Letters on Penance

Lent brings at least two pastoral letters on forgiveness and reconciliation from American bishops. San Antonio’s archbishop, Jose Gomez, penned one titled “The Tender Mercy of our God.

Gomez begins with a strong theme of reconciliation as a healing and remedial experience. Much of the letter aims at the spiritual side of self-examination and a sense of sin, but there is a valuable bit of liturgical advice for pastors for expanding the availability of a confessor to lunch hours and the end of the workday:

Also, I hope that you will encourage “family friendly” confession times so that husbands and wives may come together with their children to experience this sacrament of healing and growth.

Archbishop Donald Wuerl, newly appointed to Washington, didn’t waste time with writing and publishing his letter, “God’s Mercy and the Sacrament of Penance.

Wuerl’s letter is more brief, more sprinkled with Scripture references, history, and theology. He announced a “pastoral initiative” titled “The Light Is On For You,” in which every Washington archdiocesan church would have an extra ninety minutes of confessor availability.

Lots of Catholics wring hands over the decline in use of the sacrament. I wonder if the relative lack of attention to Reconciliation as liturgy is part of what’s missing for the contemporary laity. Moving from a juridical to a healing sensibility is often considered an advantage. But on the other hand, doctors can be just as daunting as lawyers or judges.

The Rite of Reconciliation contains much unused material—not just form III (general absolution). The rarity of non-sacramental opportunities devoted to penance shows that post-conciliar Catholics, especially the clergy, still have a low comfort level with the liturgical or celebrative aspect of God’s forgiveness.

The return of the prodigal son was an occasion for a considerable celebration. The wayward boy was not deserving of such a gesture, but he certainly knew he was forgiven, don’t you think.

Many confessors do bring an extraordinary sensitivity and erudition to this ministry, and Archbishops Wuerl and Gomez are no exceptions. I can see them as gentle judges, I can see themas spiritual doctors. But when confessors start letting on that they can put on a great calf roast, I think we’ll have made up some serious lost ground.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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