By Priyangwada Perera Ceylon Today Features
As the Lent begins with the ashes smeared on foreheads as a reminder of the impermanence of life, Christians try to improve their way of living. It is a continuous reminder of Jesus' suffering leading to His death on the cross. One way the Christians believe to be a part of that suffering is by taking the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. This sacrament is perhaps what most non-Christians find problematic and Christians get confused with. How can anyone be pardoned for sins? Is it just a matter of confessing to a priest to have your sins erased?
Speaking to lecturer of Dogmatic Theology Fr. Indrajith Perera explained that "In the celebration of the Christian Mystery, out of the seven sacraments, under the Sacraments of Healing we get the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. Here, in article 4 lines 1422 it says " Those who approach the sacrament of Penance obtain pardon from God's mercy for the offense committed against Him and are at the same time, reconciled with the Church which they have wounded by their sins and which by charity, by example and by prayer, labour for their conversion." The document explains it beautifully with the lines 1423 as "It is called the sacrament of conversion because it makes sacramentally present Jesus' call to conversion, the first step in returning to the Father from whom one has strayed away by sin. It is called Penance, since it consecrates the Christian sinner's personal and ecclesial steps of conversion, penance and satisfaction." Fr. Indrajith was keen to stick to the document in order to emphasize what is written, for those who have doubts on going to a priest to confess. "It is called the sacrament of forgiveness, since by the priest's sacramental absolution God grants the penitent 'pardon and peace'. It is also the sacrament of Reconciliation, because it imparts to the sinner the life of God who reconciles."
To make peace with God or man?
Referring to a non-Christian friend who once questioned the whole concept of confession asking, "What if my daughter breaks my heart with something she does? She does not say a word to me, not even a simple 'sorry' but instead, goes to the priest for confession. How does your sacrament help me, when I am still hurt?" Fr. Indrajith had only to say that it is clearly mentioned, "Go; first be reconciled to your brother." Then, confession is not just about doing wrong to your friend, brother or neighbour and asking pardon from God. First and foremost it is doing the essential of going back to the person against whom we have committed wrong and ask to be pardoned. This is exactly what makes the act difficult. Owning up is never easy; accepting "I have done wrong, I have been wrong" is often the hardest thing to do. Because this can be explained so clearly and simply, the whole process of sinning, owning up and pardoning sounds like a food chain. Unfortunately, that is also how it is mostly received. Whereas the process is expected to be far more deeply felt. "Due to all the misinterpretations it is safest to stick to what is written. Specifically focusing on Interior Penance, lines 1430 explains "Jesus' call to conversion and penance, like that of the prophets before him, does not aim first at outward works, "sackcloth and ashes, fasting and mortification but the conversion of the heart, interior conversion." Unless one recalls, recognizes and accepts one's faults with a humble heart, nothing else matters. That is what is called 'interior penance.' What all of us should keep note of is our conscience. It is a process of honest self discovery where you are no alien to your own faults. It is not just the violation of rules or laws; it is not whether you got caught doing something unlawful or escaped without a punishment. It is that knowledge of self which should trouble you. Your guilty conscience! "The act is complete when the person returns to his old life, rejuvenated. But he also has to be cautious in what he does and not give into temptations. You were pardoned and is expected to make a conscious attempt not to commit sins.
Pardon for sins
Some tend to think once you confess your sins, you are pardoned of everything. That has become both the chief criticism and the misleading fact against the sacrament. Answering this, Fr. Indrajith re-emphasized how the sacrament is completed. "This comes under the Sacraments of Healing, along with anointing of the sick. Just as the name suggests, both provide a healing. The other preferred name for confession is the sacrament of reconciliation. That explains the meaning more profoundly. After more than two decades of war, what we wanted was reconciliation. It does not mean a deletion of what has happened. It does not necessarily erase your sins. But if you have committed a grave sin, your conscience may trouble you. If you are earnest to bounce back and correct yourself and the sin is an obstruction in the process of recovery, this is where it heals you. Primarily, one needs to feel guilty of the sins committed. Then, there should be determination to not repeat the sinful acts. The sacrament assures that you have space to rebound. The sin would not condemn you forever. There is the offering of turning over a new leaf. The biggest bonus in Christianity is that it gives you another chance. It is up to each person to make the most of it. But this is not the chance for someone to take the easy way out and say 'our sins will be pardoned and we are cleansed' and continue the same way of life. But there are some sins which cannot be forgiven, "Fr. Indrajith added. "One such instance is in the case of an abortion. The one who gets the abortion done along with the person or physician who does it, if he is a Catholic-both parties are automatically excommunicated. It is considered a grave sin," he said.
However, it is interesting to note that Pope Francis, in September 2015 has expressed a different view. As a part of the church's jubilee year from 8 December 2015 - 26 November 2016, considered the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis has requested the priests to forgive the women who have had abortions. They were asked to be absolved if they express contrition and seek forgiveness from the priest. In spite of emphasizing that the church "did not condone abortion or minimize its grave effects", in an extraordinary letter the Pope announced that the "The forgiveness of God cannot be denied to one who has repented."
With so much of emphasis on our sins being forgiven, perhaps it is even more important to keep ourselves checked on how willing we are, to forgive those who wrong us. Jesus taught the biggest of lessons on forgiving, dying on the cross and pardoning the killers. Ideally Christians should be able to practice the art both gracefully and compassionately. C.S. Lewis says, "To be Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you." This being the Year of Mercy, the focus is on this crucial yet difficult act of forgiving. Mark Twain wraps it up beautifully making the magnanimity and humility that is required to forgive someone who has wronged you when he says, "Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it."