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The spiritual and moral power of God’s grace


One of two motions relating to the Sacrament of Penance passed by the Plenary Council in Sydney recommended that: ‘The Bishops Committee for Liturgy institute a sustained program of catechesis of the Sacrament of Penance to promote an understanding of the conditions for, and appropriate practice of, each of the three forms of the Rite of Penance’.

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The other motion referred to seeking permission from the Holy Father for the wider use on occasions of the third form of the Rite of Penance.

It’s a fair observation that the celebration of individual penance, reconciliation or confession has waned over the years in our parishes. The third form of the Rite brought huge numbers to our churches during Lent and Advent, but after its passing many have not continued with the individual celebration of the sacrament.

Whether the third Rite returns in the future or not, it is important for us to appreciate anew the value of individual confession as conveying God’s grace and with it a spiritual and moral power for change and transformation.

The Constitution on the Church in the Modern World speaks of human conscience in these words: ‘Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil…For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God.

His dignity lies in observing this law, by it he will be judged. His conscience is man’s most secret core, and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his heart.’

One of the most significant passages from Pope Francis’ post synodal exhortation on Love in the Family I believe is this: ‘We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them’.

The Sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation acknowledges and operates precisely in this realm, in one’s conscience.

Here the voice of God calls for goodness and love, and through the power of the cross of Christ, offers not only forgiveness but the spiritual and moral power of God’s grace to change.

The priest in confession stands in this sacred space, incarnating the voice of God into the very heart and soul of a person. It’s not counselling or instruction, neither is it in the public domain, and of its very nature must be confidential. It’s not about the priest, he is God’s human instrument.

It’s about assuring the penitent of a deep personal encounter with God. Here a heart and soul that recognises a wound can be healed. Here a conscience is formed anew. As hard as it is in confessing to another, in this case the priest, it helps to truly name and own one’s sinfulness precisely in a real concrete situation of weakness, which then makes room for God’s grace to forgive and renew.

A general sense of being a sinner and within sinful structures does not necessarily get to the heart of the matter.

It is within each human heart and mind that evil springs forth. Here is the initial source of all evil actions. Here is where evil must be acknowledged and confronted.

Our society proposes laws, penalties, sanctions, and education to solve our social problems. All necessary on a communal level of course, but no matter how comprehensive, binding or broadly made known, they will never be enough for conquering evil.

They are external and operate externally and you can’t legislate for virtue. It comes from within, from the echo of God’s voice and the power of His Spirit within each human heart.

In the Sacrament of Penance, the priest speaks into the wounded conscience of the person before him. He calls for a sincere act of repentance and purpose of amendment. He helps the penitent to accept the consequences of his actions so that he may not sin again.

The penance fits the seriousness of the sin. God, through the ministry of the priest has touched the heart and soul of a person with the offer of a spiritual and moral power for forgiveness, renewal and transformation.

Because the sacrament is in this sacred space of the encounter of God with one’s conscience it needs to be confidential. This then is why priests do not break the seal of confession.

The words of the Prophet Ezekiel, proclaimed recently in a weekday Mass, come to mind.

‘I shall remove the heart of stone from your bodies and give you a heart of flesh instead. I shall put my spirit in you and make you keep my laws.’

It’s not enough to know what’s right or even that we want to do it, but to have the power and strength from within to do it.

This is now what God promises us through the gift of the Holy Spirit.

It is in the Mass, when we remember that Jesus suffered and died for the forgiveness of our sins that the grace of forgiveness comes. At the beginning of each Mass, we call to mind our sins and our venial or everyday sins are forgiven.

But again it is for our benefit that the Church offers us the Sacrament of Penance for this deep personal experience of God’s healing grace and its ability to touch the very point of our human need.

We don’t have to wait for the Australian Bishops catechetical program on the three forms of the Rite of Penance to renew our appreciation of this sacrament. It’s here for us now to experience God’s forgiving and healing grace.

Fr Dean Marin is Vicar General of the Adelaide Archdiocese


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