Tuesday, January 31, 2017


I confess to Almighty God, to his Church, and to you, that
I have sinned by my own fault in thought, word, and deed, in
things done and left undone; especially __________.  For these
and all other sins which I cannot now remember, I am truly
sorry.  I pray God to have mercy on me.  I firmly intend
amendment of life, and I humbly beg forgiveness of God and
his Church, and ask you for counsel, direction, and absolution.

Here the Priest may offer counsel, direction, and comfort.

The Priest then pronounces this absolution

Our Lord Jesus Christ, who has left power to his Church to
absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in him, of
his great mercy forgive you all your offenses; and by his
authority committed to me, I absolve you from all your sins:
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy
Spirit.  Amen.

The United Nations designated last Friday, January 27, anniversary of the 1945 liberation of Auschwitz, as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Many books have been written and films made about that darkest night of inhumanity, during which I lived, the end and documentation of which I so vividly remember that it haunts my mind. Decades later, from the late 1980s television miniseries War and Remembrance, I recall John Gielgud huddled rocking back and forth chanting prayer, on a bench in the German gas chamber at Auschwitz as deadly gas poured into the crowded space of panicked naked humans; immediately following, a scene of the dust of human ashes dumping into the nearby Sola River and floating off beyond life and time.  

Over the weekend I read The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness, Simon Wiesenthal’s wrenching account of an experience while he was imprisoned in a German concentration camp in occupied Poland. The book contains his narrative, followed by essays, invited comments, of people from around the world, Americans, Europeans, others, Christians, Jews, theologians, rabbis, priests, lay people, Protestant ministers, even the Dalai Lama. 

Eighty-one is not the new forty-five, but reading about, hopefully not yet beyond retaining, things that are elusive, conceptual, theoretical, I’m coming upon different notions, shades, doctrines, ways of understanding confession and absolution that have to do not only with liturgical words, as we do it, but with a range of both abstract and concrete, thinking, saying and doing: regret, remorse, shame, sorrow, fear, contrition, confession, penitence, repentance, penance, atonement, reparation, absolution, forgiveness, reconciliation. Looking ahead a month, I am thinking that all this may be helpful to my own spiritual penitence and ordained ministry as I contemplate Lent with its smudge of ashes and ominous warning from Genesis 3:19, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” When all is said and done, this is what I believe: dust.

As we in the Christian church, where sin has become unmentionable lest someone take offense, go light with confession and absolution, I am finding it helpful to know of unspeakable wrongs that are beyond forgiveness even from the Word and hand of God. And helpful to perceive distinction between what as a priest I may absolve, which we understand as forgiveness in the Name of God, and what I morally cannot but must delay or defer. Notion, conviction, moral theology, abstract.

In the low church milieu I served over thirty-odd years as a priest, I’ve heard neither more nor fewer private confessions than the next cleric. They are private, confidentiality sealed, one case I felt compelled to take to my bishop for advice while still protecting identity, and no case that criminal code required I report to law enforcement. 

In a few instances, per the rubric above, I offered counsel and direction and withheld absolution until the Penitent returned compliant with my assignment of penance to repent, apologize, make amends. Invariably that startles a Penitent, who is taken aback if there is more to it than formality of hearing words and seeing the priest's right hand wave the sign of the cross. Generally we take the sacramental rite too lightly. We reduce it to the least common denominator of liturgical rote in general Confession and Absolution where words are read obliviously and presumptively and the Celebrant's hand waved lightly, all in passing. Solemn, half serious, cheap grace, arguable theology. 

Last week’s Holocaust Remembrance Day surfaced it all again, unspeakable history the perpetrators and nation of equally guilty silent "complicit spectators"* all unforgivable except by the slaughtered and their unborn generations throughout the ages of ages; and atonement would have eliminated Germany as a nation and vacated that part of Europe for the Jews instead of seizing Palestinian lands from helpless and innocent owners and concentrating them. Tragically, the situation is beyond resolve, forgiveness impossible, wrongs multiplied not atoned, and civilization stuck, The Peace of Jerusalem a travesty that shifted the nightmare.

Here’s what I’m reading, hearing, learning, finding out. For cultic sins against God, the priestly sacramental rite suffices because the Church says it does. For sins against a human, there is no divine forgiveness before personal repentance and atonement, and forgiveness from the offended human only. For some sins, such as the Holocaust, and murder generally, forgiveness is impossible because the offended is dead and cannot. To weasel out of this with a cheap understanding of grace as an apology read and a hand waved, only multiplies the sin and guilt, which remains. And aside, interestingly, Jewish custom also calls it unforgivable to wrongfully destroy another’s reputation, because a destroyed reputation cannot be restored. To contemplate for Lent 2017.

From the catechism 

Other Sacramental Rites
Q. What other sacramental rites evolved in the Church 
under the guidance of the Holy Spirit?
A. Other sacramental rites which evolved in the Church 
include confirmation, ordination, holy matrimony, 
reconciliation of a penitent, and unction.

Q. What is Reconciliation of a Penitent?
A. Reconciliation of a Penitent, or Penance, is the rite in 
which those who repent of their sins may confess them 
to God in the presence of a priest, and receive the 
assurance of pardon and the grace of absolution.

Not exactly, but I think this is about where my mind went this morning, and what I meant to say to myself before the first Lent of this New Era.

DThos+ in Stoppage Time  

* "complicit spectators: Franklin H. Littell Sunflower, p.197

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