I am hoping that the material in these chapters will appeal to Christians of all denominations and ages. At this point, however, I wish to speak about sin within the Roman Catholic church. I will try to do so with love, but with honesty.
In the next chapter I will explain the sad results that sometimes results from religion, when the emphasis is on the law, and strict observance of law. That emphasis has, unfortunately, been part of the approach with the Catholic church over the years. In general, I have to admit that the church has not been good in its dealing with sins and sinners. In many ways, it has been seen to fail in the very area for which it exists. Jesus died to bring people over a bridge from a love of law, into a law of love, and, I'm afraid, that, by the time I came along, the church had gone back over the bridge again into a love of law.
I don't wish to dwell on such obscenities as the Inquisition, and all the many ugly and unChrist-like ways the church has dealt with those who fell foul of her rules and regulations. Nothing, but nothing can defend all of that, and, I hope, it remains condemned for the evil that it was. Apart from such extremes, however, I still see many other signs of other ways in which the church has been less than compassionate towards the sinner, down the years. Many of those have been during my own life-time, and some persist to this day.
Now, it is not my intention to justify wrong-doing, or to defend behaviour that is wrong in its very essence. I speak more about the sinner here, than the sin. As a Christian, I must always be compassionate and forgiving, and I must remember that all judgement belongs to God. In fairness to the church, I must point out that it is always effected by the norms that prevail at any particular time in history. For example, to switch from the church, for a moment, let me make a comment on my own schooldays. I myself witnessed and received many a severe physical attack from teachers who were entrusted with my education and welfare.
However, if I had brought that fact to my parents for redress, I risked more physical punishment from them, for giving the teacher trouble in school! It was a no-win situation, because that was a reflection of the thinking and approach of the times. Children were to be seen, and not heard, while parents and teachers were always right. Naturally, the church, which was but an extension of home and school, reflected the same approach. The rules, the law, the customs, the traditions -- all were above and before the individual, and that's just the way it was.
I look back, with the benefit of hindsight, and I see things that still make me angry, and still puzzle me. However, if I am honest, I must admit that, many years from now, people will look back at this time, and speak of things that were very wrong, but are acceptable now. I do not know what those things will be, but I could hazard a few guesses that they may include the exclusion of women priests, the absolute ban on married clergy, the Sunday church attendance being of obligation, under pain of sin, and many other things that, I imagine, may not appear to be as important, when viewed many years from now. In other words, if I leave the gospel out of the formula (which would be disastrous), the church can easily become a product of its time.
I cannot, and dare not, leave the gospel out, because, without that, there is not, and should not be a church in the first place. The only reason for the church's existence is to promote the message of Jesus, and to point to him as saviour and Lord. I really believe that, it is when the church lost sight of its very reason for existence, that it became dogmatic, and dictatorial in its dealing with people.
I refer to the church as "it", even though normally referred to as "her". I believe the "her" comes from the concept of church as mother, and I do not use the expression now, while I speak of ways in which the church has displayed more of the characteristics of dictator than mother. I do not relish saying this, but I have to be honest, and so, I do not apologise.
In the following chapter, when I share how I believe that Religion usurped the place of Spirituality, it will be easier to see how the emphasis slipped, and why we went the way we did. The love and compassion of God was poured out on this earth on Calvary, and the blood of God soaked into the very earth. There is no longer room for self-righteous condemnation, and arrogant anathemas to be poured out on God's people. The fire and brimstone age came to an end when Jesus came among us, and, even the stones we would throw at those we condemn must be cast away, as we stand before God with open hands, ourselves in need of his salvation. Christianity is about attracting, not promoting. In the land of Israel to this day, the shepherd walks in front, and the sheep follow, rather than being driven from behind. It is what I am is my message, not what I say. If I enter your home, and tell you I have measles, while, actually, I have chicken-pox, which are you likely to catch?
"Confession", as it came to be called, has had a bad press down the years. Even the very name reveals the wrong emphasis, where the stress is on what I do, rather than what the Lord does, when I come to him. Among the many current attempts to make it relevant to today's world, the title has now been changed to Sacrament of Reconciliation, because reconciliation is what God does.
We are the ones who became estranged from God, and Jesus came to invite us back to the Garden, where we could be reconciled with a welcoming hug from the Father. Once the emphasis moved from God to us, it continued in that direction, until we had highjacked it totally, and God had very little say in it anymore. Our sins were what mattered, and we had pages and pages of questions, by way of examination of conscience, that we went through. Then we lined up our sins in some sort of order, and we then went into details about number and species. We had a whole lot of prayers to say before approaching the sacrament; we then were liable to face further cross-examination, not to say, a possible lecture, or scolding, which was followed by a penance, and then another few pages of prayers after we came out of the Confession box.
My experience of Confession was far removed from what would have happened had I met Jesus on the roads of Galilee, where sinners flocked to him, to receive his compassion, love, and acceptance. In fact, his condemnation was reserved for those who were so perfect in their own eyes, that they considered themselves as not needing what he so generously offered. They sought every means within their power to contradict and oppose him, and to condemn him for the special place he reserved for sinners. In fact, it was such religious people who eventually crucified him, because he dared say that there was a place for them among his friends.
Let us look, briefly, at where this sacrament came from, and how it developed over the years. In the early church, there were people who were guilty of actions that were of such a public nature, that they were a scandal among those who tried to live the gospel message. This would include anything from pagan practices, to denying the promises that went with joining the company of Jesus' followers. Such people were excluded from the Christian community for a certain period of time, until they had a chance to ponder what they had done, and decide if they wished to rejoin the company of believers. Their wrong-doing was of such a public nature, that everybody was aware of it, and the example of their conversion would serve as edification, just their wrong-doing had served as a scandal.
These people became part of what was called the Order of Penitents, and the length of their exclusion varied according to the level of scandal. This was the nearest thing to Confession that existed in the early church. In his letter to the Corinthians, we have Paul calling on them to exclude a man who was giving scandal by his behaviour, and. later on, Paul advises them to re-admit him now into the Christian community.
In the sixth century, Irish monks were involved in what might be described today as spiritual direction, when people called to the monasteries to get advice and counselling. This, in time, developed to a point where sins were mentioned, in the context of things that bothered, and for which advice was needed. This, in turn, led to a prayer over the person, asking for the Lord's forgiveness for any sin involved. The official church of that time strongly opposed this practice, but it persisted, and it was a few centuries later when it was officially recognised as a sacrament.
By the time I came along, it had been fine-honed to a ritual of observance and procedure that was detailed down to the last. It had become part of "pure" religion, where the emphasis was on law, rather than love. When so much emphasis was put on what we did, and when the human input took over in importance, it had wandered far from the idea of Incarnation, where God came to meet us, in our brokenness. Once again, the divine initiative had been turned into human endeavour.
There was also another dimension that crept in, that must be acknowledged. After the Reformation, the Roman Catholic church became even more entrenched in the correctness of what it taught, and if the Protestants dared suggest that there was forgiveness available in any other way, Confession was re-emphasised as being the way to be reconciled to the Lord. That anyone should suggest that salvation was a free gift, was totally unacceptable to those who were fully committed to getting it together through definite and correct procedures. In this, I believe that the church lost its way, but I must be fair in trying to understand how, and why, this had happened. I believe that this was but one of many ways in which the emphasis shifted, and it must be seen against the background of the times.
When I was a lad, we had several very serious "sins" that are not considered to be sins at all now. In my home diocese, we had two reserved sins, forgiveness for which was reserved to the bishop: making poteen (distilled spirits), and going to dances during Lent. Now, we may well laugh at that today, and see it for what it really was, but, at the time, such things were considered unbecoming, and it does not seem to have caused any great problem that a bishop could add a few more sins to the list, if he thought fit to do so.
In our own day, it is relatively recently that we are beginning to recognise that tax evasion, and fiddling the dole, are wrong, and within the sin bracket. The big sin in today's world, is that half the world is dying of hunger, while the other half is on a diet, trying to get down the weight. It is true to say that injustice and wrong-doing are greatly influenced and effected by the times, places, and circumstances in which they occur. I am not at all advocating some sort of situation ethic, where the situation determines whether something is right or not. Murder is murder, and sin is sin, but there are degrees of gravity. Making poteen could hardly be termed a sin, but, the destruction that can happen in a family, as a result of alcoholism can be positively evil.
It is too simplistic to generalise and list particular acts sins, without considering the motive behind the action, and the results of the action, which can deeply effect the gravity, or otherwise of the action. I think it is important to take as broad a view as possible, and to inform and form one's conscience with all the elements in place. Even acts that are good in themselves, can be evil, if the motive is not good. I could visit someone in hospital, which can be a good act, but I'm doing so with a view to regaling my pals with lurid details of the unfortunate's predicament. I could do a good act, for a very wrong reason. I could do many kind acts, because I am looking for votes in an election, and I could attend Mass for the purpose of making someone else look bad. In other words, it is not just black and white, and the approach of the past basically said that it was.
I do believe in the sacrament of Reconciliation, but not as I experienced it, as I grew up. Today, during Advent and Lent, we have services of Reconciliation, and I must confess that I delight in those, and am grateful to have lived to witness this development. There is a community dimension to sin, that must be stressed. When I visit a shopping complex to make a few purchases, I can be sure than my movements are being monitored on a television screen, and store detectives are watching my every move. More than likely, there is a little added to the prices I will be charged, to make up the short-fall, resulting from shop-lifting. Now, I can very well protest that I have not been involved in such behaviour, but I am paying for the behaviour of others.
There are areas in a city where public transport is curtailed after certain hours, and people, entirely innocent, are suffering because of the sins of others. It is only correct, therefore, that reconciliation take place within the context of the community, rather than being confined to the secrecy of a confessional. The confessional has its place, and there will always be need for individual confession, but I do not believe that this should be the norm.
In a programme like the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, it is strongly advocated that a personal moral inventory of my life, which is then shared with another, is a necessary step towards clearing the wreckage of the past. This is a once-off undertaking, if properly carried out, and is followed by daily checking on my behaviour, and, if I am wrong, I promptly admit it. This has more to do with reconciliation with myself and with others, than about any alienation from God. The alcoholic has been in the grips of self-will run riot, and it is only the daily dose of truth, that includes admission of guilt when necessary, that will serve at an antidote to that. Facing up to the deceits I find within myself, and in my behaviour, is the perfect antibiotic for the infections of selfishness and self-will.
I don't see Confession, as in former times, being very helpful or healing in a recovery process. It had far too much to do with guilt-tripping, and self-recrimination, something that was often made worse by a less than Christ-like attitude of the confessor. Only God is constant, the same yesterday, today, and always. Nothing else can remain the same, and everything else in always in the process of change and evolution. For example, Religious Life, as in nuns, monks, Brothers, etc., as we knew it, is finished, and we are now experimenting with new ways of developing and living it. The country-side is dotted with the ruins of old monasteries, and that was what was there before Religious life, as we have known it.
I also believe that, in the same way, Confession, as I knew it, growing up, is finished, and we now have to experiment with new ways of celebrating our reconciliation with God, and coming back to the baptismal font, to start again. I believe that the fall-off in the use of Confession might well have less to do with people losing a sense of sin, than of God's Spirit renewing his church, and bringing us into a renewed awareness of the message of the gospel.
No matter what form this reconciliation takes in the future, there will always be a need for on-going reconciliation with God, and with others. When I was a lad, we had a wireless, which was run on batteries. It was never very reliable, and one of my memories is that it had a kind of drifting dial, which caused it to drift off the station from time to time, and someone always had to be on stand-by, to tune it back on the station again.
Another memory I have from childhood involves sitting in a train, on my way to Dublin, looking out the window, and being fascinated by the telegraph wires that kept going out of sight at each pole, and then sagging between the poles. Both images help us see what normally happens in our lives. We can drift, and sag, in the normal course of events, and, unless we do something to correct this, we can easily slip and slip, until we are totally down.
A sacrament is a decision, and it includes the grace or power to carry out the decision. John and Mary could decide to live together, or they could come to church, and sacramentalise that decision. Now they have the grace of the sacrament in living out the commitment. A sacrament has much more to do with the future, than with the past. I am a priest, and if someone comes to me for Confession, I am more interested in hearing what is going to happen after that person has gone out the door, than anything that may have happened before he entered. If it's just forgiveness of sins I am looking for, then Jesus said that if I forgive, I am forgiven.
Confession is not about changing yesterday. "Lord, give the serenity to accept the things I cannot change...." If, however, I want to change to-morrow, and make sure that it's not just a repeat of yesterday, then, I would argue, I need the sacrament to enable me do this. In the past, many people went to Confession trying to change yesterday, which was seen wiping the slate, making sure that all records were cleared. I would suggest that I should go to the sacrament of Reconciliation, when I am ready to change tomorrow, and I come asking for the power to do so. The decision about tomorrow comes out of yesterday's sins, of course, but this attitude ensures that I am looking forward, and not backward. "Lord, give me also, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."
I'm sorry if this chapter has been somewhat heavy, and I don't think I told a story at all throughout. I think that this is very very important, and I am anxious that we should give serious consideration to the points raised. I am also severely limited by space, while not wishing to be too skimpy in my treatment of particular points. Forgiveness of others is the key to receiving forgiveness myself There is no such thing as a magic formula in this, and there is nothing automatic about it. If I wrote out every sin I ever committed, translated them into several languages, illustrated them with diagrams, went to Rome, and got absolution from the Pope in ten languages, there is not one of my sins forgiven, if I have unforgiveness in my heart towards another human being.
On the other hand, if I am forgiving towards others, and am ready to come before the Lord to ask his forgiveness, then I am always in the mainstream of reconciliation. I remember some years ago, when the Irish soccer team first created a stir on the European football scene, I was visiting a man who was dying of cancer, but who still had enough energy to be intensely interested in each game, as it came along. He would be propped up in bed, and would not miss a kick of the ball, from start to finish. Some weeks after the championship was over, I visited with him, and he was now very weak, and unable to sit up, or to take any interest in football.
He was asking me about death and dying, and I was sharing with him what I believe happens at that time. I used the following imagery: Jesus could very well sit me down in front of a huge video screen, and put on a video called "This is your life". I could be quite uncomfortable, watching this, until I begin to notice blanks occurring here and there. As my life unfolds, the blanks become more frequent, and, when, eventually, I ask him for an explanation of the blanks, he tells me that these were times when I did something wrong, and then I admitted. He then pressed the erase button, and it was gone, and, even now, if I asked him what those things were, he would not be able to remember. When God forgives, he suffers from total amnesia. I must say that I am delighted that, when I die, I will be judged by God. I wouldn't trust people at all!