Reflection & Dialogue: The Holy Spirit, union with the Father, the forgiveness of sins, the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession).
Today’s Gospel reading presents a good opportunity to reflect on the coming of the Holy Spirit on the church, his presence in the Church, and the significance of this for the mystery of the union of believers with Jesus and the life of the Trinity, through the sacrament if reconciliation as required. One may be somewhat surprised with the rather abrupt nature of Jesus’ message to his disciples on this first meeting with them after his resurrection. He says twice: Peace be with you”, and then immediately: “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you. Receive the Holy Spirit”. Having already been aware of Jesus’ teaching on the matter, as given in John’s Gospel, the disciples would have understood all that these opening words implied. Jesus and the Father were one. He came to reveal the Father; to bring the life of the Father to his followers, with Jesus in his followers as he is in the Father, so that they may all be one in Jesus and in the Father. The disciples are now sent to be messengers and bearers of this mystery to the world. Jesus breathed on them (as if to begun a new creation) and bid them receive the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit has many functions, as we have seen in today’s readings. The one here stressed is that of forgiving sins. The great barrier to the union with Jesus and the Father, with the Holy Trinity, is sin. Christ died so that sins might be forgiven, and has conferred on his disciples, and their followers in the Church, the power of forgiving sin. The early Church, and later, had to live with the reality of sin and the implication of these words of Jesus. What sins were intended, and how often could forgiveness be given? The sins early intended were only very grave ones: apostasy from the faith, murder, adultery, for instance. Confession of sins seems to have been rather public, and this was followed by a lengthy period of penance (in an “order of penitents”) before reconciliation with the Church. The practice was not successful. A new, and the present modern, practice and rite was introduced by Irish monks. As the new Catechism of the Catholic Church (paragraph 1447) puts it: “To this ‘order of penitents’ (which concerned only certain grave sins), one was only rarely admitted and in certain regions only once in a lifetime. During the seventh century Irish missionaries, inspired by the Eastern monastic tradition, took to continental Europe the ‘private’ practice of penance, which does not require public and prolonged completion of penitential works before reconciliation with the Church. From this time on, the sacrament has been performed in secret between penitent and priest. This new practice envisioned the possibility of repetition and so opened the way to a regular frequenting of this sacrament. It allowed the forgiveness of grave sins and venial sins to be integrated into one sacramental celebration. In its main lines this is the form of penance that the Church has practised down to our own day”.
This takes us to a call for a renewal of the sacrament of reconciliation in our day, and in our own land. Confession and communion were rare until the liturgical reform of Pius X (1905) and again at the Second Vatican Council. Confession became very frequent in Ireland – we would call it “confession of devotion”, as Ireland was a very devotional country. Then it almost vanished, not necessarily through a lack or abandonment of faith. One can now call for a reassessment of the situation. From the point of view of Church law only those conscious of mortal (grave) sin are bound by Church law to go to confession once a year, although confession of venial sins is encouraged. But leaving Church law aside, confession of sins and the frequenting of the sacrament of reconciliation are to be encouraged. The practice keeps one aware of sin, and of the need to keep in union with the mystery of the Church, of Christ and the Father. The Holy Spirit was given by Christ for the forgiveness of sin, and to keep believers aware of the call of Jesus to remain united in his love.