The sacrament of penance may not be the most critical issue facing the church today, but I suspect it is an important one for many individual Catholics. Pope Francis has spoken frequently about confession over the past few years, including during one of his morning Masses in late January.
There are many reasons why Catholics choose not to go to confession these days. While Francis has mentioned a few -- such as embarrassment, shame and fear -- these were always impediments to confession, yet the faithful went regularly until recently.
Some would blame it on Vatican II, but conditions have changed pretty dramatically since the 1950s. Consider the sexual abuse scandal, which has radically changed how even Catholics view their priests.
As we come to understand more fully just how human our priests are, it becomes more difficult to see them as the representative of Christ on earth. It is more difficult to see Christ sitting behind the very human priest that we see in the confessional. We may just not feel like sharing our innermost secrets and failings with this guy, even though he has on a Roman collar and a stole.
I am not saying that confession cannot be a beautiful experience for individual Catholics at particular moments in their lives. I certainly would not recommend that individual confession be unavailable for those of us who need it or seek it at any point in time.
However, for those of us who grew up in a pre-Vatican II church, we remember only too well the canned recitation of real or imagined sins, followed by saying three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys for our penance.
Although individual confession may be different today, any encouragement to return to regular confession of either a weekly or even a monthly variety brings back the notion of recounting a series of petty grievances or minor transgressions. The beautiful nature of confession Francis is talking about is likely to come to an individual infrequently. Perhaps one might have only a few such experiences in an entire lifetime.
Francis brought up an important point last year in a similar exhortation to confession, and that is the universal nature of sin, how it impacts our brothers, and how it needs to be acknowledged before the whole church.
Such an understanding is precisely the point of a communal penance service and general absolution. It highlights the common element of our sins, which we acknowledge as part of the community, not just to the priest but to each other. It is unfortunate that Francis notes the communal nature of sin and then finds confession to an individual priest sufficient to address this broader notion of sin.
If general absolution were available through communal penance services at Christmas and Easter, it would highlight how our sin affects the entire community. These services when done well lead to a greater awareness of sin and the damage sin does to ourselves and others. What it provides is something that cannot be obtained from an individual examination of conscience and confession to a priest.
Francis’ commitment to confession seems to have drowned out any discussion of general absolution but it should not. The value of a penance service that has been prepared carefully with attention to the ways in which our actions impact our community is considerable.
The church has seldom provided an opportunity or forum for Catholics to come together to acknowledge and recognize their mutual responsibility to their neighbors. It can have great value. It is in keeping with Francis’ words about the nature of sin in a way that individual confession does not. Individual confession has in fact made sin a personal affair and impeded the recognition of how what we do must be considered in the context of the entire community.
Just because Francis has chosen to advocate for more individual confessions does not mean that a discussion of general absolution should be silenced anymore than a discussion about female priests should be silenced. The communal nature of sin and reconciliation cannot be highlighted by a private recitation of sins in the secrecy of the confessional, but it can be enhanced by coming together and recognizing how our faults have impacted ourselves, our neighbors, and yes, our church.
That is not something to be shared with an individual man, priest, but with the whole church.