The Rudder of Missed Opportunities

In starting this post, let me reiterate that on this blog, I welcome and appreciate dissenting views. And friends like Liam, whom I’ve never met face to face, certainly through more than a decade of associating with me, are as likely as anyone to have important insight not only to the topics about which I post, but also, often enough, about me. I want to disassociate myself from the rudder of resentment in a few stages here. Liam is correct to hint that my own experiences with Penance have not been ideal–but who has a perfect track record with the sacraments?

I reflect on a particular sin that dogged me as a young man, and the variety of reactions I received from different confessors: a well-meaning priest friend who seemed to dismiss it about a year after it surfaced (That’s all?) and a monastic who suggested many years later that “we explore that a bit further.” I would have liked conquest, certainly. The lack of conquest alienated me from the sacrament for a stretch of about three years.

Today’s earlier post in question is provocative, but it also covers old territory. I don’t like to cover old territory. I don’t trust it. It’s not terribly inventive, especially when personal resentments are in play. Liam takes me to task because the post …

… doesn’t seem to hunger and thirst for sacramental abundance, let alone hope. Rather, it reminds me of the peevish way clerics and prelates defend their ways. It’s very different in tone from Pope Francis.

And I think I would disagree, reflect, and agree respectively with these three points.

I lament a lack of sacramental abundance. I think the term “spiritual communion” is perhaps overdone, but I recognize it as part of the Catholic imagination, for better or worse. Hundreds of thousands of hosts get soaked in a rainstorm, so Pope Benedict pilgrims are requested to receive something different.

Frankly, I don’t see much difference in tone between this practice with either a celebration of form III or one of the non-sacramental penance services suggested in the Rite of Penance. I think there are ways available to explore reconciliation and penance more deeply. But there is a Catholic attachment to “getting something” (or clergy “giving something”) or to have some tangible, incarnational, experiential thing to make it more real. To a degree, this is a good thing. But I lament it can close us off to other possible experiences.

As an institutional person, yes, I admit I am influenced by the way my pastors and bishops react. I probably need to look at that. I rail enough at the institution, however, as you readers all know. Sometimes it saves energy to go along.

And as a fan of Pope Francis, I don’t see the need to attach myself to every practice and suggestion born out of his own experience. I’m neither a Jesuit or an archbishop. I’m just a lay person working for the Church who does not have access to the Sacrament of Penance as readily as he does. I live in a community with two retired priests and a pastor in another nearby parish. So I can arrange to celebrate form I with relative ease. But it’s not quite the same as living with confessors.

Of course, the most effective evangelisers for Reconciliation are:

1. The example of priests who joyfully make it abundantly available as a foundational priority, rather than treating penitents as parasites on their precious and limited time.
2. The word of mouth of participating faithful.

I think this observation is spot on. I am fortunate to work with priests who exemplify number one. Number two would indeed be a matter of moving to the boundaries and giving witness to the experience of faith. It was my experience back East that this was definitely an area of impoverishment.

My own sense is that we need form III, as well as form IV (for the reconciliation of two estranged persons), V (for the reconciliation of people harmed by the institution), VI (for the reconciliation of a cleric who has abused trust) and probably VII, VIII, and IX (for a few other options I can’t think of, but other people might). The more tools the better. Having two swiss army knives is useful to a degree. But is it necessary? Optimal? Useful for absolutely every possibility?

The cynic in me suggests that such discussions on widening the Rite of Penance are closed at the present time. I would hope it were not so. That a good friend would attack the messenger is itself an example of the “peevish way” of some clerics and prelates. Maybe we shouldn’t assume that the vast majority of non-confessing believers are deficient in some way before we consider that perhaps it is what we offer them is somehow lacking. The reality is likely that we are all impoverished to a degree.

That the Rite of Penance doesn’t seem to be working for most believers should tell us it’s worth thinking outside the box. That thought process doesn’t necessarily usher in cheap grace, hardline solutions, or something perceived as unfair. It’s just trying to get something good working again. Nothing wrong with that, is there?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
This entry was posted in Commentary, Rite of Penance. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Rudder of Missed Opportunities

  1. LIam says:


    Just to be clearer (since I must not have been clear enough). My first paragraph was directed at the content of the post. Not you as a person. I attacked the particular message. I will try to be clearer in the future, and I am sorry I failed in this instance.

  2. Todd says:

    I thought you were a little hard on the message, is all. But point taken and accepted. I identified too much with the message–I see it now.

    I suggested form III as a “possible frontier,” not the path to the promised land. I suggested form I, which I do use more regularly than II, is perhaps to be found wanting in some respects.

    I appreciate the anchor your comment offered. Let’s not abandon what’s worked in previous generations for a segment of Catholics. I agree. It’s actually very heartening to see penitents in my parish waiting as long as an hour to confess their sins in form I. And praying for substantial times in church after they receive absolution. I didn’t even get to the question of deacons and lay confessors.

    • LIam says:

      All good.

      I should add, I rarely encounter a confessor who actually uses the form of Form I. I believe it’s a concession to the penitents who are almost all unlikely to have been “trained” in that form (I remember encountering the formal changes in the 1970s, at least), and pragmatically to expediency. But I also find many priests are willing to follow a more progressive lead by penitents if they are not under a time gun.

      Of course, not all priests are gifted confessors. There’s that, too. I had 4 good ones near me until personnel shuffles in 2012-13 (which I took to be a blessed abundance), which led to a few months of further explorations.

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