• Readings for today's Mass

The Sacrament of Forgiveness

Summary of main ideas

The practice of this sacrament (of God's gift of forgiveness and reconciliation) has undergone great changes in the course of the Church's history. In the New Testament Church, those guilty of seriously disruptive sins (such as apostasy, murder and notorious adultery) were excluded from the community for a time, for their 'salvation'. Clearly, the familiar sins of human frailty were present in these communities; and for them the scriptures recognise various ways of forgiveness: the Eucharist, especially, practical charity, mutual acknowledgment of sinfulness and humble prayer.

Life in this continent has not been easy – with its unexpected "dead heart", and its extremes of drought and flood, always at the mercy of the fluctuations of world markets. But this experience has made the "battler" spirit an important component of our best self – making Australians remarkable for their resourcefulness and inventiveness, and for the courage they have shown on the battle field. Adversity has given our best self the wisdom we needed to cope with the set-backs of life. Even though, in the 19th century, Australia was – surprisingly! – one of the most urbanized countries in the world, the "battler" spirit has6been associated especially with life in "the bush". Australians have a extraordinary affinity with "the bush" and all that it symbolizes – perhaps it has been seen as what is most distinctively ours as we owned an approach to life very different from much that was taken for granted in the old world. Reflecting this spirit, our Australian humour gives expression to our "best self" – dry, not letting impossible situations get us down, and levelling in a good-natured way.

Name changes in the course of history indicate a change in what was emphasised in different periods; 'penance', 'confession', 'reconciliation'. In the period of persecution (2nd – 3rd centuries) the sacrament was called 'penance'. During this period, denial of the faith in times of persecution constituted a large pastoral problem. Absolution was given through a ritual admission to the eucharistic community after a period of severe penance, and was only available once in a lifetime. After the end of persecutions, the sacrament was called 'canonical penance' (4th – 6th century), reflecting the fact that Church councils drew up 'canons' to regularise the practice – it was, for instance, now available a second time: but only on one's death bed! Not surprisingly, many postponed their Baptism, and this sacrament became little more than a preparation for death practiced by good people. During the Dark Ages (7th – 11th centuries) Irish monks brought the practice of their Church to the continent. Penances (severe by our standards) were done after absolution; and the sacrament was repeated. Thus the practice emerged which is familiar to us. Attacked by the Protestant reformers, this form of the sacrament was defended as a legitimate form of the sacrament by the Council of Trent in the 16th century. In the 20th century, more frequent communion led to more frequent confession which became an important part of Catholic practice. In the 'privatised' ritual it had assumed, the original 'sacramental sign' – reconciliation with the community as a sign of God's gift of reconciliation – was no longer appreciated, even by theologians. Before Vatican II, the current practice of the sacrament was raising pastoral concerns. Vatican II provided for changes in the practice of this sacrament, as part of its liturgical renewal.

In the aftermath of Vatican II, the renewal of this sacrament gave rise to considerable debate and tensions – how was the sacrament to be part of the Church's life, in a way that made it at the same time, a sign of the call to genuine conversion and a sign of God's reconciling love? In the initial stages of implementing Vatican II's call for renewal, three sacramental rituals were envisaged: 1) the familiar form; 2) a communal penitential rite, with individual confession to a number of ministers; 3) a communal penitential service with a communal absolution. When the ritual was published, however, use of 'the third rite' was severely restricted. In places where it was practiced – following an interpretation of Church law given by leading canonists – the experience of committed faithful and their pastors was very positive (a remarkable sense of solidarity within the community in a common experience of reconciliation, and a heightened sense of solidarity with and concern for humanity at large). Today, the provisions of Church law have excluded any practice of 'the third rite' except in exceptional circumstances, such as imminent disaster or a severe shortage of ministers in a particular region.

Many leaders in today's Church judge that the last word has not been heard on this subject. It seems unfortunate that discussion of the issue has been so inward looking – in a world in great need of genuine reconciliation.