Monday, October 16, 2006

Greetings in Christ!

Late last week, I had the privilege of receiving one of the healing sacraments. In other words: Confession, Reconciliation, Penance. Those names are all aspects of the one sacrament of forgiveness.

This is probably one of the least favourite sacraments. Arguably the other is probably Holy Orders!

Confession, as I tend to call it, is the act of publicly (to a priest) naming sins, and, hopefully, being absolved of those sins.

People tend to avoid this sacrament, often putting themselves in grave danger of being "guilty of the Body and Blood of Christ" as St. Paul said, by receiving the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist unworthily. The avoidance is akin the avoidance many people have of the doctor's office. They may well suspect they are ill, but don't want to hear it said aloud, as if this somehow makes the illness non-existent.

The illness dealt with by the sacrament of Reconciliation, as it is usually called at present, is the spiritual illness of sin. We all do it. If anyone has doubts, they only have to read Scripture to hear that "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God". Taking that sin into the confessional and speaking it aloud to the priest is a difficult thing to do.

Sin falls into two categories, Venial Sin and Mortal Sin. Venial sin is the type that damages, but does not break, the relationship between God and His people. Mortal sin, on the other hand, breaks the relationship between God and His people.

This is actually a scriptural distinction, although many are not aware of this. 1 John 5:17 (RSV): All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal. {KJV: "not unto death"}

The Church teaches us that all mortal sin must be confessed sacramentally in order to be absolved.

Venial sin can be absolved in several ways. During the Mass itself there is more than one instance when venial sin is absolved. We may say during Mass "I confess to Almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters that I have sinned through my own fault: in what I have done and what I have failed to do and I ask Blessed Mary, ever virgin, all the angels and saints and you my brothers and sisters to pray for me to the Lord, our God." This is in the Roman Canon, now called the first Eucharistic Prayer. In the Tridentine Rite, we would say "Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa" (By my fault, by my fault, by my most grievous fault) and acknowledge our sin. Just before Communion we now acknowledge our imperfection and say "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I ("my servant" in Scripture)will be healed.

What is the difference between mortal and venial sin? For a sin to mortal, it must involve grave matter and the sinner must have full knowledge of the sin and give it full consent.

It's pretty hard to commit a mortal sin accidently. In actuality, what is a mortal sin for one person, may be only a venial sin to another if they are ignorant of what they are doing.

Now, should ONLY mortal sins be confessed sacramentally? You might hear different things from different people. I think it is good to remember that no sin can enter heaven. If we persist in venial sin, we can find ourselves sliding into mortal sin without much thought. In a way, unrecognized venial sin desensitizes us to more serious sin. One speaker I heard likened unresolved venial sin to a callus that can grow over an irritation on our skin. It can make the irritation less irritating, and cause our conscience to go into a sort of hibernation.

Many people develop a devotional relationship to the sacrament of reconciliation. At one time it was not at all unusual for people to go to confession every week, before they received the Eucharist at Mass. Now, many people do not do the bare minimum, which is reconciliation once a year. Some people, however, go to confession regularly, monthly or even weekly.

Are these people greater sinners than other people? They may actually be less sinful. People who confess often get into the practice of monitoring their behaviour, with a mind to change what needs changing. They may do a daily examination of conscience, which has them deliberately reviewing the day's activity.

Regular confession to one confessor (that would be the priest) helps to expose recurrent behaviours and helps to eradicate them.

Some of our Protestant brethren take issue with confessing sins to a man and having him absolve. After all, priests are sinful people too, right?

Scripture very clearly gives the ability to bind and loose on earth and in heaven to the apostles (Matthew 18:18). By apostolic succession, this ability has been passed on to the priests of today.

The one actually absolving the sin is Christ. We say that the priest, when absolving sin, is acting 'in persona Christi Capitis'. By virtue of his holy orders, the priest is binding or loosing, in this case sin.

I try to receive this sacrament frequently. Frequently enough? I don't know. Sometimes, I feel very light when I am absolved. Sometimes I don't feel much of anything. But I am always touched when I hear the words of absolution. It is a tremendous gift. I can tell you quite cleary what my most persistent faults are! I confess, I mess up, and I confess again. I do not confess as a 'cop out' as some would say. I confess what I truly want to change.

Occasionally, and it is rare, I have been 'talked out' of a sin. The circumstances around what I saw as a sin were such that Father did not believe my behaviour was actually a sin. That can certainly give one a moment of thought!

Unfortunately, it can happen that the confessor does not believe in the confession of venial sin, and will discourage this practice. These men are really robbing the penitent of a great tool for achieving holiness! In a society which seems to like to tell us or show us that nothing is sinful, it can sometimes be a quite a challenge to take up the call to holiness.

I would challenge whomever finds himself (or herself) reading this to consider going to confession soon. For a Catholic, this is one of our most valuable gifts.

God Bless