Monday, November 11, 2013

The Sacrament of Reconciliation (Penance, Confession)

I had planned on writing on the Eucharist (or Holy Communion) next, but my nephew, Kenneth Beckman, posted a quote from the book “7 Secrets of the Eucharist” by Vinny Flynn that got me thinking about the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  The quote, as posted on Ken’s Facebook page:

The sacrament of reconciliation: "there our misery meets His mercy, and we are restored to grace, so that we can now more worthily enter into Communion with Him through the Eucharist."
In this quote, the word “misery” caught my eye and sparked my thinking.  If we approach the Sacrament of Reconciliation in a state of misery, then we might as well be wearing hair shirts and flagellate ourselves on the way into the confessional, that we might thereby best acknowledge our sinfulness and the breach we have caused in our relationship with God.  Should we be miserable as we come to terms with our sinfulness and what hurt that causes in our relationship with God?  I think so.  Misery is an appropriate reaction to that realization and self-acknowledgment.  If we stay in an attitude of misery once we attain that self-knowledge, then I think we short-change both God’s mercy and our own role in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

To Catholics, every Sacrament is or has an outward sign.  Some are easy to recognize, e.g., the water of baptism and the bread and wine of Eucharist.  The visible sign of God’s grace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation is the penitent.  For the penitent to attempt to reflect God’s grace by reflecting an attitude of misery is certainly not what we, the people of God, would hope to see.  Rather, the penitent is to adopt the attitude of the prodigal son, who, though very conscious of his sin and the consequences of that sin, nevertheless approached his father’s lands in an attitude of hope, even though he had no expectations of being offered anything more than a place as one of his father’s servants.  He certainly had no expectation of the reception he did receive, but we do know what our Heavenly Father will do when we approach him in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

He will forgive us. He will love us. He will embrace us and offer us His blessing.  How can we maintain a state of misery when we know what will be the result of our reaching out with a firm purpose of amendment, seeking forgiveness and reconciliation with God?  To do so would be to deny our knowledge of what will happen once we complete the act of Reconciliation.  Should a state of misery precede our journey toward Reconciliation? I concede that’s a valid and licit state of mind, but one that should be but transitory.  Let us approach our Father with all humility, and with full knowledge of our sinfulness, but also with the certain knowledge of His unending love and forgiveness and consign the hair shirts to the dustbin of a misguided past.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Annulments - Just Catholic Divorce?


Since my first blog post was about marriage, I thought I’d spend a little bit of time talking about annulments.  First of all, annulment is NOT Catholic divorce.  A divorce acknowledges the existence of a legal, civil marriage which has now been irretrievably broken.  As such, all of the legal entanglements that go with marriage have to be dealt with so that civil and legal authorities know how to deal with each separating party.  Divorce requires agreement (either bipartisan or court-imposed) on custody, care and funding of children; disposition of property; disposition of other assets; potential for ongoing financial support of one party by the other - all in recognition of what once existed but now no longer does.

An annulment in the Catholic Church, however, says that a valid Christian marriage never existed between the two parties.  Since it never existed, both parties are therefore free to marry again in the Church and contract new, hopefully-valid Christian marriages.  The Church does not annul marriages in a cavalier fashion, however; it takes work.  Here’s some of the rationale.

First of all, the Church presumes all marriages entered into by two baptized Christians and solemnized by a Christian minister of some sort are, in fact, valid Christian marriages.  For the Church to decide otherwise and grant an annulment, proof to the contrary is required.  So, in the annulment process, testimony as to the state of the relationship prior to and at the time of the marriage is required from at least the partner applying for annulment.  Every effort is made to obtain the testimony of the other partner, as well, who may well view events much differently.  Supporting testimony from witnesses who had solid knowledge of both parties and their relationship prior to and at the time of marriage is also required.  The local (arch)diocesan Tribunal will evaluate the evidence and render a decision as to whether the marriage was valid at its inception or not.  Please note that adultery by one or both parties AFTER the marriage is not grounds for annulment.  What matters is what was in the mind of one or both parties at the inception of the presumably-Christian marriage.

Issues such as hidden addictions (gambling, alcohol, drugs, pornography, computer games, etc.) could be grounds for annulment.  A clearly stated intent by one or both parties to others that he/she will never have children is another.  Maintaining an illicit relationship on the side while getting married is proof of lack of the proper intent.  There are other grounds, but those are best reviewed with the person to whom your parish refers you as you seek annulment.

My point, which I hope isn’t lost here, is that the Church so values the sacramental value of Christian marriage, that is the pouring out of the grace of God inherent in the marriage covenant of the two baptized Christians, that the Church:

  1.      Presumes the validity of all Christian marriages prima facie and absent solid testimony to the contrary.
  2.       Offers annulments so that those desiring to live in a sacramental marriage can still do so, despite entering into an invalid marriage relationship earlier in life.

 tSo, to repeat: an annulment is NOT Catholic divorce.  It is a process, often painful, by which the circumstances of a presumably-valid Christian marriage relationship are examined and either found valid or not.  Not every annulment that is sought is granted.  That is why, if you are planning to get married in the Church, you should take advantage of all that your local parish offers in terms of marriage preparation.