Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Celebrating God's Forgiveness
The well-known Parable of the Prodigal Son is perhaps
the most strikingly powerful illustration of the human process
of reconciliation, and of the theology inherent in the new Rite
of Reconciliation. But many of us find it difficult to believe
the story (see Luke 15:11-32). The father welcomes the son back
instantlydoesn't even wait for him to get to the house.
And he isn't at all interested in the young man's confession,
only in celebrating.
This is not the way we Catholics have viewed the Sacrament
of Reconciliation. Even with the new Rite, most of us tend to
view this sacrament with the attitude of the older son in the
story: Forgiveness comes only after you recite your list of sins,
agree to suffer a bit for them, do something to make up for your
offenses, give some guarantee you won't commit the same sins again,
and prove yourself worthy to join the rest of us who haven't been
But God really is like the merciful parent in this
parable: not out to catch us in our sin but intent on reaching
out and hanging on to us in spite of our sin. Reconciliation (and
the new Rite is careful to point this out) is not just a matter
of getting rid of sin. Nor is its dominant concern what we,
the penitents, do. The important point is what God does
in, with and through us.
A journey home to God
God's reconciling work in us doesn't
happen in an instant. Reconciliation is often a long, sometimes
painful process. It is a journey not confined to, but completed
in, sacramental celebration. It is a round-trip journey away from
our home with God and back again that can be summed up in terms
of three C's: conversion, confession and celebrationand
in that order.
In the past the order was different:
Receiving the sacrament meant beginning with a recitation of sins
(confession). Then we expressed our sorrow with an Act of
Contrition, agreed to make some satisfaction for our sins by accepting
our penance, and resolved to change our ways (conversion).
Celebration was seldom, if ever, part of the process.
The Parable of the Prodigal Son can help
us understand the stages in our journey to reconciliationand
the order in which they occur. This helps us see why the theology
of the new Rite of Reconciliation suggests a reordering in the pattern
that we were familiar with in the past.
The journey for the young man in the
parable (and for us) begins with the selfishness of sin. His sin
takes him from the home of his parentsas our sin takes us
from the shelter of God and the Christian community. His major concern
in his new self-centered lifestyleas is ours in sinis
himself and his personal gratification. None of the relationships
he establishes are lasting. When his money runs out, so do his "friends."
Eventually he discovers himself alone, mired in the mud of a pigpen,
just as he is mired in sin. Then comes this significant phrase in
the story: "Coming to his senses at last...." This is the beginning
of the journey back, the beginning of conversion.
Conversion: An ongoing process
The conversion process begins with a "coming to one's
senses," with a realization that all is not right with our values
and style of life. Prompted by a faith response to God's call,
conversion initiates a desire for change. Change is the essence
of conversion. Shuv, the Old Testament term for conversion,
suggests a physical change of direction; metanoia, the
term the New Testament uses, suggests an internal turnabout, a
change of heart that is revealed in one's conduct.
The Gospel vision of metanoia calls for an
interior transformation that comes about when God's Spirit breaks
into our lives with the Good News that God loves us unconditionally.
Conversion is always a response to being loved by God. In fact,
the most important part of the conversion process is the experience
of being loved and realizing that God's love saves uswe
do not save ourselves. Our part in this saving action is to be
open to the gift of God's loveto be open to grace.
Moral conversion means making a personal, explicitly
responsible decision to turn away from the evil that blinds us
to God's love, and to turn toward God who gifts us with love in
spite of our sinfulness.
Persons who turn to God in conversion will never be
the same again, because conversion implies transforming the way
we relate to others, to ourselves, to the world, to the universe
and to God. Unless we can see that our values, attitudes and actions
are in conflict with Christian ones, we will never see a need
to change or desire to be reconciled.
The need for conversion does not extend only to those
who have made a radical choice for evil. Most often metanoia
means the small efforts all of us must continually make to respond
to the call of God.
Conversion is not a once-in-a-lifetime moment but
a continuous, ongoing, lifelong process which brings us ever closer
to "the holiness and love of God." Each experience of moral conversion
prompts us to turn more and more toward God, because each conversion
experience reveals God in a new, brighter light.
When we discover in the examination of our values,
attitudes and style of life that we are "missing the mark," we
experience the next step in the conversion processcontrition.
This step moves us to the next leg of our conversion journey:
breaking away from our misdirected actions, leaving them behind
and making some resolutions for the future.
Let's look again at our story. The young man takes
the first step in the conversion process when he "comes to his
senses," overcomes his blindness and sees what he must do. "I
will break away and return to my father." Before he ever gets
out of the pigpen, he admits his sinfulness. And in this acknowledgment
of sin he both expresses contrition and determines his own penance.
"I will say to him, 'Father, I have sinned against God and against
you....Treat me like one of your hired hands."
Contrition means examining our present relationships
in the light of the Gospel imperative of love, and taking the
necessary steps to repent and repair those relationships with
others, ourselves and God. The repentance step in the conversion
process is what is commonly called "making satisfaction for our
sins," or "doing penance."
For many people in the past penance connoted "making
up to God" by punishing ourselves for our sins. But true reparation
is not punishment. At its root, reparation is repairing or correcting
a sinful lifestyle. In the past we were told to do penance as
temporal punishment for our sins. Now, however, we understand
that our real "punishment" is the continuing pattern of sin in
our lives and the harmful attitudes and actions it creates in
us. The purpose of doing penance is to help us change that pattern.
Penance is for growth, not for punishment. "Doing penance" means
taking steps in the direction of living a changed life; it means
making room for something new.
Lillian Hellman provides a wonderful image of this
process of reconciliation in her explanation of the word pentimento
at the beginning of Pentimento: A Book of Portraits: "Old
paint on canvas, as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent. When
that happens it is possible, in some pictures, to see the original
lines: a tree will show through a woman's dress, a child makes
way for a dog, a large boat is no longer on an open sea. That
is called pentimento because the painter 'repented,' changed his
mind. Perhaps it would be as well to say that the old conception,
replaced by the later choice, is a way of seeing and then seeing
Confession: Externalizing what is within
Confession, one aspect of the sacrament which used
to receive the greatest emphasis, is now seen as just one step
in the total process. Confession of sin can only be sincere if
it is preceded by the process of conversion. It is actually the
external expression of the interior transformation that conversion
has brought about in us. It is a much less significant aspect
of the sacrament than we made it out to be in the past. This does
not mean that confession is unimportantonly that it is not
the essence of the sacrament.
Look again at the parable. The father, seeing his
son in the distance, runs out to meet him with an embrace and
a kiss. Through one loving gesture, the father forgives the sonand
the son hasn't even made his confession yet! When he does, it
seems the father hardly listens. The confession is not the most
important thing here; the important thing is that his son has
returned. The son need not beg for forgiveness, he has been
forgiven. This is the glorious Good News: God's forgiveness, like
God's love, doesn't stop. In this parable, Jesus reveals to us
a loving God who simply cannot not forgive!
Zorba the Greekthat earthy, raucous lover of
life created by Nikos Kazantzakiscaptures this loving God
when he says: "I think of God as being exactly like me. Only bigger,
stronger, crazier. And immortal, into the bargain. He's sitting
on a pile of soft sheepskins, and his hut's the sky....In his
right hand he's holding not a knife or a pair of scalesthose
damned instruments are meant for butchers and grocersno,
he's holding a large sponge full of water, like a rain cloud.
On his right is Paradise, on his left Hell. Here comes a soul;
the poor little thing's quite naked, because it's lost its cloakits
body, I meanand it's shivering.
"...The naked soul throws itself at God's feet. 'Mercy!'
it cries. 'I have sinned.' And away it goes reciting its sins.
It recites a whole rigmarole and there's no end to it. God thinks
this is too much of a good thing. He yawns. 'For heaven's sake
stop!' he shouts. 'I've heard enough of all that!' Flap! Slap!
a wipe of the sponge, and he washes out all the sins. 'Away with
you, clear out, run off to Paradise!' he says to the soul....Because
God, you know, is a great lord, and that's what being a lord means:
Our attitude toward the Sacrament of Reconciliation
is intimately related to our image of God. We need to really believe
that our God, like Zorba's, is not some big bogeyman waiting to
trip us up, but a great Lord who is ever ready to reach out in
The Rite of Reconciliation reflects this image of
a God of mercy. Formerly, it was the penitent who began the encounter
in confession"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned"not
unlike the way the sinner of Zorba's imagination approached God,
or the way the son in our parable planned to greet his father.
But both Zorba's God and the parent in the parable intervened.
In the same vein, now in Reconciliation it is the confessor who
takes the initiative, reaching out, welcoming the penitent and
creating a hospitable environment of acceptance and love before
there is any mention of sin. Thus, the sacramental moment of confessionjust
one of the sacramental moments in the whole Ritefocuses
on God's love rather than our sin.
Of course the new Rite does concern itself with the
confession of sins. But one's sinfulness is not always
the same as one's sins. And, as a sacrament of healing,
Reconciliation addresses the disease (sinfulness) rather than
the symptoms (sins). So, the sacrament calls us to more than prepared
speeches or lists of sins. We are challenged to search deep into
our heart of hearts to discover the struggles, value conflicts
and ambiguities (the disease) which cause the sinful acts (the
symptoms) to appear.
A question that often arises is: Why confess my sins?
And why confess to a priest? Why not confess directly to God,
since God has already forgiven me anyway? From God's point of
view, the simple answer is: There is no reason. But from our
point of view, the answer is that as human beings who do not live
in our minds alone, we need to externalize bodilywith words,
signs and gestureswhat is in our minds and heart. We need
to see, hear and feel forgivenessnot just think about it.
We need other human beings to help us externalize
what is within and open our hearts before the Lord, which puts
confessors in a new light. They are best seen, not as faceless
and impersonal judges, but as guides in our discernment, compassionately
helping us experience and proclaim the mercy of God in our lives.
As the Introduction to the Rite puts it, the confessor "fulfills
a parental function...reveals the heart of the Father and shows
the image of the Good Shepherd." Another of the confessor's roles
is to say the prayer of absolution. Contrary to what we may have
thought in the past, this prayer, which completes or seals the
penitent's change of heart, is not a prayer asking for forgiveness.
It is a prayer signifying God's forgiveness of us and our reconciliation
with the Churchwhich is certainly something to celebrate.
Celebration: God always loves us
Celebration is a word we haven't often associated
with the Sacrament of Reconciliation. But in Jesus' parable, it
is obviously important and imperative. "Quick!" says the father.
"Let us celebrate." And why? Because a sinner has converted, repented,
confessed and returned.
Celebration makes sense only when there is really
something to celebrate. Each of us has had the experience of going
to gatherings with all the trappings of a celebrationpeople,
food, drink, balloons, bandsand yet the festivity was a
flop for us. For example, attending an office party can be such
an empty gathering for the spouse or friend of an employee. Celebration
flows from lived experience or it is meaningless. The need for
celebration to follow common lived experiences is especially true
of sacramental celebrations. All of the sacraments are communal
celebrations of the lived experience of believing Christians.
Perhaps what we need to help us feel more comfortable
with the idea of celebration in relation to Reconciliation is
a conversion from our own rugged individualism. Let's face itthere
is something about believing in a bogeyman God from whom we have
to earn forgiveness that makes us feel good psychologically. It's
harder to feel good about a God who loves and forgives us unconditionallywhether
we know it or not, want it or not, like it or not. In the face
of such love and forgiveness we feel uncomfortable. It creates
a pressure within us that makes us feel we should "do something"
to deserve such largessor at least feel a little bit guilty.
The older brother in our story expresses this same
discomfort. Upon witnessing the festivities, he appeals to fairness
and legalism. In a sense, he is hanging on to the courtroom image
of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, suggesting that there is no
way everyone can feel good about the return of the younger brother
until amends have been made.
But this older son is far too narrow in his understanding
of life, of God and of the sacrament. He is too calculating, too
quantitative, not unlike the butchers and grocers that Zorba refers
to in his description of God. This son finds it difficult to understand
that we are never not forgiven. The Sacrament of Reconciliation
does not bring about something that was absent. It proclaims and
enables us to own God's love and forgiveness that are already
The older brother's problem is a universal human one.
It's tough for most of us to say, "I'm sorry." It is even tougher
to say, "You're forgiven." And it is most difficult of all to
say gracefully, "I accept your forgiveness." To be able to do
that we must be able to forgive ourselves. That, too, is what
we celebrate in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
The community's liturgical celebration of Reconciliation
places a frame around the picture of our continual journey from
sin to reconciliation. Only someone who has never experienced
or reflected on that journey will fail to understand the need
and value of celebrating the sacrament.
The older son in our story may be such a person. When
the father calls for a celebration, everyone else in the household
responds. Not only do they celebrate the younger son's return,
they celebrate their own experience of forgiveness, mercy and
reconciliation as well. They, like us, have been on that journey
from which the young man has returned.
So there is something we can do about the unconditional
forgiveness we receive from God: forgive as we have been forgiven.
Having been forgiven, we are empowered to forgive ourselves and
to forgive one another, heal one another and celebrate the fact
that together we have come a step closer to the peace, justice
and reconciliation that makes us the heralds of Christ's Kingdom
A communal celebration
Sacramental celebrations are communal because sacramental
theology is horizontal. Sacraments happen in people who are in
relationship with each other and with God. In the area of sin,
forgiveness and reconciliation this is particularly evident. Our
sinfulness disrupts our relationship in community as well as our
relationship with God. And since the sacrament begins with our
sinfulness, which affects others, it is only proper that it culminate
with a communal expression of love and forgiveness that embodies
the love and forgiveness of God.
Unconverted "older sons" will always be out of step
with the Christian community. When we celebrate the sacrament,
we celebrate with joy and thanksgiving because the forgiveness
of the Christian community and of God has brought us to this momentand
that is worth celebrating. There is no room for the attitude that
forgiveness comes "only when you have recited your list of sins,
agreed to suffer a bit for them and proven yourself worthy to
join the rest of us who haven't been so foolish."
Such "older sons" are looking for what theologian
Dietrich Bonhoeffer called "cheap grace"grace without discipleship,
without the cross, without faith, without Jesus Christ living
and incarnate, and without the conversion necessary to live reconciliation
within the Christian community. Such a person is hardly ready
to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation as it is understood