Every month, we suggest a Faith Practice which you and your home, school or parish community might like to take on as part of your commitment for the Year of Faith. It is our hope that these simple practices will stir in us the ‘renewed conversion of the Lord’ that Pope Benedict XVI calls for in Porta Fidei (n. 6).
Faith Practice of the Month for March: Celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation
The call to repentance is central to the season of Lent. In the following article, Sandra DeGidio O.S.M. explains why we should consider attending – and truly celebrating – the Sacrament of reconciliation in the context of a Parish Reconciliation Service. Sr Sandra lectures and writes on topics such as RCIA, parish ministry, the family and the sacraments. This article is an abridged version of a chapter from her book, Reconciliation: Sacrament with a Future (St Anthony Messenger Press).
The well-known parable of the Prodigal Son (see Luke 15:11-32) is perhaps the most strikingly powerful illustration of the human process of reconciliation, and of the theology inherent in the new Rite of Reconciliation. However, many of us find it difficult to even believe this story, because it is not the way Catholics have traditionally viewed the Sacrament of Reconciliation. But the truth is that God really is like the merciful parent in this parable: not out to catch us in our sin but intent on reaching out and hanging on to us in spite of our sin. Reconciliation is not just a matter of getting rid of sin. Nor is its dominant concern what we, the penitents, do. The important point is what God does in, with and through us.
A journey home to God
God’s reconciling work in us doesn’t happen in an instant. Reconciliation is often a long, sometimes painful process. It is a journey not confined to, but completed in, sacramental celebration. It is a round-trip journey away from our home with God and back again that can be summed up in terms of three C’s: conversion, confession and celebration – and in that order.
In the past the order was different: receiving the sacrament meant beginning with a recitation of sins (confession). Then we expressed our sorrow with an Act of Contrition, agreed to make some satisfaction for our sins by accepting our penance, and resolved to change our ways (conversion). Celebration was seldom, if ever, part of the process.
The parable of the Prodigal Son can help us understand the stages in our journey to reconciliation – and the order in which they occur. This helps us see why the theology of the new Rite of Reconciliation suggests a reordering in the pattern that we were familiar with in the past.
The journey for the young man in the parable (and for us) begins with the selfishness of sin. His sin takes him from the home of his parents – as our sin takes us from the shelter of God and the Christian community. His major concern in his new self-centered lifestyle – as is ours in sin – is himself and his personal gratification. None of the relationships he establishes are lasting. When his money runs out, so do his ‘friends’. Eventually he discovers himself alone, mired in the mud of a pigpen, just as he is mired in sin. Then comes this significant phrase in the story: ‘Coming to his senses at last …’ This is the beginning of the journey back, the beginning of conversion. Confession, the aspect of the sacrament which used to receive the greatest emphasis, is now seen as just one step in the total process.
Confession of sin can only be sincere if it is preceded by the process of conversion. It is actually the external expression of the interior transformation that conversion has brought about in us. It is a much less significant aspect of the sacrament than we made it out to be in the past. This does not mean that confession is unimportant –only that it is not the essence of the sacrament.
Celebration is a word we haven’t often associated with the Sacrament of Reconciliation. But in Jesus’ parable, it is obviously important and imperative. ‘Quick!’ says the father. ‘Let us celebrate.’ And why? Because a sinner has converted, repented, confessed and returned. But celebration makes sense only when there is really something to celebrate. Each of us has had the experience of going to gatherings with all the trappings of a celebration – people, food, drink, balloons, bands – and yet the festivity was a flop for us. For example, attending an office party can be such an empty gathering for the spouse or friend of an employee. Celebration flows from lived experience or it is meaningless. The need for celebration to follow common lived experiences is especially true of sacramental celebrations. All of the sacraments are communal celebrations of the lived experience of believing Christians.
Sacramental celebrations are communal because sacramental theology is horizontal. Sacraments happen in people who are in relationship with each other and with God. In the area of sin, forgiveness and reconciliation this is particularly evident. Our sinfulness disrupts our relationship in community as well as our relationship with God. And since the sacrament begins with our sinfulness, which affects others, it is only proper that it culminate with a communal expression of love and forgiveness that embodies the love and forgiveness of God.
Previous Faith Practices of the Month:
October 2012: Pray part of the Rosary every day
November 2012: Praying for those who have died
December 2012: Enthroning the Christmas Crib
January 2013: Performing Corporal Works of Mercy
February 2013: Lenten Practices