By Rev. Frank Morrisey

The sacrament of forgiveness needs to be rediscovered by Catholics today

Unfortunately, of all the sacraments, the sacrament of reconciliation seems to be the less favoured by the faithful today. Since the late 1960s, regular individual participation in this sacrament has fallen off considerably. Various forms and methods have been used, but the people are telling us something and it will be important to listen to what is being said by them in regard to this sacrament and to renew our forms of celebration.

Hopefully, with time, the value of reconciliation will be re-discovered and, once again, the faithful will feel called to partake frequently of its saving graces.

Canon 959 places sin today within the context of the life of the church itself, and no longer limits it to an exclusive personal relationship with God. Sin affects the entire community. For this reason, the canon mentions two consequences of the sacrament: forgiveness for sins committed after baptism; reconciliation with the church whom they have offended by sinning.

The canon also lists five general elements to be found in this sacrament: 1) a confession of sins (which presupposes an examination of conscience); 2) a legitimate minister; 3) sorrow for sins committed (sometimes called “contrition”); 4) the intention of reforming oneself; and 5) reception of absolution imparted by the same minister. To this list, we should add a sixth element: satisfaction (penance) as a sign of the personal commitment that the Christian has made to God in the sacrament.

Shortly after the promulgation of the 1983 Code, John Paul II issued the post-synodal exhortation Reconciliatio et paenitentia (Dec. 2, 1984). In this, he mentions that since the sacrament was instituted by Christ, it would be presumptuous to disregard this means of grace and forgiveness. He notes that the sacrament also brings about reconciliation at three levels: with God, with oneself, and with the church community.

Canon 960 presents a general principle: “individual and integral confession and absolution” is the only ordinary means of celebrating the sacrament. There can, of course, be other means, which are not ordinary. These include: an act of perfect contrition (see canon 916), and, in certain instances, general absolution (the “third rite” as it is often called).

Can. 965 states that only a priest is the minister of the sacrament of penance, not a deacon, or a pastoral assistant. In addition to being ordained, a priest needs to have special faculties to exercise the ministry of confessor. However, even though he lacks these faculties, he absolves validly and licitly any penitents whatsoever in danger of death from any censures and sins, even if an approved priest is present. This is one of the broadest canons in the code.

On the other hand, one of the most stringent canons relating to the sacrament of penance concerns the seal of confession. According to canon 983, the sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason. This canon is one that contains no exceptions. The seal is simply “inviolable.”

This places a heavy burden on confessors who are also subject to civil law requirements of denouncing sexual abuse of minors, when this is known only through the confessional. Even if the civil law were to so require, the confessor is absolutely forbidden to make such a denunciation, unless he can encourage the penitent to reveal this matter outside the confessional. In the past, some have even been put to death for refusing to violate the seal (St. John Nepumocene, for instance).

To be able to act otherwise and reveal what was heard would make the sacrament terribly odious for the penitent.

No confessor ever regretted observing this highest form of secrecy. It is interesting to note that even priests who are dismissed from the priesthood are not heard of breaking the seal — which lasts for life. It is also a question of human dignity and respect.

Parallel to this is another canon on the use of knowledge acquired in the confessional. The priest cannot do anything that he wouldn’t have done but for the fact of having heard confessions. Thus, if, for instance, a person were to mention in confession that he or he has been stealing from the poor box, the priest cannot then go and change the locks.

One of the first dispositions required on the part of the penitent for the reception of the sacrament of reconciliation is “suitable disposition” of mind and heart (canon 987). This is accompanied by a “firm purpose of amendment.” If there is no sorrow for sin, the sacrament becomes a mockery. It is up to the confessor to verify that the penitent has the proper disposition and, if something is lacking, to try and help this penitent reach the proper state of mind.

Sometimes, all that can be done is to lead the penitent to be sorry that he or she is not sorry for the sins committed, especially when the penitent is in an inextricable situation. It is in situations like this that the Lord’s mercy for sinners has to be made known through the ministry of the confessor.

After having reached the age of discretion, each member of the faithful is obliged to confess faithfully his or her grave sins at least once a year (canon 989).

Morrisey is a professor emeritus of canon law at Saint Paul University, Ottawa, and has been very active over the years in the field of canon law, especially as it applies to dioceses and religious institutes. This is his 17th article in a series.

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