SIN, FORGIVENESS, & THE SACRAMENT OF PENANCE PART 4: THE SACRAMENT OF PENANCE (cont.)

“Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The fervent prayer of a righteous person is very powerful… My brothers, if anyone among you should stray from the truth and someone bring him back, he should know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:16, 1920).

As discussed in last week’s column, the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation has its roots in Christ’s entrusting the power to forgive sins, and thus also the power to determine how best to do so, to the Church through the ministry of the apostles. The earliest form this took was Baptism, when people would repent of their sins and be washed clean, receiving a new, risen life free of sin. As time went on, it became apparent to the early Church that, though freed from sin in Baptism, Christians were still capable of sinning and in need of the forgiveness of God and reconciliation with the community after Baptism. So the Church developed the rite of canonical penance, a lengthy process involving public confession and penance that could take months or even years until the sinner was forgiven and welcomed back into the community by the bishop, a process that, like Baptism, could only be done once. Canonical penance was the norm in much of the early Church until a new approach to forgiveness and reconciliation began in Ireland around the 5th and 6th centuries.

Early Irish Christianity was unique for a number of reasons, primarily because of its origins in the work of missionary monks. The monks of Ireland practiced a form of fraternal correction within their monasteries in which members of the community would meet privately with wiser, more spiritually gifted members to seek spiritual guidance. These meetings often included a private confession of sins and the assignment of private penance. Unlike other monks of that time, the monks of Ireland did not seek to escape the evil in the world but to confront it head on through missionary work. Their monasteries served as bases of operation from which they preached and taught and converted the pagans around them. Through this interaction between the monks and those they converted to Christianity, lay people also began coming to the monks for spiritual guidance, which again included private confession of sins and the assignment of private penance.

With Ireland converted, the missionary monks sought new souls to save, and so they traveled to continental Europe, much of which, especially in the north, remained pagan. The monks brought their practice of private confession and penance with them, and it soon caught on and spread throughout Europe until, by the 16th century at the Council of Trent, it was officially recognized by the Church as the ordinary way of celebrating the sacrament. With some minor changes throughout the years since, this is the form of the sacrament that we celebrate still today, and what a gift it is. So, as you get out your green and celebrate St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, this weekend, remember one more reason to celebrate and thank God and the Irish monks of old for the modern sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation.

Fr. Marc Stockton


 

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Outside of hurricane season, people looking for news coverage about anything except politics these days have pretty much adopted a lost cause.  The Democrats, the Republicans, and the president chase each other around in a circle, like a Tom and Jerry cartoon, only it isn’t funny.  Hours of television and radio shows, reams of newspapers and magazines, and countless blogs and websites bombard us daily with endless sound bites and analysis.  This side says this, this side says that.  This politician promises this, this politician promises that.  And so it goes, the politico’s waging a war of words for the heart of our nation, and here we are in the middle of it all asking ourselves, who really speaks for the people?  Who, if anyone, can claim that authority?

 

I will not even attempt to answer that, but I offer this example because our gospel reading raises a similar question.  In a world of many different, often competing, religions, who really speaks for God?  Who, if anyone, has that authority?  If our gospel reading is true, WE do, not by nature or by our own merits, but as an amazing gift and grave responsibility.

 

            Initially, today’s gospel seems rather superficial.  The first half reads like a student handbook, laying out a simple plan for discipline in the early Church.  But the second half digs deeper. Discipline requires authority.  All authority throughout the Scriptures ultimately comes from God, from the very beginning, when he disciplines Adam and Eve, through the Old Testament, as he repeatedly chastises his faithless People, right up to Christ himself, who, though completely free of sin, obeys the Father’s will and bears “the chastisement of us all” by becoming flesh and dying on the cross.  All authority in heaven and on earth comes from God. 

But, because of his obedient self-sacrifice, the Father gives all authority in heaven and on earth to his Son.  And, in today’s gospel, Jesus gives this authority to the community of disciples, the Church.

 

            Jesus gives the Church the authority to bind and loose, in this world and the next.  But that isn’t all.  He promises us that whenever the community agrees about ANYTHING for which we are to pray, it will be granted to us by our Father.  Jesus gives us the authority of God, all power in heaven and on earth, and he guarantees this promise by his continued presence with us through all time.  “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them,” he tells us, and he means it.

 

            Some of us may doubt this promise.  We can all probably think of an example of when we prayed desperately for something, and it didn’t happen.  We started prayer chains, offered Mass intentions, lit votive candles, prayed rosary after rosary on our knees, pleading with God, but still did not get what we wanted.  And maybe, for a while, we gave up on God. But remember Jesus’ words, “Where two or three are gathered IN MY NAME.”  Only when we gather in HIS NAME do we exercise his authority, and to gather in his name and exercise his authority means surrendering to the Father’s will, not trying to bend the Father to ours.

 

 

 

Think of the night before Jesus died.  He, too, questioned the Father.  Jesus struggled to see how the cross could accomplish God’s plan.  “Father, let this cup pass from me,” he begged, so intensely that he sweat blood.  But he continued, “Not my will; YOUR will be done.”  He surrendered himself completely to the Father’s will, and, through the defeat of the cross, triumphed over death.

 

Christ IS with us, always, even to the end of the age, but only if WE are with HIM, doing the Father’s will, do we share his authority.  Few people are called to do this through actual martyrdom, but we are all called to do this through obedient self-sacrifice.  Think of another image from the night before Christ died, before he went to the garden.  He reclined with his disciples at table, and, during the meal, he got up, wrapped a towel around his waist, and washed his disciples’ feet.  When he had finished, he said to them, “You call me teacher and master, and rightly so, for indeed I am.  If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet.  I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”  Obedient self-sacrifice through loving service of others.  That is the will of the Father for us; that is how we exercise the authority of God, an authority of, and for, service.

 

            Who speaks for God?  Who has that authority?  WE do.  All power in heaven and on earth has been given to us by Christ.  May we exercise it generously by obediently surrendering to God’s will and sacrificing ourselves in loving service of others.