In the winter of 1952 I learned how to go to confession. In the second grade, we had the opportunity to make our first venture into those triple closets at the back of the church, the symbols of privacy and (we hoped) anonymity. Sister taught us the precise formula for beginning our confession: "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned..." We were taught lists of things that kids do wrong, and did matching quizzes to be able to know which sin violated which commandment. We learned to count sins and made our second-grade lists.
For several years my original second-grade list was adjusted only by vocabulary; the experience was neutral at best. For most of us it was just a part of being Catholic. Folks would tell funny stories about characters in the middle box and characters in the side boxes of the confessional stations. Since I've been ordained, I wonder sometimes if I am the "character in the middle box" in anyone's stories!
But there were also stories of friends and relatives who had not practiced religion for a long time or who had experienced a turnaround in lifestyle or were recovering from a fractured relationship or celebrating a renewed relationship with God, with others, or with themselves, who understood the gift of this sacrament better than any of us who reverenced the formula, kept accurate accounts, and never let the number of offenses get too high.
Those with the great stories of a wonderful experience of God's forgiving love had gone to confession with a desire, a need, a hunger. They had some big issues going on and sought healing, something they could not do for themselves. A private conversation with a good confessor in the sacrament of Penance was exactly what they needed.
By high school and college I had become an Easter duty penitent. In high school I made my first major deviation from my second-grade formula by bringing up my infrequent reception of Holy Communion because health issues and dietary requirements prevented my adherence to the fasting laws. Back then we were required to abstain from solid food for three hours before Communion and from liquids for one hour. My confessor asked me about my usual breakfast menu and told me to return the following week after he had discussed the matter with a canon lawyer.
The next week he suggested that I pour the milk on my corn flakes on Saturday night so that they could become canonically liquid by Sunday morning. I would then be able o drink (not eat!) my cereal, wait one hour, receive Holy Communion, and return home for my toast and eggs. After hearing this bizarre recipe, I decided that some things would remain between me and God and never be brought to the confessional.
The Second Vatican Council and the '60s culture shaped our consciences in new ways and broadened our sense of immorality to include racism, injustice to laborers, unjust or undeclared war, classism and sexism. By the late '60s communal penance services opened our awareness of the sin committed and tolerated by the community, and helped us know that little if any of our own sin was unique. We focused on those flaws we held in common, listened to Scripture together, and reflected on changing behaviors that might express our redeemed selves. We expressed community acts of contrition; and in accord with our tradition, we were freed from venial sin without the necessity of confession.
By the mid '70s communal penance services were regular parts of parish life during Advent and Lent. Parishioners with a desire and hunger to celebrate the forgiveness of sin through God's mercy were filling churches for these services. In one form of communal penance, participants approached one of several priests, confess their particular sins, and experience individual absolution. In another form, after some ritual action (such as laying on of hands or communal verbal expression of particular sins) the participants receive general absolution through an ordained presider speaking the words of absolution to everybody at one time. The style was often determined by the number of gathered people and the number of available confessors.
At the parish I served in the mid'70s (a working class community of mixed European ancestry), we filled the church five times each Lent for communal penance services that were 90 minutes long; yet no one left till the end of the closing song. The laying on of hands went both ways between the parishioners and the priests, and that simple reciprocal gesture spoke volumes about human imperfection.
At that time the norms in the Archdiocese of Chicago allowed for general absolution based on the number of assembled people and the corresponding number of available priests. The pastor was required to inform the vicar about the services. The lines of communication were open. We were able to reflect sincerely on the experience and communicate honestly with the liturgists, canonists and bishops. The value of communal penance services and individual confession were both recognized. They did not compete.
Many people who had not celebrated this sacrament in years became twice-a-year regulars. They spent more time acknowledging their sinfulness, calling on God's mercy, and rejoicing in absolution at one communal penance service than they had in a lifetime of two-minute confessions. General absolution has been part of the "way back" for many. In many parishes, these services have been a part of the pastoral strategy for re-evangelization and genuine reconciliation with inactive parishioners.
Today however the norms have changed locally and universally. Church authority does not see the need and takes the position that the criteria for general absolution are never met, even though large numbers still assemble for communal penance services and far fewer priests are available than 30 years ago.
Church communities and priests who have celebrated this form of the sacrament for decades are being challenged to discontinue it on the grounds that it is an "abuse" of a sacrament in our church. Years of positive experience are discounted by church authorities who have not experienced a communal penance service with general absolution nor the long-term effects in a faith community that celebrates the sacrament in all its forms.
"The pope ought to go to one of these," said one elderly lady who had brought neighbors back to regular church practice by inviting them to a penance service where they could experience God's love in community without risking a closeted conversation with a stranger whose reaction was unpredictable.
I know I heard many individual confessions in that parish that never would have happened unless they had experienced general absolution first. Some of them had had past experiences that had made them vow to take their chances with God rather than to subject themselves once more to angry confessors. Later, when I was the only priest at a 3000 household parish, if individual confession had been my only way to make a liturgical, sacramental experience of reconciliation available, I would have had to pastor a six-sacrament parish!
Today I am grateful for the opportunity to experience all the forms of this sacrament. I minister with a clear conscience knowing that church authority does not affirm what my experience mandates. I am bewildered by the efforts to divest our church and our ministry of something so many have experienced as significant.
I have heard general absolution called "cheap grace" or "sneaky grace." Nothing in my experience supports contentions that grave sinners are sneaking in under the wire or getting by without meeting the church's requirements for the forgiveness of sin. Rather, sinners have become more open to experiences of individual confessions by the grace of communal services with general absolution. Pronouncements from church authorities have not accomplished this.
With more large parishes each year becoming one-priest parishes, I see no possibility for adequately staffing the confessionals on Saturday afternoons. Nor do I expect a return of long lines outside the confessional. Our mandate from Jesus requires us to do everything we can to minister as Jesus did to all whom he met, in ways best suited to the time and circumstance. We are in a new time and circumstance.
How tragic for us and our church if the sacrament of reconciliation, our ritual celebration of the healing forgiveness of God, became the source of a major divisive wounding of our community in Christ! How tragic for us and our church if ministerial strategies for facilitating the healing touch of Jesus become the targets in the war on "un-orthodoxy." How sad if reconciliation itself becomes a cause of division, if those calling for re-evangelization and return to church practice fail to respond to what actually works in parishes.
There is much wisdom in local faith communities. How sad if we are forced to abandon an effective way of facilitating an experience of God's love and still claim to be church!