Monday, December 2, 2013

Revisiting the Sacrament of Reconciliation this Advent

As we enter into the Liturgical season of Advent, preparing us for Christmas, those of us who are practicing our faith with some degree of regularity will also know that toward the end of Advent, here in Singapore there is also what is known as the Penitential Services in which the priests of the various districts will come together as a team to ‘hear the confessions’ of the parishioners who will gather in church at a given afternoon or evening.  For the reader who may not be familiar with Roman Catholic terminology, "Confession, Sacrament of Penance, Sacrament of Reconciliation and Penitential Service" are synonyms.  

There are many negative feelings that surround this event, and they come from both the penitents and the confessors, and I hardly think that there has ever been a place where these feelings were aired freely and honestly.  For about three years now, I have been absent from this event as I had been away on study leave, and this year, I have to remove myself from the community for health reasons.  For each of my readers of this weekly blog who do participate in this bi-annual event (the other being in Lent), this entry is meant to encourage you to approach this celebration (yes, it is one, even if it may not feel like one) with a newness – and that it will truly begin to make a change in your life, at sin, at God’s infinite mercy, and most of all, at how you will approach this Sacrament.

One of the first things that I often have heard about not just the Sacrament of Reconciliation, but also the penitential services is that many people do not like them.  Just from an ego standpoint, I can fully understand this.  No one likes to admit that they had made a stupid mistake in life.  Our ‘natural’ (read sinful) tendency has always been to justify and make all sorts of good excuses for our sins and transgressions, or to do the Eve thing – blame it on the other person.  What really happens in the confessional is a full reversal of this.  In a contrite confession where one is touched by the grace of God, one comes clean and removes all excuses and justifications, and dares to blame no one but oneself for having sinned in small or great ways.  It kills the ego, and it humbles the spirit.  Yes, it is not a good feeling, but no one who has truly done this can ever tell me that there is not a complete lifting up of a terrible burden after one has made this kind of honest confession and received an absolution thereafter.  Remember, though each Sacrament of the Church is a real encounter with Christ, it is principally NOT about feelings.  What is essential is the reality of what is happening, and what is celebrated and participated in.  If we only get caught up with our feelings, we may be worshipping ourselves rather than God.

The other gripe I have often heard about the penitential services is that many priests in their instructions before the service begins, remind penitents to be brief and to-the-point.  This is something which I think has resulted not only in a Catch-22 for the penitent, but for the celebrant as well. 

My overseas reader may not be aware that at one such penitential service, as many as 1500 people can gather for this Sacrament in one parish.  Even when all the priests of the district do turn up to ensure that there are enough confession points, there will be a ratio of about one priest to sixty to eighty penitents.  Much as we want to ensure that every penitent who turns up gets to have his or her sins forgiven, it can often take on the unfortunate flavor of a factory line.  How does one adequately ensure that there is still the element of a ‘celebration’ of renewed life and a soul that is reconciled with God?  It is a tough call.

I would like to also ask my readers for some empathy for the priests who turn up assiduously for these services.  These services last for about an entire week in the various parishes in the districts, one day after another, one parish after another.  As a penitent, you may not realize it, but it is physically quite an exhausting thing to really pay attention and give one’s whole self to the penitent for an extended period of time.  This is not at all a complaint.  I am sure that my brother priests are happy to avail of themselves in this way for the benefit of your souls and your spiritual welfare, but it is a physically exhausting activity.  Of course, if one were to only listen passively and let one’s mind wander, one could sit there for hours and not get tired.  But every priest knows that if it took so much for the penitent to get to that point to want to make his or her peace with God and one’s fellow human being, that one just cannot be passive and inattentive when one is helping one to a healing of one’s soul by the grace of God.  One has to listen with empathy, patience, love and most of all, with charity in one’s heart.  This takes energy.

I wonder if the penitent ever thanks any priest after the absolution is given.  It’s not that we want to be thanked.  That’s not the point.  A couple of blog entries back, I made an honest appeal to really pray for priests who are jaded and who may be minimalists.  There may be a reason for them to have come to this point in their ministry.  They have not had much affirmation in their lives.  So, perhaps this year, when you do turn up for this penitential service at Advent, and see a very exhausted looking priest sitting in front of you, make a special effort to really thank him for his availability and his work, or you can really surprise him by giving him a hand written note of thanks, where he can see that you truly mean the words that come from your heart.  Just make sure that you do not choose your ‘favourite’ priest to do this to.  I am certain that in the next confession that he turns up for, he will do so with a certain newness of heart.  Another thing to never ever do is to give the confessor any monetary form of thanks as payment for the Sacrament.  Sacraments must never be linked with money.  You’ll only be committing a sin right after having had your sins forgiven!

Having shared these few points, what remains are just reminders that all of us sinners should remember when approaching the mercy of God and the God of mercies in the confession.

-       Do your self-examination well.  Many of us do not benefit much from the Sacrament because we may have been superficial about our sins and transgressions.  One of the most courageous things to do before any penitential service of confession is to ask your nearest and dearest about what your sins are.  Ask your spouse or your children, and you may be surprised at what they reveal.  Those may be your real issues that need reconciliation that you have been blinded to.

-       When in a long line waiting for your turn, pray instead of getting impatient and agitated.  The person in front of you and the many in the church may harbour deep fears, nervousness and perhaps even embarrassment about what they are going to confess.  Pray for all of them.  The physical gathering of so many Catholics should be a visible sign that we are a community who not only are fallen, but also a community that strongly believes that God is merciful, loving and compassionate.  This shared belief has caused us to turn up to be reconciled with God and with one another. 

-       If this particular Rite seems to make you more impatient and irritated each time you come for it, perhaps you need to celebrate it in the ordinary way instead.  Make an appointment with a priest a few weeks before this onslaught of confessions and turn up in his office (or confessional) where he can be much more available to you, and where there will be no pressure to ‘finish the line’ of penitents behind you.  I have personally heard so many heartfelt confessions in the privacy of my office as compared to the encounters I have had in the confessional. 

-       Finally, frequency helps remove fear and changes our approach toward this encounter of love and mercy.  One of the best things that we can do for ourselves is not to just resort to these penitential services for the spiritual health of our souls.  Just going to confession twice a year is like taking a bath or washing something that gets filthy just twice a year.  But that’s negatively put.  It is also akin to meeting God at his most merciful twice a year.  How can we be witnesses to God’s mercy if we only encounter this kind of amazing grace only twice in 365 days when we sin almost daily?  How can one 'sing a new song unto the Lord' about his wondrous mercy if one only wants to joyfully encounter his forgiveness at best bi-annually?  What really happens in the Confessional is that evil and sin and the devil are trumped by goodness, mercy and God's forgiveness.  Sin has lost its foothold on us and we make small progressive steps toward the Kingdom of God and turn our backs to evil and sin.  Frequent practices of such Rites and Rituals have the purpose of leading us to that place of nakedness and vulnerability where our ego identities fall away and our explanations hardly mean anything, where superiority and rights matter no longer.  That is when God can really get through to us, and as Franciscan Richard Rohr puts it, the "Trinitarian Flow" comes alive in us and God has the best chance. Psalm 5 reminds us that God is not a God who loves evil.  By our confession to want to break from sin, we are declaring boldly that we are on the side of God.  We hardly think in these terms.  Little wonder then that we hardly share actively with our fellow pilgrims about the healing mercy of God. 

May you have a most hopeful Advent in anticipation of Christ’s coming at Christmas.  God love you.


  1. Hi Fr Luke - thank you for a very timely post. I always struggle with the need to go through a penitential service even though I personally want to avail myself of this sacrament. While the church advocates frequency in receiving this sacrament, I always wonder - unless one has committed a mortal sin - whether one should take up a priest's time by frequently confessing "venial" sins (as you have acknowledged in your post - it's a tiring exercise for a priest to be hearing confessions for a stretch of time).

    While I always attempt to prepare myself adequately for penitential service , I am never quite sure whether "I have come clean with God" , mindful of the fact that I need to keep things brief so as not to hold up the line, and possibly, not to "irritate" the priest with details.

    I have also heard it being said that other Christians have accused us Catholics of being paranoid about "sinning" (possibly with reference to our Sacrament of Reconciliation) even though Christ has redeemed us by His death and resurrection. Not too sure what should be an appropriate Catholic response to this accusation.


    1. Pauline, perhaps you misunderstood me. I didn't say that priests are tired from hearing the confession of venial sins. All sins that bother and cause a stumbling block to the quest of holiness of the people need absolution. Small and big. No, we should not just confess our 'mortal' sins. Whatever we remember (or that our loved ones help us to remember) that has caused us to distance ourselves from God requires us to mend the relationship that has been impacted by our foolishness. This act requires humility and a 'killing' of our egos that fight this so much. But having said this, and on another point, I did say that an active and full listening to a long line of penitents is a physically demanding activity. That goes without saying.

      If you are worried about 'holding up the line', then try making a personal appointment with a priest on another day where you are the only one at his office. That way, you spare yourself from all that anxiety at the Penitential Services. And make sure you don't do this on the week of the Penitential Services itself.

      As for other Christians accusing us Catholics of being paranoid about sinning, let them think all they want! They have no experience at all about encountering a Sacrament and have only their stilted notions. Besides, being extra careful about the health of our souls is far better than being complacent and carefree about the great mercy of God. Objectively, yes, Christ has redeemed us by his death and resurrection. Subjectively, it remans that each one of us individually responds to this objective redemption. That's our individual responsibility and our response to the grace of God. We must never just take a one sided view of redemption.

      God love you
      Fr Luke

  2. Thanks Fr Luke for the tips on how we can experience a more meaningful and beneficial Penitential Service in preparation for Christmas. We do feel extra clean after it, like a car going through a good wash, and happily unburdened and uplifted, like having re-inflated tires. It's really something to be thankful for. We'll remember to affirm the priests hearing our confessions, whoever we're ushered to and to thank God as well. Respond well to your continuing treatment and convalescence.
    Love, Ignatius & Florence