by JIM CONSEDINE
Pope Francis has made mercy the central theme of the Extraordinary Holy Year, which begins in December 2015. “It shall be a Holy Year of Mercy,” he said when announcing it. He wants the sacrament of Reconciliation to be a central theme of the year.
Many hope that he will revisit the Third Rite as a way of making forgiveness and mercy more accessible. And for many, more meaningful.
Years ago I was presiding at a funeral vigil for an elderly woman. The church was packed with her offspring, a family of eight plus grandchildren, who numbered about 40. And their partners and their children. The clan had gathered to farewell a beloved member.
All had been baptised. Mostly they were what the official Church calls “non-practising”. They had faith but were not regular Massgoers. But they loved their grandmother. They wanted to honour her, pray and grieve for her within the Church community she loved.
As I completed the early part of the vigil, I realised what an opportunity was before me to deepen their faith and allow them to feel they all belonged and were still accepted within the Church family. This necessitated being open to welcoming them to Holy Communion at the requiem the following day.
In theory they could all make individual Confessions. In practice, I knew they wouldn’t. It was a step too far. But I could smooth the pathway to a deeper relationship with God and with their grandmother by offering general absolution, the sacrament of Reconciliation, Rite Three. This was a tailormade opportunity to reach out pastorally.
Having partially completed the vigil, I announced that, after a series of preparatory prayers and examination
of conscience, general absolution would be offered to anyone open to this sacrament. It was an obvious step. This was duly completed.
The next morning, with tears running down many cheeks, the whole community came forward to receive communion at the Mass. Like the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:3-11), Jesus was meeting them on terms they could relate to. All were forgiven, and felt forgiven. They were unburdened in a way that probably many hadn’t been for a long time. Christ had met them in a special way at their grandmother’s funeral. It was her parting gift to her family.
I know what a wonderful gift individual Confession can be when properly prepared for and celebrated. There must
always remain an honoured place for it. But it is obvious that there has been a major shift in people’s acceptance of
it as the primary rite to be followed.
Worldwide (particularly in the West), people have said they are not interested in current practice. Individual confession has fallen into virtual disuse. Faith-filled people have rejected it.
Rite Two is less than satisfactory. It sometimes seems to be too much of a hybrid and has not attracted a wide following.
Why is the Church so frightened of using the Third Rite, general absolution, more often? The same mercy is offered by God, regardless of the rite used. The various rites are merely tools developed by the Church over the centuries as circumstances have changed and numbers grown. If they work, it is great. When they don’t, we need to adapt.
Surely, with two generations already lost to this great sacrament, we need a fresh look at how it is administered.
Part of the issue is that often good catechesis on sin is lacking. Much of what constitutes real sin is not
understood. Many retain only childlike notions that no longer apply to them. This can be remedied by good catechesis at services for general Reconciliation.
Today, sinfulness is more obvious than before in relational, environmental and justice areas. Just look at arguably our greatest deadly sin, global warming. That truly is mortal. Humans are slowly killing the planet. Pope Francis in Laudato Si’ spells that out clearly. As he challenges us, “who is taking moral responsibility for this desecration?” Or for other huge sins — endemic poverty, racism, war, pollution, economic exploitation and environmental destruction?
Regrettably, we have no ritual structure that recognises the communal nature of this wider dimension of sinfulness. Where is a suitable forum for communal reconciliation that recognises our wider understanding of social sin?
Where is the catechesis about it? Where can one officially make meaningful firm purpose to repent for social sin done, even to the planet itself?
These broader issues of sin understandably bypassed our grandparents’ generation. But unlike them, we are global citizens. We know about inter-connectedness. We know about social sin. Our consciences should recognise any culpable participation in such sin. As the great catechist St John Paul II often said, “social sins are our responsibility”.
The Church must always welcome sinners who wish to repent. Part of what she can do to facilitate this is to make forgiveness and mercy through Reconciliation as accessible as possible.
Pope Francis has made God’s mercy one of the central themes of his teaching. He constantly returns to that theme. But how is that teaching to be enfleshed sacramentally, ritually, in a meaningful way? That is a major question.
As he said in Evangelii Gaudium in 2013, “The Church must be a place of mercy freely given where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the good life of the Gospel”.
Jim Consedine is a priest of Christchurch diocese.
What the catechism says about Rite III confession
The Church’s teaching in relation to Rite III Reconciliation is spelt out in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, as below:
1483 In case of grave necessity, recourse may be had to a communal celebration of reconciliation with general
confession and general absolution.
Grave necessity of this sort can arise when there is imminent danger of death without sufficient time for
the priest or priests to hear each penitent’s confession. Grave necessity can also exist when, given the number of
penitents, there are not enough confessors to hear individual confessions properly in a reasonable time, so that
the penitents, through no fault of their own, would be deprived of sacramental grace or Holy Communion for a long
time. In this case, for the absolution to be valid the faithful must have the intention of individually confessing
their grave sins in the time required.
The diocesan bishop is the judge of whether or not the conditions required for general absolution exist. A
large gathering of the faithful on the occasion of major feasts or pilgrimages does not constitute a case of grave
1484 “Individual, integral confession and absolution remain the only ordinary way for the faithful to reconcile
themselves with God and the Church, unless physical or moral impossibility excuses from this kind of confession.”
There are profound reasons for this. Christ is at work in each of the sacraments. He personally addresses every sinner: “My son, your sins are forgiven.” He is the physician tending each one of the sick who needs him to cure them. He raises them up and reintegrates them into fraternal communion.
Personal confession is thus the form most expressive of reconciliation with God and with the Church.