If there is one thing St. Peter’s in the Loop is famous for and something that almost everyone who lives in the Archdiocese of Chicago could tell you, it is the reality that we hear confessions every weekday from early morning until when most of the commuters are on their way home and then on Saturdays all afternoon. Chicagoans as well as visitors from near and far discover that they can come to St. Peter’s almost anytime and a priest will be available to celebrate this marvelous sacrament Jesus has given us not only for the forgiveness of our sins but also for the deepening of our spiritual lives.
Today I would like to give you a brief history of this sacrament as a way of helping you appreciate what a gift it is and what the mission of St. Peter’s can mean for you and for the entire Archdiocese. According to the Gospel of St. Mark, Jesus healed people from a host of maladies, so much so that people were astonished (Mk 6:2). Jesus also frequently forgave the person’s sins before healing the body. The Church remembers Jesus’ healing touch of body and soul in the sacraments of healing, particularly the anointing of the sick and penance, or reconciliation.
While the practice of spiritual healing through the forgiveness of sins is a tradition as old as the Church itself, the practice of confessing individual sins and receiving absolution from a priest or bishop developed over time. And this sacramental practice has changed greatly. In the early Church, the confession of sins was not a common practice. In baptism, people were washed clean of sin, and no other means of forgiveness was thought needed. People who strayed from the narrow path would return to God through prayer, fasting and works of mercy and would be forgiven their minor sins in the Eucharistic celebration.
Then came the Roman persecution of the second and third centuries when Christians were forced to renounce their faith in order to save their lives. How could this sin be forgiven and people brought back into the Body of Christ? A formal process for returning people to a full membership in the Church was needed, and so one developed. These early penitential practices were rigorous, reserved as they were for only those people who had sinned egregiously, e.g., murder, apostasy, sacrificing to false gods, etc. Tertullian wrote that this “second penance” (baptism was first) could be received only once during a lifetime.
When a person who had sinned grievously wished to return to the Church, he or she would be required to come before the entire community and admit sinning. They were required to make a public penance, often standing outside the church wearing sackcloth and ashes, giving alms, with a sign confessing the sinful behavior. This penance often occurred during the six weeks of Lent, with the sinner being received back into full communion with the Church during Holy Week liturgies.
For the most severe sin, the penance might last years. The fourth century Council of Nicaea set a 12-year penance for those guilty of the gravest sins. A person had to be at least 35 years old in order to be admitted to this order of penitents because someone younger was thought more likely to relapse into sin. Only a bishop could release a person from this penance and forgive his or her sins.
The sacrament of penance began to take on a different form during the fifth century. Now, priests—and not just bishops—could forgive a person’s sins. Pope St. Leo the Great ended the public confessing of sins, deciding that admitting one’s guilt to a priest was sufficient.
The more lenient monastic practice of penance—the predecessor of the form we practice today—was developed by the monks of Ireland during the sixth century. To receive forgiveness, one privately confessed serious sins to a priest, fulfilled a required penance needed to bring one to spiritual wholeness, and accepted the forgiveness of the priest on behalf of the Church.
Over a period of centuries, the monks developed books called penitentials that listed the common sins people confessed and the penance that would accompany absolution. This type of forgiveness could happen multiple times during one’s life and was no longer connected to Lent.
As a result of this changed practice, the focus of the sacrament came to be seen as more about punishment and retribution, and less about healing, or helping people to amend their lives and return to the Church. What started out as a way to encourage people to seek forgiveness frequently for their sinfulness soon came to be seen as so harsh that people seldom took advantage of it.
During the next 600 years, the structure of the sacrament changed little. The Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 ordered that anyone who had reached the age of reason should once a year “individually confess all their sins in a faithful manner to their own priest.” This council also instituted the seal of confession—what was revealed in confession had to be kept a secret—and determined that regular confession and absolution were necessary for a “proper Christian life.”
Two hundred years later, in 1439, the Council of Florence finally defined the sacrament of penance. To be forgiven, the penitent must be contrite for his or her sins, to be determined not to sin again, confess aloud all sins (to the best of one’s memory), complete the penance given by the priest (prayer, fasting, giving alms), and be forgiven by the priest who uses these words: “I absolve you.”
During the Protestant Reformation, the bishops at the Council of Trent reaffirmed in 1551 the requirements of and need for the sacrament. All mortal sins had to be confessed yearly.
The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) called for the reform of all sacraments, including penance. The reform of penance focused on a return to spiritual healing, the reconciliation of the person with the Church and with God, and less on punishment for sins. In 1973 Pope Paul VI formally gave the sacrament the name “reconciliation.”
We are most fortunate to have this sacrament now readily available, especially at St. Peter’s. It is still the case that it is primarily to be used for the forgiveness of serious (mortal) sins rather than for less serious (venial) sins. These latter sins can be mentioned in one’s conscience or mind during the pause at the penitential rite during Mass and thereby included when the priest concludes that rite with the words, “May Almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us to everlasting life.” This beautiful liturgical prayer does not absolve all sins with the efficacy characteristic of the sacrament of penance. It is rather a petition, such that, through the beseeching mediation of the Church and through the personal acts of those assisting at the Eucharist, the small sins of every day are forgiven. In this way the faithful are kept from falling into graver sins. I would encourage all Catholics to celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation every one to two months for the sake of forgiveness of more serious sins and as a means of grace to grow in our love of God and our neighbor.
TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
The journey to Jerusalem is a characteristic feature of Luke’s Gospel account. For ten chapters (9:52-19:28) Luke presents Jesus on a journey to Jerusalem with his disciples. The symbolism of a journey was instructive to Luke’s audience. They knew that during the course of the Hebrew people’s travel from Egypt to the Promised Land, God formed them into his people. Against this background, Luke reminds us that Jesus is the guide leading his disciples purposefully on the path to Jerusalem, where he will bring salvation to them through his death on the cross.
This passage offers a series of sayings through which Jesus instructs his disciples about the conscious decision that must be made to become a member of his kingdom. Jesus also draws attention to the fact that one cannot claim to be a member of his kingdom simply because of Jewish heritage. Consequently, the places at the table in Jesus’ kingdom are extended to the gentiles, who “come from the east and the west, and from the north and the south.” The gentiles, who have been called last, will go ahead of those who were first invited, the Jews. God’s Kingdom is open to all humankind, to everyone who embraces Jesus and his message.
Today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah shows how Jesus’ message of inclusivity was foretold centuries before by the prophet. Jesus has come to bring God’s plan to fulfillment.
The reading from Isaiah shows a great unity in the people that God sends forth to tell of him. The Council Fathers directed in Lumen gentium that leaders in the Church need to be united to bring people to God. The Second Vatican Council document states, “Since the human race today is tending more and more towards civil, economic and social unity, it is all the more necessary that priests should unite their efforts and combine their resources under the leadership of their bishops and the Supreme Pontiff and thus eliminate division and dissensions in every shape and form, so that all humanity may be led into the unity of the family of God” (#28).
In the reading from Isaiah, we hear that God will “send fugitives to the nations to proclaim his glory.” Pope Francis instructs in The Joy of the Gospel that every age, Christians are called to go and make disciples. He states, “Each Christian and every community must discern the path that the Lord points out, but all of us are asked to obey his call to go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the ‘peripheries’ in need of the light of the Gospel” (#20).
For Your Reflection: Have you ever considered that you have a role in spreading the Gospel? Are you sometimes disappointed that it takes effort and discipline to be a faithful Christian? Do you consider Jesus as your guide to the kingdom of God?
SAINT AUGUSTINE OF HIPPO
Wednesday, August 28, 2019
A Christian at 33, a priest at 36, a bishop at 41: Many people are familiar with the biographical sketch of St. Augustine, sinner turned saint. But really to get to know the man is a rewarding experience.
There quickly surfaces the intensity with which he lived his life, whether his path lead away from or toward God. The tears of his mother, the instructions of Ambrose and, most of all, God himself speaking to him in the Scriptures, redirected Augustine’s love of life to a life of love.
Having been so deeply immersed in creature-pride of life in his early days and having drunk deeply of its bitter dregs, it is not surprising that Augustine should have turned, with a holy fierceness, against the many demon-thrusts rampant in his day. His times were truly decadent: politically, socially, morally. He was both feared and loved, like the Master. The perennial criticism leveled against him: a fundamental rigorism.
In his day, Augustine providentially fulfilled the office of prophet. Like Jeremiah and other greats, he was hard pressed but could not keep quiet. “I say to myself, I will not mention him; I will speak his name no more. But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones. I grow weary holding it in; I cannot endure it” (Jer 20:9).
Augustine is still acclaimed and condemned in our day. He is a prophet for today, trumpeting the need to scrap escapisms and stand face-to-face with personal responsibility and dignity.
FRANCISCAN VOCATION OFFICE
Here in our Franciscan fraternity lately we have been involved in a kind of “musical chairs” adventure. The latest change is that our Vocation Office, which has been housed at St. Peter’s for the past several years, is moving to a new location at 4513 North Ashland Avenue in Chicago. This building is the home of the former Holy Evangelists Friary. Brother Thom Smith, O.F.M. has moved to this new address along with Fr. Greg Plata, O.F.M., the vocation director for the Assumption Franciscan Province. This joint venture of the two provinces is another venture in working toward the unity of six O.F.M. provinces in the United States in the years ahead. Br. Thom can be reached for vocation questions and information at his cell phone 314-766-1952 or you may go to the Franciscan Vocation website www.befranciscan.com. We wish both Br. Thom and Fr. Greg well in this new endeavor.
A SUMMERTIME CHUCKLE
A man has to attend a large convention in Chicago. On this particular trip he decides to bring his wife. When they arrive at their hotel and are shown to their room, the man says, “You rest here while I register. I’ll be back within the hour.”
The wife lies down on the bed. Just then an elevated train passes by very close to the window and shakes the room so hard she’s thrown out of the bed. Thinking this must be a freak occurrence, she lies down once more. Again a train shakes the room so violently that she’s pitched to the floor.
Exasperated, she calls the front desk and asks for the manager. The manager says he will be right up. The manager naturally is skeptical, but the wife insists the story is true.
“Look, lie here on the bed. You’ll be thrown right to the floor!”
So he lies down next to the wife. Just then the husband walks in. “What are you doing here?” the husband asks.
The manager replies, “Would you believe I’m waiting for a train?”