St. John Vianney (1786-1859), pastor (Cure') at the village of Ars in France, is perhaps the best known example of this type of confessor. So many people were coming to him for confession that a special ticket window had to be opened at the train station in Lyons simply to handle the purchase of tickets for Ars. It was not unusual to wait in line six or seven days for the opportunity to enter his confessional.
During the reign of Pope Pius XII (1939-1958), the heyday of frequent confession, the number of parishioners coming to confession on a Saturday afternoon or evening was such that the priest no longer had time to give each 8individual any extended spiritual direction. The dialogue between priest and penitent was reduced to a brief "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned; my last confession was [e.g. two weeks] ago; these are my sins..." on the part of the penitent, followed by a brief sentence or two of advice from the priest. This advice was often "generic" in that it could be repeated over and over for each person coming to confession. When the pastor heard a hundred confessions on a Saturday afternoon, he was not expected to say something personal to each one entering the confessional. And the priest had to be careful not to be too specific or personal with his advice for he was talking to someone he could not see and could often barely hear. It was not a comfortable context for giving (or receiving) spiritual direction.
The "Rite for Reconciliation of Several Penitents with Individual Confession and Absolution" changes the focus of "words of the priest". These words are part of the sacramental action; they are a proclamation of praise and forgiveness. The words of the priest are of the same literary genre as the proclamation of forgiveness in the prayer of absolution and form the prologue to that prayer and "personalize" it for the individual penitent. The words recall the proclamation of God's love in the scripture readings and the homily and enable the penitent to feel "gifted" by that love.
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9a. The Church exercises the ministry of the sacrament of penance through bishops and priests. By preaching God's word they call the faithful to conversion; in the name of Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit they declare and grant the forgiveness of sins.
10c. By receiving repentant sinners and leading them to the light of the truth, the confessor fulfills a paternal function: he reveals the heart of the Father and reflects the image of Christ the Good Shepherd. He should keep in mind that he has been entrusted with the ministry of Christ, who accomplished the saving work of human redemption by mercy and by his power is present in the sacraments.
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The words of the priest before the absolution are to "reveal the heart of God and reflect the image of Christ the Good Shepherd." They are to gift the person with God's love. That is the purpose of these words: to give the sinner a gift.
We often worry about what the priest thinks of us when we tell him our sins. We imagine that he is seeing us at our very worst. Actually the opposite is true. It is no great revelation to the priest (or to the community) that we are sinners. Everyone sins. But not everyone is willing to repent. Not everyone is willing to change and to do better. In the sacrament of reconciliation we manifest our sorrow for our sins and our determination to live more authentically the promises of our baptism. This is a wonderful, beautiful thing. In the sacrament the priest, the community, God -- all see us not at our worst, but at our very best.
The words of the priest are a proclamation of God's loving response to our efforts to repent. This is different from spiritual direction, counseling, or therapy. Each of these has its own special purpose and techniques. None of them takes place best during the sacrament of reconciliation.
Our formative years are important for our future attitudes and understandings. When I was preparing for the priesthood, it was a common thing to receive spiritual direction and go to confession all at the same time and with the same director / confessor. I would talk over my life and problems with one of the priests at the seminary, and he would give me some encouragement and then absolution. This experience of joining spiritual direction and sacramental absolution has influenced the way in which many priests and bishops view the sacrament. Today's seminarians are being formed by a different experience: spiritual direction is received from a person who is specially trained for this work (the spiritual director is not always a priest), and the sacrament of penance is usually celebrated in a liturgical context with the other members of the seminary community or with the parish community where the seminarian is learning to minister. The current norms for promoting the liturgical life of seminaries (paragraph 36) direct that the liturgical character of the sacrament of reconciliation is always to be retained and that, as a rule, the sacrament is to be distinct from spiritual direction. This experience of separating spiritual direction and the sacrament of reconciliation will, of course, change the way in which future priests and bishops think of the relationship between confession and spiritual direction and will change the understanding of the purpose of the "words of the priest" following the individual confession of sins.
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Do you consider the message of the priest following your individual confession of sins to be a positive or a negative factor in determining how frequently you celebrate the sacrament? Why?
Do priests ask too many embarrassing questions?
Do you feel "gifted" by the message of the priest?
Do you see confession as a time to "talk things over" with a priest?
If you want to receive spiritual direction, is there opportunity to do so in your parish other than in the context of the sacrament of reconciliation? When?
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© Copyright: Tom Richstatter, Franciscan Province of St. John the Baptist, Cincinnati Ohio, Order of Friars Minor. All Rights Reserved. This page was created by Fr. Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M. Every effort has been, and is being made, to acknowledge sources when the ideas are not my own. Any failure to comply with the United States Copyright Act (Title 17, United States Code) will be corrected immediately should I become aware of it. This site was updated on 03/20/15 . Your comments on this site are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.