I am hoping that one of the first things that can be swiftly restored to our faith practice is the Sacrament of Reconciliation. A priest behind a protective screen is surely no more risky than the situation of a supermarket cashier? I know some priests have tried improvised solutions, but the general guidance was that so-called confessions of devotion were not really necessary. We were reminded of the truth that God forgives sin if we have contrition.
This is, of course, Catholic faith, but needs a little clarification. The sacrament of reconciliation has been steadily recovering from the damage inflicted on it in the 1970s, when General Absolution was widely abused and the nature of the sacrament was obscured by well-meaning pastors and teachers who taught people to write their sins on pieces of paper and burn them; to confess just one sin, or to tell the priest where they felt the need for improvement.
As Sister Wendy Beckett memorably said, “All real love knows how to say sorry.” Contrition is part of the matter of the sacrament because there is Another involved. It is not merely my own psychological satisfaction which dictates what I should feel sorry for. Confessions of devotion – going regularly even though I may not have any grave matter to confess – are as much part of spiritual hygiene as dental check-ups. It staves off decay because each one imparts grace and can teach humility. These could be the only reason a soul has not fallen into grave sin.
It is important, then, to understand in what sense contrition is a substitute for Confession. In a situation where I cannot celebrate the sacrament I should indeed make an act of perfect contrition, but this, as the Pope reminded us, should be accompanied by the firm resolve to celebrate it as soon as possible. It’s a crude analogy, but it would be no good having a cover note for your insurance if you didn’t intend to pay the premium.
Even if I have perfect contrition (and it’s not easy to know if I do), I should remember that this is not the efficient cause of the remission of my sins. The Lollards in England and the Hussites in Bohemia both taught that Confession was superfluous, explaining that it was the contrition in the believer’s heart which earned the forgiveness of sins. The Council of Constance in 1415 anathematises this belief.
The contrition of the believer is essential to the forgiveness of sins, but, as the formula of absolution makes clear, forgiveness comes through the ministry of the Church. Christ endowed her with the power of salvation by establishing the sacraments as the means of salvation. God’s grace is not confined to the sacraments when external reception is impossible; but what obtains forgiveness is a faith-filled desire to participate in these because Christ ministers them; there is no suggestion that they are now unnecessary.
It’s easier to understand if one thinks of a baptism of desire. I could be saved if I desired baptism but couldn’t obtain it, but not if I could obtain it but decided that desiring it was enough.
Behind this is not some ecclesiastical overreach. It stems from the origin of the sacrament and its interpersonal nature. Reconciliation is an encounter with the Risen Christ who breathes on the Apostles a new kind of life, a life in which sin has been overcome in human nature. It is the divine power of God’s life poured out on the world by Jesus’s dying and being raised which is ministered to us in Confession.
Man does not raise himself to God by his contrition. It expresses his desire for the darkness to yield to the Paschal light of Christ who is reconciliation, who is our peace. Let no one mourn, says St John Chrysostom, that he has fallen and fallen again, for forgiveness is risen from the grave.