The original term for this sacrament, penance, is from the Latin 'paenitentia seconda' which translates as 'second conversion'. (As opposed to the paenitentia prima or first conversion, which is baptism.) This use of 'penance' roots it as a ritual celebration of a process of conversion for those who commit serious sin after baptism. This comares with the sense of punishment, which is the common usage (The Chambers dictionary lists 'repentance' as an obsolete meaning, and describes the current meaning as "an act of humiliation of punishment ...").
Theological thought about the secrament developed considerably at Vatican II, and the council adopted a theology of the sacrament in terms of its original baptismal and communal context. This led to greater emphasis being placed on the sacrament as one of reconcilliation with God , the community and self. The term 'reconcilliation' highlights this emphasis. This does not imply that the term 'penance' is wrong. But there are depths of meaning which ordinary use of the word does not convey. The official title which the Church uses is still Penance.
The term 'confession' is based on medieval practices, which empasised the actual confessing sins to a priest. A number of factors lead to this influence, - one was the consideration given to which part of the ritual of penance led to God's fogiveness being imparted. In common usage in New Zealand today, the three terms are generally synonamous. This may point to a lack of understanding of the way the sacrament is about being reconcilled with God and the community.
Christian belief in God's forgiveness is based on the mercy of God as revealed in scriptures and through tradition. The person of Jesus is a visible and tangible sign of this mercy. In Jesus life and teachings, forgiveness plays an important role (there are numerous scriptural references). But the forgiveness which we see in Jesus life is not simply an 'emotional action'. Rather, it is an action which enables the person
who has been forgiven to take some further action.. When a human being experiences the depths of God's mercy, their capacity to love and be merciful to others is increased - with this increase comes a call to act in a forgiving and merciful way. In a sense this is an extension of the original baptismal calling, giving that baptism is, among other things, the first conversion.
The need for a ritual for forgiveness came about in the early church because of the problem of dealing with people who had sinned in a serious and public way, and in doing so had harmed the community. Originally, there were some sins that were considered so serious that in some people's eyes they could never be forgiven. Gradually a more merciful approach was taken. But still the community needed some way to be reconciled with people who had sinned in this way. Various penetential practices were developed. For serious sin, these usually included some form of separation from the community, and thus inability to participate in Eucharist. When the period of separation was over the sinner was ritually reconcilled with the community, and re-admitted to the Eucharist, in a ceremonly that renewed their baptismal committment.
Current theological thinking sees the sacrament of Reconcilliation in a similar light - it is focussed on healing persons and their relationships with God and others rather than on the sins they have committed. In a sense, if I have hurt a member of my community in some way, the focus is on restoring the relationship rather than on the particular actions which I did. Of course, the two are not totally unrelated - part of being reconcilled is in not doing the same thing again and again. But the foucs is on the overall state of the relationship rather than the minute detail of particular interactions.
It follows from this that the principal ecclesial effect of the sacrament of reconcilliation is reconcilliation with God and this is intrinsically linked to reconcilliaton with the Church (ie the People of God).
Some sin is individual - a person does something which harms the relationship between them and either God or their community. But sin can also be social - no one individual makes decisions which harm people, but organisations (communities, governments, businesses) do things which are sinful. And even indiviudal sin does not occur in a closed system - it is carried out within the social context in which people live. Vatican II recoginised these factors in placing stress on the social and eccclesian character of sin and conversion. In line with this, the council also stressed expression of this character in the celebration of the sacrament and the pastoral ministry associated with it. This is emphasis is expressed in a number of ways. The most obvious are the forms of the Rite of Penance known as Rite Two and Rite Three, which involve many people celebrating the sacrament at the same time, and receiving respectively individual and joint absolution. But the emaphasis also shown in Rite One. Pre-Vatican II, this involved going indivdually to a place, usually a church and receiving the sacrament while separated from the priest by a grille. The current form of the rite, however, makes it clear that the normal form of Rite I involves a dialogue with the priest, and an environment which facilitates this (ie face-to-fact) is preferred. In this way, the sacrament is an act of worship, even though only two members of the community. (Interesting to note that while this is the norm, it is not overly stressed - in a sense, the Church has been sensitive to the impact of the change on individual penetitants who have a lifetime of experience of private confession, while encouraging the community overall to move forward in their practice of the sacrament.)
Reflection on the nature of the sacrament provides a number of key insights. The marrying of the communal and individual aspects is of some interest. As a child, I experienced the rigidly private confessional, and very enthusiastically adopted the options of face-to-face confession and Rite Two when they became available. But as I have deepened an understanding of the need for reconcilliation in the themes of my life rather than the minute details, individual reflection and guidance of the state of my relationships has become more important. This does not always have to be sacramental, but still I experience the need to approach a priest for reconcilliation at particular times to in a sense mark the 'end' of a period of conversion. And it is in individual recepit of the sacrament that I have felt most able to honestly ask for absolution. Also interesting is that I have sought reconcilliation not just with God and the Church - but also with other people who are not (necessarily) members of the church. When I have harmed these people, certainly I have failed to live up to the standards of behaviou expected by the church of it's members, but the harm done (at least appears) to be less than the harm done to the individuals who were directly affected.
The nature of social sin, and the nature of our communal rites of reconcilliation is also interesting. The communal rites involve people hearing the Word together and examining their conscenciouses at the same time and in the same place. The communal emphasis is based on the assembly as a sign of the presence of Christ. It does not, within the rite, attempts any serious examination of aspects of social sin. This is wise - social issues are so complex that agreement of what is and is not sinful may nevery be reached, and it is more likely that a community will undergo a process of conversion slowly as various individuals are converted, than reach a new understanding at the same time. But it is potentially a source of confusion about what exactly is meant by the idea of communal celebration.
A theology assignment from 1999