Today, within our discussion of the use of the word “convert,” Deacon Augustine posted a thoughtful and relevant comment, mentioning in the course of his post that some refer to the sacrament of Penance as Confession rather than as Reconciliation, and they often use the form of the rite that begins “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.”
Deacon Augustine is correct and I understand his point. The preferred name, at least for the present, is Reconcilation. And there has been a formal revision to the form of the rite that makes the traditional opening line unnecessary. As Pope John Paul II of blessed memory teaches us his Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliato et Paenitentia, the sacrament is about more than transactional absolution, it is a rich expression of God’s love for us and God’s desire to be united with us.
What does this have to do with the Anglican Patrimony? Plenty. The rite is a part of the experience of some, but not all, clergy and faithful coming from Anglican traditions. But, for those who enter the Ordinariate, it will be important to all. And the rite will undoubtedly find in the Ordinariate a distinctively Anglican Catholic expression.
The broad subject of Penance, aka Confession, aka Reconciliation, presents a large and complex set of issues. I don't think it is correct to say that any one of the three terms is wrong.
Excessive focus on the sacrament as a transaction gives short shrift to the reconciliation theory. But there is also risk that excessive focus on the reconciliation model can deprive the faithful of a pastorally essential assurance of absolution. The fact is, for many Catholics, particularly those of us who were formed prior to or during the early 1960s, our understanding of God's mercy is formal, Roman, juridical, technical, legalistic, and transactional. It is not particularly mystical or in a sociological sense relational.
Some who are better catechized, or more recently catechized, may view this is as a bad attitude, a wrong attitude, or an attitude that shows insufficient appreciation for God's love for us. I would not agree. There certainly are broader, and more sophisticated, and more mysterious ways to look at the sacrament. And we should be open to learning about them as John Paul has urged. But in the mean time, while we await a perfectly enlightened world, people have a need to be healed. We need to confront our guilt, we need to convict ourselves of our failures, we need to express our regret and, most importantly, we need to be assured of God's mercy – and in the most concrete possible way; specifically, that God's mercy has been administered directly to me, a sinner, and that I am certainly and undeniably absolved.
Some penitents are better equipped than others to gain solace from the more subtle and more mystical understanding of the sacrament. But the scripture reflection that is an optional part of the present form of the rite is not the most important thing to me. Focusing on the juridical and transactional nature of the sacrament is not a bad thing; it is a good thing if it brings peace to the penitent.
Obviously, the best confessors administer God's mercy with some flexibility as to form and with great sensitivity to the penitent's individual pastoral needs.
And so, again, what does all of this have to do with the Anglican Patrimony? I will argue that, in the administration of the sacrament of Penance, as in the offering of the Mass, Anglican values will bring forth concrete, tangible symbols that will comfort those among us who may be weaker in faith and in greater need of assurance.
In a parish where I used to worship, I joked that we store cleaning supplies in the confessionals and make our confessions in the janitor’s closet. And it was literally true. The janitor’s closet had been converted to a Chapel of Reconcilation, and in a most minimalist way. The use of the confessionals had been completely abandoned, and confessionals were no longer meaningful symbols of our faith, so why not adopt the obvious utilitarian application? Perhaps these curious closets were formally deconsecrated from sacramental use before the mop buckets were rolled in; I don’t know.
Would this mistake ever be made, in an Ordinariate church, by one of our priests? I don’t think so. I hope not.
Over the ages the Church has in its inspired wisdom evolved forms and rubrics for the sacraments that meet the psychological and spiritual needs, as well as the intellectual and moral needs, of the people. The psychologically natural postures and forms for Divine worship have been preserved in the Anglican Patrimony. When we go to Mass in a high Anglican environment, we know we have been to Mass! And form matters – lex orandi, lex credendi.
And so it is with Reconciliation/Confession/Penance. If we have entered a holy place, knelt reverently before a holy minister who sits in persona Christi, named our sins, stated our contrition, and heard the words of absolution, then we know with certainty that we have been absolved. If we had some lesser experience, perhaps in the janitor’s closet, where we were assured of God's love and were technically absolved, but without any comfort-giving frills, then we might just emerge with a vague feeling of being sent empty away. I am confident that our Ordinariate priests will be sufficiently attentive to individual needs and external forms that this outcome will be unlikely.
Be sure to follow our Moderator at Eccentric Bliss, his personal blog!