Contemporary sacramental theology helps us answer this question "Who is God?" by starting at the very root beginning of things: God's plan for the world -- the mysterion, the mystery/plan for the world -- the paschal mystery reveal in Jesus. Indeed, Jesus himself is the mysterion, the plan, the SACRAMENT. Clearly, answering the question "Who is God?" is a life-long task. It is not something we can study in a book or a course. It comes primarily through "loving"! And loving God and growing in that love is a life-work that never is fully accomplished. As Dietrich Bonheoffer said, "see how persons change as you love them." I am sure that we have had the same experience with God . As we continually try to love God more and more, we come to know more clearly who God is.
"Who is God?" is a question that people of every religious conviction -- Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Animalists, -- struggle with. Christians have the advantage in having God become Sacrament in Jesus. In the prologue to the Gospel according to John we read: " No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known." (John 1:18 NRSV) And later in that same Gospel, when Philip asks Jesus: "Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied." Jesus said to him, "Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?" (John 14:8-10 NRSV) [This understanding of Sacrament / Jesus / Church / Eucharist / Reconciliation is expressed in the "Metaphor of the Ripples from a Stone Dropped into a Pond".] Knowing who God is, is key to knowing who we are. God is revealed in Jesus. And Jesus tell us clearly: "I came that [you] may have life, and have it abundantly." (John 10:10 NRSV)
I am continually amazed that many Christians do not use that "help." I often wonder if some Catholics actually believe in Jesus! O sure, they believe Jesus was born of Mary, that he was a nice guy, that he was divine, etc. etc. etc. But what they don't get is that he is the sacrament of God. He reveals "Who God Is".
We must look into our deepest self and see if our "God" is merely a projection of all the best attributes that we admire in our human friends: A "God" who is always there for us, has an encouraging word, rewards our efforts, appreciates what we do for others, is dispensed when we flub up, etc. etc. A God who is very just and very fare.
The problem is that this is not the God Jesus reveals. The God Jesus reveals is totally beyond all that. For example, whenever I preach the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16 "The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. ....") I find that Catholics hate that parable because "that God isn't just. And it implies that my neighbors who never go to Church and never put their envelop in the collection basket are going to be rewarded just as much as me!!! It isn't fair. I don't believe in that kind of God....."
To know Jesus, we cannot merely look at the surface, the superficial meaning of the Gospels; we need to look deeply and see the God revealed in Jesus -- and it was because of this "image of God" that was bigger and greater than many people were willing to accept that Jesus was executed: an all inclusive God; an all loving God; a God of the poor, the marinated, the sinner!
Sacraments are visible signs of this invisible God. Sacraments reveal "Who God Is!" To be a "good" sacrament, the celebration must reveal this God accurately.
What am I going to do about it?
This brings us to the third question: 1) Who is God? 2) Who am I? 3) What am I going to do about it? For this course, the third question was limited to the simple "practical" issue: How to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation today?
To help answer that question we studied something of the history of the sacrament - by reading Martos' book, Doors to the Sacred. [I realize now, at the end of the course, that we did not spend sufficient time on this aspect of the sacrament. If you get time, I strongly recommend the story and teaching segments of the DVD "The God Who Reconciles," Catholic Update Video, St. Anthony Messenger Press.]
The key part of this history is not the "surface changes" but the "under the iceberg" changes in the subconscious paradigm of the sacrament, moving from Baptism [canonical penance] to doctor visit [Celtic penance] to juridical trial [ scholastic confession] to Eucharist [contemporary Sacrament of Reconciliation].
The primary "exercise" for this part of the course was to compose a script for a parish celebration of the Sacrament. While I was able to offer suggestions regarding the wording and ritual actions of the script, it is not possible for me to see into the "subconscious" understanding out of which these choices were made.
For example: When my family celebrates thanksgiving dinner we gather in an atmosphere of joy and community. We are happy to see one another; we joyfully tell stories of our family and the events that have drawn us together for this occasion. Indeed, when I see how much I am loved in these situations, I often think of how much more I have received from them than I have given back -- partially because my situation as friar-priest does not give me the money to spend on them that they spend on me, or the time or resources... but that is not the issue -- I am loved and I want to do all that I can to "repay" [i.e. respond to that love]. I look forward to these community gatherings. On the other hand, I dread going to court - standing before the judge. Hearing a list of the sins I might have committed. Fearing the sentence of the judge, wondering what my sentence will be....
I would invite you to put on your "psychological wetsuit" and dive into the icy waters and try to look at that invisible, submerged part of your "Reconciliation Iceberg" and see if you have made the transition from scholastic confession [paradigm: juridical trial] to the contemporary Sacrament of Reconciliation [paradigm: Eucharist / model: thanksgiving dinner].
The reason that the way we celebrate Reconciliation -- and each of the sacraments, for that matter -- is so important is because that they are not merely "something we do" as Catholics, or something we "receive" or something we go to now and then. Sacraments are the window through which we get a glimpse of "Who God is" -- They are key to answering that FIRST GREAT QUESTION on the final exam: Who is God? The question is not "why can't I continue to go to confession if I want to?" The question does confession make visible to the assembled community the God revealed in Jesus Christ?
The major difficulty that I, as the professor, encountered during the course was that few (if any) of the participants had experiential knowledge of what we were talking about! Last semester when I taught "Sacraments of Initiation" many of the participants had experienced the RCIA either as being converts themselves or catechists and RCIA directors. But it was a lived experience. Last year when I taught the "Ministry to the Sick, Dying, and Bereaved" course. most of the participants had experienced communal anointing during Sunday Eucharist. In this course I found that the experience of many was that of scholastic confession -- though sometimes with some modern modifications.
The course will seem "different" when the sacrament we have been talking about is common practice in all the parishes of the the country.
Another difficulty is that many in leadership positions in the Church have not had experiential knowledge of the revised Sacramental Ritual. Consequently they continue to encourage "confession" and sponsor articles, programs, etc. that try to promote a practice that the great majority of Catholics have found no longer useful.
Hope for the Future
It has been my experience that good marriages create a climate of safety and acceptance in which persons --the children, and the spouses themselves -- can feel secure and are thus enabled to grow and develop. [Community life for vowed religious serves this same purpose.] I hope that each of you have experienced - and perhaps even created - such safe environments. I have friends in Cincinnati whose home is just such a "save environment" and I stay with them for a few days I can actually feel this "safe environment" in my body! I feel better, I sleep better, I even digest better. Growth takes place best in a "safe environment."
Hopefully, the Church is just such a "safe environment." Hopefully the Church is a place, a community, where people (especially young people) can feel safe and nurtured and accepted for it is only in this type of environment that their faith can develop.
Unfortunately, today many people do not find this kind of support in the worshiping community. News reports continually remind us of the exceptionally large numbers of Catholics who have left or are leaving the Church.
United States: The Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life finds no American faith group has lost more adherents than the Catholic Church; 10 percent of Americans are ex-Catholics. Germany: About 180,000 Catholics officially ended their church affiliation in 2010, a rise of 50,000 (or 40 percent) from 2009, according to the weekly Die Zeit newspaper. Mexico 2011: The poll showed 73% of young people perceive themselves as critical and indifferent to the Church, as opposed to 28% who consider themselves close to the Church.
It is not my task to discover why this is happening -- that is the responsibility of the bishops -- however I do believe that in the face of these statistics it is all the more important for us today to create worshiping communities in which a climate of safety and acceptance prevails. A climate in which participants can feel secure and are thus enabled to grow and develop. The celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation must take place in just such a supportive community. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is one of the principle ways in which we can create an environment of safety and acceptance. Proclaiming the God of Jesus, the God who loves us unconditionally, this is the message of Reconciliation! Jesus tell us clearly: "I came that [you] may have life, and have it abundantly." (John 10:10 NRSV) If I had to put into one sentence all that Jesus said and did -- all that Jesus tells us about "Who is God" -- I believe that sentence would be simply: "God is compassion, and the compassionate abide in God, and God abides in them." (I Jn. 14:16) This is what sacraments are REALLY about -- they are not merely about ceremonies and rituals -- but about ABUNDANT LIFE.
I hope that you have learned some new things during this course, but even more important, I hope you have received some insight into how you can love and proclaim this God of Jesus, this God of Abundant Life, so that together we can build a church that is clearly seen as the Sacrament of this welcoming God.
Peace be with you -- and thank you for letting me accompany you on this journey during the past 15 weeks and 1,680 postings.