Blessed Imbolc

Apr 20, 2010

The Power of Penance

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.



The Huffington Post has a very good piece by Rev. James Martin SJ on the importance of penance for the Catholic Church for its failure to protect children from abusive priests.
Every Catholic knows that forgiveness in the confessional demands penance. Reconciliation in the church requires the same thing.

This is why Pope Benedict XVI's remarks last week might be an important starting point. "[W]e Christians, even in recent times," he said, "have often avoided the word 'penance,' which seemed too harsh to us. Now [...] we see that being able to do penance is a grace and we see how it is necessary to do penance, that is, to recognize what is mistaken in our life, to open oneself to forgiveness, to prepare oneself for forgiveness, to allow oneself to be transformed. The pain of penance, that is to say of purification and of transformation, this pain is grace, because it is renewal, and it is the work of Divine Mercy."

If the church hopes to heal, the turn to penance is, as the pope says, "necessary." And I mean real penance.



I'm not Catholic so confessions and penance aren't concepts I understand in any depth, but I was heartened to hear Pope Benedict invoke the idea. In short, because it was good to finally hear something from the Vatican that spoke of the church's culpability and responsibility. As the Rev. Martin explains, the Catholic Church has a codified process for rectification of wrong-doing. It is a process that the Church expects Catholics to follow for large sins and small. Yet it has not required this from bishops and other clergy who, through inaction or misguided action, enabled abusers to avoid justice and failed to prevent them from re-offending.

There have certainly been consequences for some church officials and for church coffers but as Rev. Martin points out, that is not the same thing as actively choosing penance.

More disturbing are penances directed to the wrong people. Occasionally bishops will invite all Catholics in their diocese to commit themselves to a general period of communal penance in "reparation" for the sins of sexual abuse by clergy. Pope Benedict's recent pastoral letter to the Irish church mentions this. In addition to proscribing penances for the clergy and members of religious orders, the pope exhorts "the faithful" to offer their "Friday penances" for one year.

On the one hand, the idea of the whole people acting together, as one, is theologically sound. One of the central images of the church is the "Body of Christ." The church, unified as a body, rejoices and suffers together. Thus the crime of sexual abuse tears at the body of the entire church. But this theological approach, when applied in this case, is misdirected, even offensive. Why should the Catholic "faithful" (the laity) repent for anything? They were not the guilty ones. It would be as if a penitent entered the confessional, confessed his sins, sought absolution, and said, "Could you give the penance to someone else?

It is offensive to involve church members who have no culpability for the reasons stated. But also because it reduces this penance to a kind of meaningless symbolic action. It disperses and diffuses any sense of genuine responsibility as if to say, All of us are guilty so none of us are guilty, so we don't need to get into who did what to whom. It's yet another indication that many church officials, as individuals, refuse to own up to their mistakes.

Rev. Martin explains something that I was taught in my own church as a youth; one of the few explanations of "sin" that made sense to me. That sin is that which comes between you and God. It severs. It separates and isolates. In some way we must atone, meaning to return to a state of one-ness.

[Atonement] is an early 16th century creation from at + one under the influence of Latin ad-una-mentum "unity". It was assisted by the prior existence of the verb, to one "to make one, unite". Onement was already used by the Bible translator John Wyclif in the 14th century. This noun was influenced by such frequent phrases as "set at one" and "put at one", so that atonement began to replace onement early in the 16th century.

The process of confession and penance is not terribly meaningful to me but it is to Catholics and would probably go a long way towards mending some of what has been broken by this scandal. Genuine contrition and compassion are powerful healers. Acknowledging the pain that you are in any way responsible for can be deeply transformative. Pope Benedict's recent meeting with abuse survivors was a good start.

[Lawrence] Grech, one of eight men who were molested by priests in a Maltese orphanage during the 1980s and '90s, said the meeting with the pope had restored his faith.

"For a long time I haven't gone to Mass, and I had lost the faith," he told the National Catholic Reporter. "Now I feel like a convinced Catholic again."

. . .

"I could see the pain in his eyes," [Joseph] Magro recalled. "He said he did not know. He said the priest had betrayed his vows before God."

"I have made my peace with the church," Magro said after the meeting.

Another probable reason the meeting with the Pope Benedict was successful is that it provided these survivors a sense of being heard. If the Catholic Church hopes to survive, becoming accessible to the people and taking themselves off a pedestal is crucial. That means bearing the same kind of penance they expect from parishioners who sin. It means dropping the defensiveness that has made them unable to recognize the pain of abuse survivors and disillusioned church members. It means admitting in a meaningful way that they are also sinners who have made some ghastly mistakes.

"The pontiff alluded to the sins of the church, recalling that it, a wounded sinner, felt all the more the consolation of God," L'Osservatore Romano wrote of the lunch gathering.

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