It has become customary in many parishes to have Communal Celebrations of Penance during Advent and Lent. For many people such celebrations have taken the place of going to confession during those same times.
The form of the Sacrament of Penance that many of us grew up with which involved confessing one’s sins to a priest in the confessional has very obviously fallen out of favour with the vast majority of faithful Catholics. There are probably several reasons for this decline but one reason is that the understanding of sin, needed to and has, undergone considerable change.
The Celebrations of Penance or Reconciliation – or as I would prefer to call them – Celebrations of Redemption, offer us the opportunity to expand and develop our understanding of God’s overwhelming forgiveness, of the meaning of Christian conversion and of the true identification of sin. In all of these areas there is a need for greater understanding if we are to deepen our relationship with God and to understand the things which really impede that relationship, which is what we call sin. To really appreciate what sin is, we have to look at its presence among human beings and human history which does not purely reduce it to the actions and thoughts of individuals. We need to appreciate its social and socially structural dimensions as well as the actions of individuals. We need to see the actions of individuals as entwined in the social network which forms them and which we all imbibe from childhood on whether we are aware of its influence or not.
These celebrations offer readings from the word of God accompanied by a homily, time for prayer together, opportunities to examine our lives for evidence of sinfulness, a communal recognition of that sinfulness and symbolic actions which give expression to what we have celebrated.
It is always important that we have the means of bringing human sinfulness out into the light. And we need a variety of ways of doing this. We are always travelling along the road of conversion as individuals and as communities of the Church. Christ calls us all to go beyond ourselves and to respond to him. This is the very meaning of the word ‘conversion’. It comes from two Greek words meaning ‘beyond’ and ‘mind’. So he calls us to go beyond where we are now and to follow his path to the Father, who calls into communion with each other.
By Fr Frank O’Loughlin
An Advent Penitential Service will be held at 7.00 pm on Tuesday, 21 December at Our Lady of Perpetual Succour Church.