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The Sacrament of Penance (No 3)

(Second Baptism, Penance Confession,

Reconciliation) in the Early Church.


* Sacrament of Penance - Part 1

* Sacrament of Penance - Part 2

* Sacrament of Penance - Part 3

We have been meditating over the last number of Sundays on the Sacrament of Penance in the Early Church. We noted that for serious sin one entered what was called the Order of Penitent’s and began a long period of prayer, fasting, and reading of the Word of God before being reconciled with the Community on Holy Thursday. The period of Penance, Prayer, and the reading of the Word of God became more intense during Lent, when they were joined with the whole Community. The whole Community together prayed that all would change and have a conversion of heart so that they would come closer in their relation with God and with one another. Those who were not in the order of Penitent’s prayed, fasted, and read the Word so that those who were in the Order of Penitents would have a true Conversion, and be united once again with Community and God.

Ireland however had its own tradition for Reconciliation. The Christian community were organised around the Monasteries. Here the tradition had grown up of confessing ones sins to the monk, receiving absolution and then doing the penance privately. When the monks went abroad they bought this custom with them to Europe so that it became the accepted way for the sacrament after some time. But again the emphasis was on Conversion of one’s way of life. With the Council of Trent in the seventeen the Century thee provision was put in that one must confess by number and kind. Naturally the name changed from the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation to the Sacrament of Confession. The emphasis now was on Confession and we didn’t emphasize enough the Penance and Reconciliation until the Second Vatican Council. But with the second Vatican Council the Emphasis was put back on Conversion, and Reconciliation. The Community dimension came to the fore again with the Community celebration of the Sacrament. We have these Community celebrations during Lent in preparation for Easter, in Advent in preparation for Christmas.

The central theme that emerges from a short history of the Sacrament is that the Sacrament is above all about being reconciled with the Community and being reconciled with Jesus. We celebrate the Sacrament because we are celebrating the change that Jesus has brought in our lives so that we want to be reconciled with our brothers and sisters and with God. For this inner conversion of our lives away from sin and closer in our relationship with Christ is a continuous process which we celebrate again and again as we grow closer and close r to God and further and further from sin in our lives. The three big words and actions emerging after Vatican 11 are Reconciliation, Conversion, and Celebration.

I suppose the word that strikes us most strangely is the word celebrate. How can you celebrate ones own sins?. So it is important to note that we are not celebrating our own sins. We are celebrating the work that God is doing in us in bringing us to conversion from our sins. We are celebrating what God can do within us through the power of his death and resurrection. We are celebrating what God is doing in us through the power of the Holy Spirit. And isn’t this a great cause for celebrating and rejoicing in the presence of God. We rejoice because God is saving us. We are reminded of this great truth by Jesus in today’s Gospel when we are reminded that we are the Temple of the Holy Spirit who is alive and active in us bringing about the resurrection in us each day. For each day he calls us to die to sin and to rise to goodness, to die to evil, and rise to goodness, to die to selfishness and to rise to concern for others. So we die and we rise with Jesus every day, and especially in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

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