Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Children's Confessions and Communal Absolution

For many priests the ministry of “hearing children’s confessions” is a sweet and sour experience.

Bring into church 150 second, third and fourth graders together with five priests and over the next hour administer the rite of reconciliation –private confession by “the penitent child” and individual absolution by “the shriving confessor.”

Imagine bringing fifty second-graders into church for a brief “penance service” (a welcome, prayer, reading of Scripture, homily, examination of conscience, communal act of contrition) and then individual confession. Even many adults find it difficult to be quiet and prayerful for thirty or forty  minutes; imagine the struggle for seven-year-olds. No wonder they find church “boring.”

It seems to me that the third option in the Rite of Penance is the ideal solution for the time and tedium of children’s confessions.

The usual way of receiving the Sacrament of Penance, the first ritual, is called the “Rite for Reconciliation of Individual Penitents.” The ritual calls for the priest to welcome the penitent, read a passage of Scared Scripture (optional), call for the penitent’s confession of sins, impose “satisfaction” (a penance), and ask the penitent to express sorrow (an act of contrition), offer the words of absolution, proclaim praise of God  and dismiss the penitent. This ritual or some form of it is used in most settings.

When we bring children together for confession, the second ritual, the “Rite of Reconciliation of Several Penitents with Individual Confession and Absolution” is usually chosen. This ritual is popularly known as “a penance service.”  

The third ritual is the “Rite for Reconciliation of Several Penitents with General Confession and Absolution.” This form begins like the second ritual (the “penance service”) but calls for general confession of sin and general absolution, that is, the whole group of penitents is absolved as a group. Individual confession and individual absolution are not used.

Application of this third ritual, the communal confession and communal absolution, could be used for “hearing children’s confessions.” It engages the children for the whole time they are gathered in church and it provides a non-threatening experience of God’s forgiveness and reconciliation. Use of this form does not leave the children sitting in church waiting (with the expectation they will be quiet, not squirm, and will pray or read for the next forty minutes).

When the rite for the Sacrament of Penance was studied and revised following Vatican II, the three-fold ritual was approved, but restrictions were put on the use of the third option (communal absolution). Canons 960-964 of the Code of Canon Law restrict its use.

It was expected that use of the third option would include the provision that those who were guilty of mortal sins would confess them in private confession (using the first option) as soon as they could.

It has been unsettling for many of  us to learn that the committee which revised the rite of Penance expected the third option to be the one used most often.

The secretary of the revision committee, Franco Sottocornola, commented that the third option allows a more frequent reception of the sacrament. In his book Reconciliation (Liturgical Press, 2001) David M. Coffey, STD, noted, “His (Sottocornola’s) statements about the third rite will come as a surprise. The rite that now (because of official restrictions) is scarcely celebrated at all was perceived in 1974 as the one that would be celebrated most often!” (p. 167).

Coffey continued, “The frequency which Sottocornola anticipated for the celebration of the third rite in the average parish was once a month…By postponing the confession of grave sins to a later time, it placed the emphasis firmly on the most important element of the sacrament, that is, on reconciliation with God and the Church” (p 168).

I suspect that parish penance services during Advent and Lent would be enhanced by the use of that third ritual, but I am convinced its use would be a blessing and a practical application of the sacrament when it comes to children’s confessions.

I wonder if I should write Pope Francis.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Synod: A Messy Journey

Whether you take one side or the other in the discussions at the Synod on the Family you have to admit that we have seen in action that fifth mark of the Church.

Those of us raised on the Baltimore Catechism remember the question and answer: Q. What are the chief marks of the Church? A. The chief marks of the Church are four: one, holy, catholic or universal, and apostolic.

Those marks or properties were proposed as criteria for proving that the Catholic Church is the one true Church of Jesus Christ.  Over the centuries apologists suggested many other marks (or signs, characteristics, arguments) to demonstrate Catholic claims: e.g, miracles, pastoral succession, antiquity, infallibility, and even indefectibility.

The number of marks in the 16th century ranged from two to a hundred. Since the 17th century we have generally agreed on listing the four.

Throughout it all, however, the fifth mark which I think we saw at play in the Second Vatican Council, in the Synod on the Family, and in countless other occasions in Church history has yet to be officially added to the list, even though it has been there since the Council of Jerusalem (cf Acts 15) and in Jesus’ relations with the apostles –the Church is also messy.

It has to be messy (unsettled, in conflict, contentious) because it is made up of people, and as a result sometimes has, in Pope Benedict XVI’s famous phrase, “a disfigured face.”

The controversies at the Synod demonstrate that the Church is a living body, still wrestling with implementation of the Gospel, still on a journey. In his closing remarks Pope Francis described the Synod as facing “moments of desolation, of tensions and temptations.”

One temptation , he noted, was “to hostile inflexibility, that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word (the letter), and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises (the spirit): within the law, within the certitude of what we know and not of what we still need to learn and to achieve.”

At the same time there was at the synod a temptation to, what Pope Francis called, “a destructive tendency to goodness (in Italian, buonismo), that in the name of deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots. It is the temptation of the ‘do-gooders,’ of the fearful, and also of the so called ‘progressives and liberals.’”

Clearly the Holy Father was walking a fine line, but a necessary one if the integrity of the Gospel is to be preserved.

He reminded his audience, “Dear brothers and sisters, now we still have one year to mature, with true spiritual discernment, the proposed ideas and to find concrete solutions to so many difficulties and innumerable challenges that families must confront., to give answers to the many discouragements that surround and suffocate families. One year to work on the ‘Synodal Relatio’ which is the faithful and clear summary of everything that has been said and discussed in this hall and in the small groups. It is presented to the Episcopal Conferences as ‘lineamenta’ (guidelines).”

The discussions continue, contentious points will be debated again and again in bishops’ conferences around the world, in anticipation of the next Synod in October of 2015.

The initial summation (the so-called relatio post disceptationem) issued on October 13, midway through the Synod, was met with applause by some and rejection by others.

Reports from the Vatican indicate that points in the initial summation were submitted to intense discussion by the bishops, leading to a change in language. This final report has been judged  “a compromise document” and a “re-balanced” report.

Two of the issues which caused sparks focused on homosexuals and divorced/remarried Catholics.

Those who expect or want a non-messy Church are sure to be disappointed as discussions and debates continue over the next twelve months.

It is said that Pope Francis’ speech at the closing of the Synod was greeted with sustained applause, a welcome sign that differences in opinion and theological application do not undermine the fundamental unity of the Church.

We are now in a time of discernment, a time for finding concrete solutions (to borrow the language of Pope Francis). It is therefore a time of prayer, of openness to direction from the Holy Spirit.

Pope Francis prayed, “May the Lord accompany us, and guide us in the journey for the glory of his name, with the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of Saint Joseph.”

And then he added, “And please, do not forget to pray for me! Thank you!”

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Preliminary Report From The Synod

It’s unnerving to me that the Extraordinary Synod’s preliminary report has been greeted by such descriptions as “ground breaking,” “an earthquake,” and “the worst document ever issued by the Church.”

Some like what they read; others do not.

On October 13 the synodal committee* charged with the responsibility of summarizing the significance of the first week’s discussions issued its relatio post disceptationem (a report on the discussions) regarding the challenges facing families in the context of the new evangelization.

As is expected, the bishops are not unanimous in their responses to the questions surrounding cohabitation, civil unions, homosexual persons, and the divorced-and-remarried.

Some of the bishops are concerned that change in the Church’s attitude toward the persons involved in these difficult situations will undermine basic and immutable principles of ethics, morality and dogma.

Others, perhaps the majority of the 190 bishops who vote on these matters, are concerned about application of these principles without denying Church teaching on divorce, homosexuality, or sexual morality in general.

Also as expected, many in the media and even many Catholics have so focused on the bishops’ discussions about cohabitation, civil marriages, the-divorced-and-remarried, and homosexual unions that they have neglected or ignored the context in which these discussions have taken place.

They overlook Pope Francis’ reminder that to address today’s challenges, we must maintain “a fixed gaze on Jesus Christ” and “return to the source of the Christian experience.” It is in this attitude that “new paths and undreamed of possibilities open up.”

Pope Francis, like St. Paul, wants to turn the Church’s primary focus to Jesus rather than to law. Perhaps The Letter to the Galatians should be required preliminary reading for those discussing family challenges in the context of  the new evangelization.

 Law is necessary but its necessity is balanced by the realization that it is the spirit that gives life (cf 2 Cor 3:6).

The Narrow Edge

The synod is walking the narrow edge between principle and pastoral application.

One of the principles operative in the bishops’ discussions has been gradualism, or the principle of gradualness. Pope John Paul II in his apostolic exhortation Familiaris consortitio in 1981 noted that the human being “knows, loves and accomplishes moral good by stages of growth.” Pope John Paul  used the terms “ex gradualitatis” and “gradualis perfectus” in reference to this gradualism.

He said, “Married people too are called to progress unceasingly in their moral life, with the support of a sincere and active desire to ever better knowledge of the values enshrined in and fostered by the law of God” (34).

He made it clear that he did not mean “gradualness of the law,” the idea that there are different degrees or forms of precept in God’s law for different individuals or situations” (34). He did however recognize that couples are at various stages of understanding the law and are called to press on to implementation of the law of Christ.

The synodal discussions supported the idea of taking people where they are and helping them to progress. The preliminary report notes, “It is not wise to think of unique solutions or those inspired by a logic of ‘all or nothing.’ The dialog and meeting that took place in the synod will have to continue in the local churches…the guidance of the Spirit, constantly invoked, will allow all God’s people to live the fidelity to the Gospel of the family as a merciful caring for all situations of fragility” (40).

There was general agreement among the bishops that procedures for diocesan marriage tribunals which render judgments about cases of nullity need to be more accessible and flexible and there needs to be “a speeding-up of the procedure” (44).

Without changing the Church’s teaching on homosexuality and homosexual unions, the synod recognizes that “homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer the Christian community” and then asks whether we are capable of welcoming them (50).

The English translation (provided by the Vatican’s press office and labeled “unofficial”) goes on to ask whether our communities are capable of welcoming them, “accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony” (50). Some bishops at the synod and other critics have objected to the word “valuing” in the above translation, noting that the Italian says valutare, which can also be rendered as evaluate, consider, appreciate, understand.

Change in Attutude

Several statements in the Relatio suggest a definite change, not in dogma but in attitude:

--Speaking of the law of gradualness as “typical divine pedagogy” (13).

--The need for spiritual discernment regarding cohabitation, civil marriages and divorced-and-remarried persons (20).

--Evangelizing as the shared responsibility of all God’s people (26).

--A repeated insistence on renewal of programs for training priests and other pastoral associates through a greater involvement in families themselves (32)
 --A clear call in the synod for  the necessity of courageous pastoral choices (40).

It is noteworthy that some of the language in the preliminary report reflects the language of the instrumentum laboris, the working paper that was developed from the worldwide surveys which Pope Francis called for in preparation for this year’s synod. The voice of God’s people has been heard.

Also noteworthy is the poverty of the English translation the Vatican press office provided. It could be a computer generated translation, for several sentences are awkward and do not reflect what we might call “Church language.”

Nevertheless, that a Church document that seeks to be pastoral and to bring the Gospel into the lives of all people should be hailed as “an earthquake” or as “the worst document in Church history” is a sad commentary on how we have been behaving for too long.

It is essential, of course, to recall that this “Relatio post disceptationem” is a preliminary report on the synodal discussions and is not the final verdict. A synod will meet in October of 2015 to evaluate these initial discussions.


* The synodal committee, assisting Cardinal Peter Erdo of Hungary, included  Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi (Vatican), Cardinal Donald Wuerl (United States), Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez (Argentina), Archbishop Carlos Agular Retes (Mexico), Archbishop Peter Kang U-ll (South Korea) and Father Adolfo Nicolas Pachon (Spain).

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Domestic Church --A Model For Universal Church

The extraordinary synod on challenges to the family now meeting in the Vatican is an historic event.

A light has been lit in this meeting –not as bright as the Pentecost two thousand years ago, not as warm as the Second Vatican Council 50 years ago –but there is light and warmth emanating from the synod hall in the Vatican.

By calling this synod Pope Francis is encouraging collegiality in what might well be an unprecedented way.

He has gathered some 200 bishops plus others from around the world and requested 12 married couples to join the assembly to offer their experience of family life.

One of the couples, Ron and Mavis Pirola of Sydney, Australia, spoke before the assembly on opening day. Having been married for 55 years and being the parents of four children they obviously qualify as representatives of family life in practice.

Perhaps their most telling observation was recounting an incident in the life of their friends:

“Friends of ours were planning their Christmas family gathering when their gay son said he wanted to bring his partner home too. They fully believed in the Church’s teachings and they knew their grandchildren would see them welcome the son and his partner into the family. Their response could be summed up in three words, ‘He’s our son.’”

The Pirolas were simply giving the bishops an example of the tension that families must face in very day life.

And they linked their example to an observation in the instrumentum laboris, the working document which the bishops had received to jump-start their discussion. In part one, chapter one, number 4 of the instrumentum laboris the bishops were reminded that the Church looks to the Christian family in order to fully understand her mystery.

The universal Church can learn from the domestic church!

The domestic Church, the Christian family, experiences the same tension which the Church constantly faces, “the tension of upholding the truth while expressing compassion and mercy.”

In the family the response is “He’s our son.” In the Church should the response be any different?

The light and warmth of the family is a light and warmth for the Church at large.