Although Advent is not a penitential season, there is always room for improvement. As we prepare for the coming of Christ we can examine our conscious to rid ourselves of distractions.
The Sacrament of Reconciliation gives us the opportunity to clean house—to focus on what is truly important. The early Christians would not have recognized what we do in Confession. Sin, repentance, penance have always existed. However, the ritual is different. Early Christians were not supposed to sin after Baptism. Once a person was baptized—new life was expected—old ways were discarded—no more sins. Sounded good in theory. As a result the Church was loosing people who inevitably fell into sin. Therefore the rule was changed to give folks one chance. If someone sinned, of course the sin had to be a serious offense, the person had to stand in front of the whole congregation and publically confess what they had done. The community would vote—thumbs up or thumbs down—the person stayed or had to leave. The predicament was pretty embarrassing and that was the point—to try to keep people from falling. Penances were in keeping with the gravity of the sin. For example, an adulterer might have been given the penance to feed lepers; take care of the widows; feed the homeless. Most penances were for one year. The priest was obligated to do the penance with the penitent—to make sure it got done. Since the bishop or priest was in charge of assigning the penance, walking with the penitent kept things honest and prevented abuse. Remember only one mess up was allowed after Baptism. Again, the Church was loosing people. The rule was changed to allow for two transgressions. Still no good. Imagine that in the beginning the confessions were interesting and fed the local rumor circles. After awhile the confessions got boring, because the same people confessed the same sins. Given the fact that not even allowing for two or three serious sins was enough to keep the congregation from diminishing, the rules had to be changed again.
The Church decided that confessions were taking too much time and had become repetitive. The Priest was designated as the representative of the community. Whatever the Priest decided would be respected. However, the Priest still had to accompany the penitent with the penance. As a consequence penances of fasting, alms giving, and charitable works were reduced to prayers of Our Fathers and Hail Marys.
The evolution of Reconciliation went from an awareness of communal sin to personal sin. Interesting to note that social sin is now at the bottom of the list or ignored completely. Our focus went from neglecting to feed the poor to neglecting to say my morning and evening prayers. Great majority think that confession is something private—that no one should see us in the confession line. Consider that many parishioners go to other parishes or to the Basilica for confession. Guess what—they don’t want our business. The Basilica is for pilgrims, not for parishioners of Our Lady Of Sorrows. Best to have a confessor that knows us, recognizes us and holds us accountable. Yes, everybody’s looking for a death mute confessor, but such a priest would not be licensed. We all know that a priest is bound to absolute secrecy, even if threatened with death, to never betray the seal of confession. (Besides, there’s nothing new under the sun.) We are all on a spiritual journey, fellow pilgrims on our way to the Kingdom. The priest is supposed to be a step ahead, but he is not perfect. Only God is perfect. Therefore, don’t be afraid to come to your parish for confession. One Our Father and the Act of Contrition is all the penance I give. That is the only prayer that the Lord Jesus ever gave us.
Advent is upon us—a time to prepare, not to fear. Christ reaches out to us in love. May He find us waiting with open hearts, ready to receive Him.