The Sacrament of Penance is Not For Losers

Year of Faith 2012 to 2013 logoReaders will know that I am rather keen on the Sacrament of Penance (Confession, Reconciliation), which is as it should be, since individual confession was originally a monastic practice which spread to the whole Church. It also means that I am for once ‘on trend’ since we are all being encouraged to revisit the sacrament during this Year of Faith, and it is my hope and prayer that we shall rediscover its spiritual benefits. We won’t do so, however, unless we are clear about what is involved. Catholics of my generation will be able to name the essential elements for valid reception of the sacrament: contrition, confession, absolution and satisfaction (reparation) — see The Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos 1422 to 1523. Of these, reparation is often overlooked yet it seems to me so fundamental that I find myself wondering how we can have forgotten it.

The truth is probably that we find it difficult and therefore try to have forgiveness on the cheap, so to say. Reparation, seeking to make amends for what we have done, brings home to us the ugliness of sin and reminds us that absolution and performance of the penance given by our confessor are really only the first steps in putting things right. Having to apologize to someone we have treated badly; having to admit that we are responsible for some failure or other; having to put right an injustice, these are not easy options. It becomes much worse when we feel we cannot right a wrong because the person or persons we have injured is dead or in some way unreachable. Then we must rely on prayer and the grace of God to effect what no amount of human striving can achieve.

In the end, of course,  everything depends on God, from the first movement of contrition to the final act of reparation. Only he can make right what we have done wrong, but while we rely on his grace, we must never fall into the sin of presumption. The Sacrament of Penance treats us as responsible human beings and invites our co-operation in grace. It is definitely not for ‘losers’.

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A Deep Sense of Shame

The sex abuse scandals coming to light in the Catholic Church have appalled everyone. As a woman, I find it incomprehensible that anyone could think of abusing a child or young person. I’m sure most men feel the same way. In vain do some argue (what is actually true) that Catholic clergy are statistically less likely to be abusers than married men. The stories of abuse, the cover-ups, the ineptitude of many ‘official’ responses have left us all reeling. As a Benedictine, I feel a deep sense of shame that Benedictine monks have been among the offenders. I’ve known some of them, and it is painful to record that I’ve heard them preach, received the sacraments at their hands, even been lectured on how I ought to live while they themselves were breaking their vow of chastity and injuring those entrusted to their care. How does one deal with one’s feelings of disgust and betrayal?

One way would be to say, I will have nothing more to do with any of them. They are all hypocrites and liars and have profaned the holy of holies. A little bit of me does want to do that, if I’m honest. A bigger bit of me wants to say, perhaps even this can be a source of purification for the Church. Perhaps there will be less arrogance among the clergy. An even bigger bit of me wants to lament the evil that has been done and pray for all who suffer as a result, especially those who are losing many of the services the Church has traditionally provided because of the discrediting of the institution along with some of its members — the compensation payments to those who have been abused do not come out of thin air. Most of all, however, I want the Church, and the Monastic Order in particular, to ask itself how this could have come about. A scandal is literally something that causes us to stumble, that deflects us from the right way. Some people have accused us as nuns as being in some way in ‘collusion’ with the monks. That is nonsense, but I think it highlights the fact that a deep sense of shame is not enough. The past cannot be changed, but it can be redeemed and everyone of us has a part to play in that.

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