Standing in Need of Mercy

June 11, 2007


Have you ever stood deeply in need of God’s mercy?

Were you ever reluctant to confess your sins to a priest? To expose yourself as a sinner before another person?

Have you ever had a powerful experience of God’s reconciling embrace in the Sacrament of Penance?

Have you ever described that mystery to anyone else?

The answers to those questions are the making of mystagogy—a practice desperately needed by the Church today.

When the rites of Christian Initiation were revised in the 1970s, I feared two things: that translators would find a more “relevant” word than mystagogy; and that the last stage in the process would be eclipsed entirely. While we have survived the first hurdle and the word “mystagogy” remains in our texts if not in our hearts, I am not so sure that we yet understand the spiritual significance of the last stage, or the importance of engaging in the practice more systematically.  It is particularly important for the Sacrament of Penance today.

“Why do I have to confess my sins to a priest?” is surely the first question that comes whenever a discussion of the Sacramental Reconciliation begins today.  In this era when the Faithful are more comfortable with speaking directly to God without need of heavenly intermediaries, it is not a surprising question.  Theologically, though, one is not actually confessing to a priest, but rather to God and to the Church.  “God grants pardon for sin through the Church, which works by the ministry of the priests.”[1]  The priest is in persona Christi, effecting the real presence of Christ, comforting, advising, strengthening the sinner and finally giving voice those wonderful, merciful words of forgiveness: 

            God, the Father of mercies,
            through the death and resurrection of his Son
            has reconciled the world to himself
            and sent the Holy Spirit among us
            for the forgiveness of sins;
            through the ministry of the Church
            my God give you pardon and peace,
            and I absolve you from your sins
            in the name of the Father, and of the Son
            and of the Holy Spirit.[2]

The confessional horror stories recounted by some latter day Catholics are really stories about sacramental malpractice.   One should consider being as judicious about selecting a confessor as about selecting a physician.  We need confessors who will care for our souls and assist us in the struggle to be more faithful disciples of Jesus.

Catholics have grown spiritually in the last four decades.  Listening to the scriptures proclaimed in their own language, praying the psalms in response and singing God’s praises in songs and hymns most often based on Scripture has subtly but surely reshaped them.  Rather than just measuring ourselves up against a list of commandments rooted in Mosaic Law, the Gospel message and particularly the Beatitudes are more often our spiritual measuring rod today.

Into the stoney darkness of those tiny confessionals where people, focused only on their failures, and anonymously shed all of their shameful sins, the bishops gathered at Vatican Council II spoke:

The rite and formulas [sic] for the sacrament of penance are to be revised so that they give more luminous expression to both the nature and effect of the sacrament.[3]

“Luminous expression!”  It only stands to reason: if there is anything that unites us as a human community it is our propensity to sin.  Jesus came to call sinners to himself, not the self-righteous, as we are reminded in the Gospel.  Hidden away in darkened confessionals, ashamed to be seen in our true humanity, later-day Catholics were far from celebrating the forgiveness experienced through Jesus and with the Church  We are forgiven!  This is cause for celebration—in the light not the dark.

The Rite of Penance was developed over a number of years by the consilium[4] charged with that task.  The resulting rite provides the community with three different modes of sacramental celebration, each of which emphasizes the healing ministry of the Church.[5]  The basic structure of the ritual is the same for each mode:

The priest greets the penitent warmly, they make the sign of the cross, and then the priest invites the penitent to have trust in God:

            May God, who has enlightened every heart,
            help you to know your sins
            and trust in his mercy.[6]

Priest (or penitent) reads or recites a Scripture passage which proclaims God’s mercy and calls us to conversion, after which the penitent confesses his or her sins and receives the priest’s counsel.  The priest proposes an act of penance which the penitent accepts, and then invites the penitent to express his or her sorrow in prayer.

Laying his hands on or over the penitent’s head, the priest gives absolution and concludes the rite.

Dr. Julia Upton, RSM is Provost of St. John's University, Jamaica, New York and author of:  A Time for Embracing: Reclaiming Reconciliation (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1999) ISBN-10: 0814623735; ISBN-13: 978-0814623732; A Church for the Next Generation: The Sacraments in Transition (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1990) ISBN-10: 0814619525; ISBN-13: 978-0814619520; and Becoming a Catholic Christian (Mahwah, NJ: Pastoral Press, 1998) ISBN-10: 1569290032; ISBN-13: 978-15692900.

[1] Rite of Penance 6.  [Hereafter RP.]

[2] RP 55.

[3] Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 72 as found in The Documents of Vatican II, edited by Walter M. Abbott, S.J. (New York: Herder and Herder, 1966).  All further references to the Conciliar documents of Vatican II are to this text.

[4] Actually there were two successive groups that worked on the reform of this Rite.  For the complete story see Annibale Bugnini, The Reform of the Liturgy 1948-1975, trans. Matthew J. O'Connell. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1990) 664-677.

[5] The rite was available for use in the dioceses of the United States in 1974, but its use was not required until the First Sunday of Lent in 1978.  It contains three sacramental rituals for the celebration of Penance: individual confession and absolution; a communal service with individual confession and absolution; a communal service with collective absolution.  Use of the third form is restricted according to need.

[6] RP 42

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