As a Baby Boomer and lifetime Catholic, I sometimes feel that I have lived more than one life. With regard to world events, I was born during World War II and grew up during the Korean and Vietnamese wars, suffered through 9/11 and more recently watched as we entered into wars with Iraq and Afghanistan.
Concerning the Catholic Church, I grew up during the years before Vatican II and, during my seminary training, experienced first-hand the transition to a Post-Vatican II liturgy and church life. Make no mistake about it – my life changed considerably during those years. I have “grown up” in more ways than one.
Some may describe those years as turbulent, as some were; others may term them “growing years” as they certainly were. Concerning my own faith-life, I view those years as time for self-reflection, enlivening of the center of my faith, and opportunities to “blossom into” my ministry as a priest.
From my junior college and novitiate years, Vatican II was emerging with its new view of personal faith, the Church, Sacraments and the place of priests and laity within the changing landscape. In a sense, I grew along with the Church in her sense of ministry and purpose within our new view of the world as a global community and a place in need of our care and ecological attention.
In my own early experience of confession, I remember well when I would fearfully enter “the box” with its dark and mysterious atmosphere. I could only see the silhouette of the priest behind the screen. How logically for me to see the priest as the “stern judge” of my life and sins. In fact I remember overhearing a priest responding angrily with someone by saying “You did what!” It seems in those days that the priest primarily was seen (and saw himself as) the arbiter and judge.
Thanks be to God, due to the Church’s ongoing efforts in renewed catechesis for the now-termed “Sacrament of Reconciliation”, a more gentle and affirming pastoral sense has entered into the communication between the priest and the penitent. Now the Reconciliation Room is more apt to be a light-filled, colorful room where the priest sits in a chair behind a screen wall so I can face him or choose to kneel behind a barrier for more privacy.
The emphasis today on all the sacraments is that they should be personally “celebrated” and not merely be conducted functionally and “by the book” (ritual). Humanity and personal communication have entered into the sacraments in general and gratefully into the world of the penitent and priest. In the celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the gospel example and attitude of the Forgiving Father should be the model for the priest to emulate; the attitude of the repentant prodigal son should be seen by the penitent as a proper model of the heart.
A beautiful passage from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1423-1424) reminds us of a new and more biblically-based viewpoint concerning the deeper graces and values of this multi-faced sacrament:
It is called the sacrament of conversion because it makes sacramentally present Jesus' call to conversion, the first step in returning to the Father from whom one has strayed by sin.
It is called the sacrament of Penance, since it consecrates the Christian
sinner's personal and ecclesial steps of conversion, penance, and satisfaction.
It is called the sacrament of confession, since the disclosure or confession of sins to a priest is an essential element of this sacrament. In a profound sense it is also a "confession" - acknowledgment and praise - of the holiness of God and of his mercy toward sinful man.
It is called the sacrament of forgiveness, since by the priest's sacramental absolution God grants the penitent "pardon and peace."
It is called the sacrament of Reconciliation, because it imparts to the sinner the love of God who reconciles: "Be reconciled to God." He who lives by God's merciful love is ready to respond to the Lord's call: "Go; first be reconciled to your brother."
What do we have to “celebrate” in this sacrament? We celebrate the fact that:
1) God understands us and that God’s grace calls and welcomes us home;
2) Jesus is present in the presence of the priest (“in persona Christi” [in the person of Christ]" to forgive our sins and bless us on our way; and that
3) It is beneficial to meet God, express our sorrow, ask forgiveness and be forgiven of our sins.
All this can help us to walk away from our experience of this sacrament uplifted, enlightened and ready to greet another day in God’s service. The celebration of the sacrament by the priest can also humbly remind him of God’s goodness and mercy and the fact that the priest himself is also a sinner in need of that same forgiveness and mercy.