Friday, February 20, 2015

Confess just one sin to the priest?

In seminary our professors shared stories of the "crazy days" (the general period of confusion [doctrinal, theological, liturgical] in the Church, lasting 20 years or more, soon after the Second Vatican Council concluded, until the 1980s, perhaps later), for instance, the abuse of General Absolution (Form III in the revised Rite of Penance), where certain bishops would hold giant penance services in stadiums, and then conclude with General Absolution. This practice was severely criticized by the Magisterium (for instance see the motu proprio Misericordia Dei issued by Pope St. John Paul II in 2002). We'd all laugh at the absurdity of it. Those crazy 70s. 

However, another version is something I experienced (it matters not where), in the mid 1990s, when I was in college. A penance service where after the Liturgy of the Word and the homily, the priest invited everyone present to come up to him in a line and whisper one sin for which he (the penitent) felt really sorry. I was relatively newly baptized, and didn't know any better. I cannot recall if I was limited to saying one sin, or whether it was even a sin we were supposed to share, or just one attitude, or attachment, or something like that. I was at that parish for a short time, and have never experienced anything like that since. 

It turns out, that this practice hasn't completely disappeared, and I've heard of places that still offer services like this, where penitents are told implicitly, if not explicitly, not to make what is known as an integral or complete, confession, which is what is required by the Church for a valid confession, under ordinary circumstances. 

And then we wonder why the Sacrament practically disappeared from the life of the Church?

So, just to be clear, this is what the Church teaches about an integral confession

First, confession to a priest is an important and essential part of the Sacrament. Without this, the Sacrament does not take place. The other elements are: a good examination of conscience, contrition, purpose of amendment (i.e., you are resolved to change and not to sin anymore), and acceptance of penance. 

Let's look at confession to a priest 

The Code of Canon Law:
Canon  960 Individual and integral confession and absolution constitute the only ordinary means by which a member of the faithful conscious of grave sin is reconciled with God and the Church. Only physical or moral impossibility excuses from confession of this type; in such a case reconciliation can be obtained by other means.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church 
1456 Confession to a priest is an essential part of the sacrament of Penance: "All mortal sins of which penitents after a diligent self-examination are conscious must be recounted by them in confession, even if they are most secret and have been committed against the last two precepts of the Decalogue; for these sins sometimes wound the soul more grievously and are more dangerous than those which are committed openly."(quoting the Council of  Trent)
Grave matter [one of the requirements for a sin to be mortal, i.e. dealing a death blow to the life of charity, of grace, in the soul] has to do with sins against the Ten Commandments. The Catechism again:
1858 Grave matter is specified by the Ten Commandments, corresponding to the answer of Jesus to the rich young man: "Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and your mother." The gravity of sins is more or less great: murder is graver than theft. One must also take into account who is wronged: violence against parents is in itself graver than violence against a stranger.
Mortal sins must be confessed, to the best of one's ability, in number and kind, with enough explanation so that the priest is able to judge the species, i.e. the nature of the sin. 
Canon 988. §1. A member of the Christian faithful is obliged to confess in kind and number all serious sins committed after baptism and not yet directly remitted through the keys of the Church nor acknowledged in individual confession, for which one is conscious after diligent examination of conscience.
§2. It is to be recommended to the Christian faithful that venial sins also be confessed.
An integral confession is one in which all the necessary steps for the Sacrament to take place are present -- 
  • A good examination of conscience
  • Contrition (i.e. sorrow for sin, or repentance)
  • Amendment of purpose
  • Confession to a Priest, including a full confession of mortal sins
  • Absolution by a Priest
  • Acceptance of Penance. (It is not necessary, technically, that one complete the penance. One should have the intention to do so, and it is recommended therefore to complete the penance soon after Confession. However, through no fault of one's own, if one forgets to perform the penance, the confession isn't rendered invalid.) 
(A note to those who are afflicted with scrupulosity. If this is a tendency you recognize, talk to a priest in the confessional about it and follow his advice. It is good, if you are able, to get a regular confessor who can know you and help you with this.)

The underlying foundation of all of this, is, of course, one's relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, one's desire to please God above all things, to love our neighbor as ourselves, to grow in virtue, i.e. in holiness, especially charity, and to fulfill our destiny as beloved sons and daughters of God -- to arrive at the life of beatitude in heaven with the angels and saints for all eternity. 

A penance service that simply asks the penitent to confess one sin is risking an invalid confession, if the penitent does not confess all mortal sins in number and in kind. If he does this in good faith, in ignorance, one might suppose that the Lord will not withhold His mercy, however, outside the Sacramental economy, we can't just say what God will or will not do. We are not his bosses! This kind of confusion defeats the whole purpose of the Sacrament, of the sacramental economy and the foundation of a visible Church by Our Lord! Fr. Z has a recent post where he rants precisely about this eventuality

I cannot understand why a priest would wilfully wish to subvert the practice of the Church in this regard, in something so central to the salvation of souls, the essential reason for the institution of the priesthood by Our Lord! 

If the reason given is that there is a lack of priests, well, goodness, we are not that short. In the United States, one can muster a good half a dozen to a dozen priests for a parish penance service fairly easily. In our area, all of our priests help out at nearby parishes (which for us means within about a 90 minute driving distance) regularly during Lent and Advent. We spend hours listening to long lines of penitents unburden their sins and receive the Lord's forgiveness and grace. To invent a shortage is disingenuous at best. 

The commission of a grave sin after baptism is a commonplace reality. However, its frequency does not change the fact that it is a serious matter. Our early forebearers in the faith took it so seriously, that many delayed baptism until they were older, or near dying! It is precisely to address this all too frequent reality of fallen human beings that, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and by the authority of the Church, the Sacrament of Penance, instituted by Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, developed its form to what we have today -- auricular confession of an individual penitent to a priest.

The fact that historically the Sacrament has taken different forms does not mean that the form it has today (and has had for centuries in the West) is therefore not suited to our time. The fact that the Church has determined this form, and that priests actually trust and obey the Church, is not a sign of rigidity or legalism or Pharisaism or clericalism or any of the other insults faithful priests are confronted with when they challenge the abuse of the Sacrament. Nor is it up to us priests on our own whim and authority, to simply recast the Sacrament as we wish. If this is all legalistic mumbo jumbo, why have the Sacrament at all? Why have any of the sacraments? Why have the Church? The hierarchy? The priesthood? Why not just dispense with this medieval nonsense and, being that we're so enlightened, ask God "directly?" Actually, why ask God at all? Why not absolve ourselves? Why not just make ourselves the arbiters of good and evil? 

That was tried once. It didn't quite work out, however. 

What if one happens to end up at a service, or with a priest, who makes this particular demand -- that the penitent only confess one sin? My suggestion would be to very gently ask the priest if he can hear a full, integral confession. If he refuses, go find another priest. 

And finally -- and this could easily become the subject of another blog post -- a plea to my brother priests -- the formula for absolution is not the place for creativity and expression of sentiment, pious or otherwise. Please stick to the formula, and do not leave any doubt or anxiety in the minds of your penitents whether they received a valid absolution. Please, Father. Please! 

For more, two very good articles by Jimmy Akin on this subject. 

Father Z also has a story about the Ass. of US Priests (a group I was unaware of), petitioning the US Bishops to institute widespread General Absolution. Great, let's just give up on the whole thing, already! 

Deus avertat!

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Auxilium Christianorum

St. Mary Help of Christians, Aiken, SC
On Monday, I was honored to be able to take part in the Mass for the dedication of the new parish church of St. Mary's Help of Christians parish, in Aiken, SC, in our neighboring diocese. I've known the pastor, Fr. Wilson, for many years, and had been following the progress of this project closely online. (The NLM blog has had a few posts about the project with lots of pictures -- such as this one.)

There was a large crowd gathered outside the church when we pulled up (one of our parishioners kindly offered to accompany and drive) in front of the church. The clergy were gathering in a room in the school, and at the beginning of the service, processed up to the doors, where the head of the building committee, along with Fr. Wilson, greeted Bishop Guglielmone of Charleston, presented him with plans for the building, and the key. The Bishop unlocked the doors, and the choir started a hymn as the procession into the new church began.