The Pope on Penance

The Italian National Liturgical Week this year will be on penance/confession/reconciliation. Here’s a snippet of the official letter sent by the pope’s Secretary of State to the Italian head of the Liturgical Week:

In this connection, in a message sent to the participants in the recent 20th course on the Internal Forum, promoted by the Apostolic Penitentiary, the Supreme Pontiff stated: “These days, the correct formation of believers’ consciences is without a doubt one of the pastoral priorities because, unfortunately, as I have reaffirmed on other occasions, to the extent that the sense of sin is lost, feelings of guilt increase which people seek to eliminate by recourse to inadequate palliative remedies. The many invaluable spiritual and pastoral tools that contribute to the formation of consciences should be increasingly developed” (Benedict XVI, March 12, 2009).

And he adds: “Like all the sacraments, the sacrament of Penance too requires catechesis beforehand and a mystagogical catechesis for a deeper knowledge of the sacrament: ‘per ritus et preces.’ … Catechesis should be combined with a wise use of preaching, which has had different forms in the Church’s history according to the mentality and pastoral needs of the faithful” (ibid.).

Along with an adequate formation of the moral conscience, maturity of life and celebration of the sacrament, it is necessary to foster in the faithful the experience of spiritual support. Precisely for this reason, the Pope continued to note, today “wise and holy ‘spiritual teachers'” are needed, exhorting priests to keep “ever alive within them the knowledge that they must be worthy ‘ministers’ of divine mercy and responsible educators of consciences,” inspired in the example of the Cure d’Ars, St. John Vianney, of whom precisely this year we observe the 150th anniversary of his death (cf. ibid.).

Good stuff… The whole thing is here.

7 thoughts on “The Pope on Penance

  1. Stuart

    Derek or other haligweorcians, can you clear something up for me?

    Re the BCP ’79: The rubrics in Reconciliation make the point that “absolution is not pronounced,” when the rite is officiated by a Deacon or lay person. Instead, the penitent is offered a “declaration of forgiveness.”

    What is the functional difference between absolution and a declaration of forgiveness in Reconciliation? What does the penitent not receive when he/she does not receive absolution?

    Looking at the text of the declaration of forgiveness, I see absolution: “Our Lord Jesus Christ, who offered himself to be sacrificed for us to the Father, forgives your sins by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” The penitent’s sins certainly seem put away to me.

    What am I not seeing in that formula that leaves the penitent “unabsolved?”

    In confusion,

  2. Derek the Ænglican

    Here’s how I think that’s supposed to work… We are told to confess our sins to one another (James 5); technically, this need not be a priest. Thus, the rite may be conducted by deacons and laity. However, only clergy can pronounce absolution–(“declare God’s forgiveness to penitent sinners”, 531). Thus, as in the confessions in MP/EP, the “your” must be changed to “our” by those not priests.

    Thus, the penitent does not receive an authoritative pronouncement of the forgiveness of these particular sins but rather a general statement that Christ forgives sins through the Spirit, implying that these sins may be so forgiven.

    In other words, I see it as a fudge to have it both ways…

  3. Stuart

    Hi Derek,

    I don’t see how the lay declaration of forgiveness isn’t authoritative. The declaration is not conditional, “Christ FORGIVES.” The declaration isn’t general, Christ forgives “YOUR sins.” Being both specific and unconditional, it seems to me to qualify as an authoritative pronouncement of absolution. So my question of what priests do in Confession that lay people can’t still stands.

    Also, do you disagree with lay officiants at Reconciliation? When you call the BCP 79 approach “fudge,” is that a bad thing you’d like to see rectified? If so, would you like the rectification to involve lay people pronouncing “absolution,” or by restricting Reconciliation to the ordained ministers?


  4. Derek the Ænglican

    Ok–I see where you’re looking now on 452.

    It lacks the declarative power of “I absolve you from all your sins” as on 451, ISTM.

    I must confess (heh), I am more catholic-minded and I see Confession/Reconciliation as a sacrament and therefore as something proper to ordained clergy. For the Anglicans who believe themselves to be more on the Bible-believing end I’ll agree that our direct Scriptural warrant never mentions clergy/elders in relation to confession and thus I see this as permissible and tolerable wiggle, but I wouldn’t feel right giving it myself or confessing to any other than a priest except in extremis.

  5. Stuart

    For me there’s much more declarative power in “Christ forgives” than in “I absolve.” Ego te absolvo doesn’t work for me as evangelical catholic theology.

    I believe ordination is a sacrament in that it is an outward sign than an individual has the grace to act as presbyter in a parish of the Diocesan Church. I don’t believe that the grace to lead confers any special “powers” to bless or to forgive that any baptized Christian may be called to exercise under the guidance of Presbyter and Bishop.

    Evil, evil grin: we recognize our brothers/sisters in ELCA as having the fullness of the catholic faith in theology and teaching and they license lay people to celebrate Baptism and Eucharist! So, in the end, the catholic faith must allow not only for lay Reconciliation but Lay Presidency. Otherwise how could General Convention have voted for full communion with an ELCA that teaches falsehood?!?

  6. Derek the Ænglican

    Well, I’ve got a higher sense of ordination than you… But as we’re both Episcopal rather than something else that mandates understanding it at a certain level, that’s ok.

    I mean, we recognize other Anglicans—including the Diocese of Sydney—as Anglicans. It doesn’t mean I have to agree with them.

    Of course, I’d want to point to the ministry of a priest in the catechism which includes “to bless and declare pardon in the name of God.”

  7. Stuart


    Since I left the Orthodox Church (or was driven out by its homophobia, to speak more truly) my ecclesiology has been headed Lutheran and my theology to the Left (much to my absolute shock). I guess I’ve embraced solo Christus because I’ll never again give a human institution the right to tell me whether my soul is damned and my relationships an abomination. The Reformation finally gave me the right of freedom of conscience to say “No!” to my Orthodox hierarch years back and it gives me the right to say “No!” today when the ABC tells me my faithful, Christ-centered relationship is a Christ-exiled lifetyle.

    To give to Priests and Bishops a unique power to loose is also to give them a unique power to bind. I no longer believe they have the power to bind or loose me. Christ alone, by grace has the power to do that. If not, it becomes dueling wizards: the Episcopal bishops loose what the Orthodox bishops bind and I go forum shopping for the right magician to set me free. I won’t seek to be bound or freed by them, but by Christ alone.

    I’m actually the only person in my Anglo-Catholic parish, as far as I know, that makes my Confession in Advent & Lent. I embrace catholic practice with what I hope is reverence and attention, it’s just that I’ve come (or must) see catholic praxis as bene esse rather than esse.

    your friend and Real Partaker,

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