Wednesday night I carted myself over to the Catholic Church in the town where I live for its Lenten Penance Service. My wife and I are registered members of the parish where she served as principal, in the next town over. The local church here holds more than passing interest for me, though, as (1) I was pastor of that church for a decade, and (2) I built the church in use today. I probably attend a Mass or service about once a year in my old site, usually with the melody of “What have they done to my song?” running through my head. The parish has changed a great deal since I transferred in 1988. Aside from the deacon, I met no one I knew (except for other parishioners from my present parish!). The demographics have changed significantly; a current parishioner told us the parish was now 75% Hispanic. I don’t know if that is precisely true; visually it appeared to be, as most of the priests at the service spoke Spanish and the Hispanic lines for confession were much longer than the “Anglo” lines, unscientific as that is. The service itself was bilingual; the jury is still out in my own mind about the “liturgical aesthetics” of multi-language celebrations.
But despite these distractions I was able to celebrate the sacrament of Penance in a fashion that Canon Law would have recognized as valid in its form. I confessed to the church’s pastor, an old friend whom I know to be a good confessor from past experience. (He was also the celebrant, and still wore his wireless mike, which I prayed was in the “off” setting.) Overall the service was a lift: the rapid approach of Good Friday, the tradition among at least some Catholics to confess at this solemn time, the spirituality and compassion of a good confessor—certainly the impact of the rite was a spiritual enhancement of the celebration of the Triduum next week.
For some time, though, dating back to my years as a pastor, I have had the impression that the Sacrament of Penance needs studious attention by the Church today. For the moment I am setting aside the issue of limited participation, and turning instead to the pastoral penitential landscape. Some history here might be helpful. While the post-Vatican II Roman Missal for the Eucharist was promulgated in 1970, the official rite for the Sacrament of Penance was not released until 1975. Several conflicting forces were in play: the long-standing and still binding canonical directive that every serious (or mortal) sin be confessed with precision; the liturgical norm that all Sacraments be celebrated around the proclamation of Scripture; the Biblical reemphasis that sin is collective as well as individual; and finally, developments in twentieth century moral theology (in which my generation was schooled) that looked at sin as an attitude, or more appropriately, a fundamental option in a person’s life. (In fairness, this fourth point, most frequently associated with Father Bernard Haring, has come under significant criticism; I myself have some issues with its pastoral implications.)
Attempting to serve many masters here, the Vatican released three different formats for the celebration of the Sacrament of Penance. A full documentation is available here from England/Wales. Formula One (not to be confused with European auto racing) is the celebration of the sacrament by a priest and single penitent, as in the common Saturday afternoon confession. However, the order of the interaction was revised and included, first and foremost, a proclamation of scripture and a rich array of penitential prayers. While the secrecy of the confessional makes it virtually impossible to know if confessors were and are compliant with the Vatican directive, I can say that back in the 1980’s my then bishop, Thomas J. Grady, issued a letter instructing all confessors to use the Vatican rite when hearing individual confessions. We wondered at the time if it was possible to use the full rite with penitents in the “Saturday hour before Mass” traditional time slot.
Formula Two (probably better named Formula 1.5) is the Advent and Lenten Penance service you may be accustomed to (though it may be celebrated at any time a group is gathered, as on retreat, for example.) Formula Two assumes a group of penitents gathered together who, led by the celebrant, essentially follow the program of Formula One, though with congregational singing, an expanded Liturgy of the Word, and homily. Formula Two attempts to awaken an awareness of collective sin and Christ’s death “for all.” However, confession of sin is undertaken individually to the celebrant and other priests invited to accommodate the large numbers of penitents. Practically speaking, the actual individual confession is of necessity quite brief, as is the confessor’s input.
Formula Three is just about identical to the previously described rite, except for one truly notable exception. In this rite there is no individual confession, but rather a “general absolution” of all those gathered with the appropriate intention to seek forgiveness. This General Absolution was identical to that administered in the confessional; mortal sin as well as venial was forgiven. Granted, the Vatican directives for this rite came with more asterisks than the tax code, but to many priests of the time—myself included—the official acceptance of an absolution rite without confession opened a great many doors to evangelization and restoring lapsed Catholics to the practice of the faith. GA removed the obstacle of “face-to-face shame.” In the 1980’s the GA format was immensely popular in my diocese, though not with the new pope John Paul II, who maintained that individual confession of sin should enjoy status as the normative way of celebrating Penance, and in my diocese the use of the GA format was forbidden in the early 2000’s.
It would seem then that at this juncture we presently work with structures that do two things well: (1) canonically and effectively forgive sins confessed, and (2) arouse a personal compunction or emotional/spiritual catharsis in the preparation and execution of the penitent. What we are not doing well is celebrating this Sacrament in full communion with the Church community, making the essential connection between Penance and Scripture, and providing opportunities for the confessor to assist penitents in coping with habitual or attitudinal sin (such as racism) or in developing spiritual direction and growth in virtue. Or put another way, Penance is presently celebrated toward the immediate past rather than toward a flowering future.
Sorry to tell you I've been under the weather yesterday and today, but I expect business back to usual tomorrow, Saturday.
When I am teaching Christology or other courses focusing on the nature and person of Jesus Christ, I always get a mild look of surprise when I observe that Jesus was born a Jew, lived a Jew, and died a Jew. He never repudiated his religious identity. In fact, he wept over the holy city of Jerusalem as he projected its future destruction at the hands of the Romans. Jesus is so Jewish, in fact, that his Good Friday burial was rushed so that even his closest mourning followers could observe the Sabbath and wait the required 36 hours before returning to dress his body for permanent interment on what would become Easter Sunday. Possibly one of the earliest Christian sermons to survive, Acts 2:14-36, depicts Peter proclaiming Jesus as the fulfillment of all of Hebrew history through the set plan of God. The author of Acts noted that 3000 listeners were baptized that day; however, the baptism here is of the Baptist’s model, forgiveness of sin, specifically the sin of complicity in the killing of Jesus, and not an “incorporating” baptism (to cite St. Paul’s theology of baptism) into a new religious cult.
To speak of a freestanding Christianity in the first several generations after the crucifixion is anachronistic. The followers of the resurrected Jesus remained Jews and worshipped in the Temple. The Eucharistic meal was celebrated separately on a Sunday morning (our Monday, actually). Stresses between Jews who believed Jesus was the promised savior and the larger body of Jewish observant may have been dramatic, but they were also sporadic. We know of St. Stephen’s stoning for his forceful preaching in the Temple; he is accused by his enemies in Acts 6:14 of preaching that Jesus had come “to destroy this place and change the customs.” On the other hand, the early followers of Jesus defended these customs so carefully that Peter and Paul nearly came to blows over the issue of circumcision as part of the membership process into the Eucharistic table fellowship.
So what, really, was the great sin of Israel that has driven the two millennia of Christian polemic and mistreatment against the Jews? Is it Matthew’s Good Friday line, “Let his blood be upon us and upon our children?” (Matthew 27:25) This was a favorite source for Christian antagonists, but modern day popes and scholars have put this line in its proper context as a uniquely Matthean construction that is not included in the other Gospels and thus historically unlikely.
St. Paul probably has it right in 1 Corinthians 1:23 where he describes Jesus’ death and suffering on the cross as “folly to the Greeks and blasphemous to the Jews.” For large numbers of faithful Jews, the idea that Yahweh, whose name was so holy as to be unmentionable, would become a man, and worse, undergo the kind of death that can only be imagined today, was psychologically impossible to embrace. The “crime” that would launch a thousand persecutions and ultimately the Holocaust was a “crime” of devotion to the dignity of God as they understood Him. What a strange thing. How do we explain it?
Better men than I have tried. One of the best is Paul Johnson, whose masterful study of the Jewish people I will highlight tomorrow. When I reviewed Johnson’s study a few years back, I wrote that in my own mind “the Jews have lived what Christianity has professed.” With the final destruction of Jerusalem in 130, the Jews, like Christ, had nowhere to rest their heads, and have lived much of the Christian era at the mercy of hosts. Under these circumstances Jewish communities have maintained identity by a strict loyalty to the Scriptures, Law, rubric of worship, and strong family ties, even those over long distances, and with a determined piety that has put Christians to shame
But the most remarkable achievement of Christian era Jews has been the profound ability to carry forward a vision of hope with a sense of purposeful suffering in this world. Paul Johnson writes with great respect and awe of a collective spirituality among Jews in the death camps, that even this terrible extermination, in some way, would serve its purpose in the design of God. (Thus, the “holocaust-deniers” are more diabolic than even they know.)
The Jews may have found the cross blasphemy, but the world seems to find the Jews intolerable, faithful adherents to a piety that most of us do not understand and many of us fear.
For Folks Who Can't Read Everything