26May The Practice of Mercy v The CDF

Recently somebody has said ‘curial reform must include reform of the CDF’. I would like to share with the members of the ACP my experience with the CDF over 30 year ago in 1983. The editor of the Furrow had asked me to write a short piece on ‘’penance in the parish’. An abbreviated version of my reply went as follows (this was later included in the ferns diocesan bulletin).

Penance in the Parish

I was asked to do a piece on the general topic “Celebrating the Sacrament of Penance”. I think the best way I can do this is to give a short account of the manner in which my own understanding and practice have developed over the years.

When I came from Clonliffe College to Holy Redeemer, Bray twelve years ago (I came to Bray in 1974) a lot of people were still going to confession on a regular basis. Often I found hearing confessions a depressing experience. So many good people were full of anxieties and scruples about their past confessions particularly concerning sexual matters. Many seemed to believe that the sacrament is effective only to the extent that they could give an accurate account of the list of sins and the number of times committed.

From speaking to parents of children preparing for First Confession and Communion I was surprised to hear that very many of them regarded going to confession as a dreadful ordeal. And they hated it not because they were lacking in sorrow for their sins, but because of the mechanics of the thing@ going into the dark box; not knowing what to say; fearing that they might be delayed or given out to by the priest etc.

The sacrament is supposed to be an act of worship, a celebration of God’s forgiveness and a prayer to God who forgives. For many, in reality, it was none of these things; just a terrible ordeal to be gone through. Christ surely never intended it so.

RITE 2

So we decided that something had to be done. With the help of the Redemptorist Fathers we announced our first celebration of Rite 2 on 14th March 1982. WE followed the procedure as laid down by the Ordo Paenitentiae with hymns, prayers, readings, homily, examination of conscience etc. When it came to individual private confession the people were told to omit the trimmings e.g. how long, prayers etc. They were invited to confess their sins in a general way and encouraged to put into words the main obstacles that came between them and the Lord e.g. I am sorry for my sins especially for my selfishness in the home, or especially for my failure in the whole area of justice, relationships, sexuality etc.

If the penitent found that too much, the priests were advised beforehand to accept from them whatever they were capable of rising to e.g. I am sorry my sins and I want forgiveness. Their sincerity was to be presumed if they came along on the night and were willing to take their place in the line with the other penitents.

PEAK MOMENTS.

That celebration of Rite 2 was a very moving spiritual experience. The church was packed, about 1,00 people. A tremendous sense of solidarity existed. We were all together acknowledging that we were sinners in receipt of God’s forgiveness. People were so edified to see the priests confessing to one another!

FINAL COMMENT

The question of integrity. Before Vatican 2, integrity was sometimes understood in a very narrow legalistic sense. The tone of the revised rite and of the Pope’s post-synodal exhortation seems much more pastoral. In the words of the Pope “The confession of sins…. is an act of the Prodigal Son who returns to his father and is welcomed by him with the kiss of peace. It is an act of honesty and courage.”

To say that I was surprised when I received a letter from the papal nuncio, archbishop allibrandi would be an understatement. I give the text in full and also my reply.

LETTER OF AB ALLIBRANDIL

Dublin, 4 August 1988

Very Reverend and dear Father,

Certain Parties in this Country have brought to the attention of the Congregation for Sacraments your article on the Sacrament of Reconciliation within a penitential celebration, which appeared in ‘The Furrow’(“Penance in the Parish”, March 1987, pp 172 -174). The substance of that article also was published in The Ferns Diocesan Bulletin.

Since your article and the pastoral recommendations contained in it touch on the discipline of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the same Congregation for Sacraments has now instructed me to communicate to you what follows

Father O’Connell affirms that: ‘The sacrament is supposed to be an act of worship, a celebration of God’s forgiveness and a prayer to God who forgives. For many, in reality, it was none of these things; just a terrible ordeal to be gone through. Christ surely never intended it so´(p 172).

The Congregation of Sacraments notes that, in saying the above, the author accents only one aspect of the Sacrament, i.e. its ecclesial nature, while neglecting the other aspect of the Sacrament, i.e. its individual nature, an aspect which complements the first. Both aspects are clear from Catholic doctrine: ‘First of all it must be emphasised that nothing is more personal and intimate than this sacrament, in which the sinner stands alone before God with his sin, repentance and trust… But at the same time one cannot deny the social nature of this Sacrament, in which the whole Church – militant, suffering and glorious in heaven – comes to the aid of the penitent and welcomes him again into her bosom, especially as it was the whole Church which had been offended and wounded by his sin. … The individual nature and the ecclesial nature are two complementary aspects of the Sacrament.’ (John Paul II, Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, no 31, IV (A.A.S. LXXVII, 1985, p 264)

2)​In the above-mentioned article, in order to alleviate what Father O’Connell calls a ‘terrible ordeal’, remedies are proposed which affect the integrity of the Sacrament.

​In fact, the following suggestions were made in respect of those who had come to attend a penance service with individual confession: ‘When it came to individual private confession the people were told to omit the trimmings, e.g. how long, prayers etc. They were invited to confess their sins in a general way and encouraged to put into words the main obstacles that came between them and the Lord, e.g. I am sorry for my sins especially for my selfishness in the home, or especially for my failure in the whole area of justice, relationships, sexuality, etc. (pp. 172-173)

​‘If the penitent found that too much, the priests were advised beforehand to accept from them whatever they were capable of rising to e.g. I am sorry my sins and I want forgiveness. Their sincerity was to be presumed if they came along on the night and were willing to take their place in the line with the other penitents.’ (p. 172).

​But the Council of Trent declares that for the full and perfect remission of sins, contrition, confession and satisfaction are required in the penitent; and that by divine law it is necessary to confess to the priest each and every mortal sin as well as the circumstances which modify the kind of sin. (cfr. Sess. XIV, chapters 3-9, Doctrina de Sacr. Poenit.)

​The same teaching was upheld and confirmed not long ago by the Church’s Magisterium (John Paul II, Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, no. 31 III (A.A.S. LXXVII, 1985, pp. 0-264)

​The Congregation for Sacraments asks that these points be brought to the attention both of Father O’Connell and of the Ordinaries of Dublin and Ferns, in order that a correction might be made in the periodicals in which Father O’Connell’s views were first given widespread publicity.

​A letter similar to this one is being sent to the Archbishop of Dublin and the Bishop of Ferns.

​The Congregation for the Sacraments had asked to be informed of the steps taken to comply with the demands indicated above.

​With my personal best wished for you, Father, I remain

Yours sincerely in Christ

Apostolic Nuncio to Ireland

12.08.88

 

MY REPLY

Dear Archbishop Alibrandi

I acknowledge receipt of your recent communication.

I would like to make a few brief comments.

What I wrote in The Furrow and The Ferns magazine was a very short article. As a result, many aspects of the sacrament were not, and could not, be touched upon. That does not mean that I denied or rejected them. Certainly, the one mentioned in your letter I simply took for granted.

I wrote a further article in the Furrow of June ’89 in which I made quite clear that what I recommended was in harmony with the teaching of the magisterium. So the clarification asked for has already been given over a year ago.

I can only assume that the ‘certain parties’ mentioned in your letter deliberately omitted reference to this in their communication to the Congregation. These people seem to be determined to damage my good name in Rome. Shortly after Christmas the Italian magazine 30 Giorni stated that “no sooner had Archbishop McNamara died than John O’Connell, Parish Priest of Bray, had reintroduced altar girls and the indiscriminate administration of general absolution.”

Both accusations are completely false Again I assume the information was supplied by ‘certain parties’ in Ireland. It is my view that these people are doing a lot of harm to the Church.

I hope that this explanation clarifies the situation.

I remain yours sincerely,

John O’Connell

 

Looking back over the years I can truthfully day that I never allowed it to interfere with my freedom of speech. After a while I began to boast about the fact that I was condemned by the C.D.F like Conger DeLubac Rahnerand other great theologians. I reserved my anger for the ‘certain parties’ in Dublin who reported me to Rome. Their leader was a well-known journalist who is still a watchdog of orthodoxy. Their purposes were political, that is to say, to make sure e that nobody with liberal views would be made Archbishop of Dublin. And they succeeded in that project. The correction demanded in the periodicals was never made TG

8 Responses

  1. Kieron Wood

    Is he referring to me when he speaks of “a well-known journalist who is still a watchdog of orthodoxy”????

    If so, I didn’t report him.

    (And I wasn’t the “leader” of any group!)

  2. John

    I wonder did this well known journalist write in opposition to the formation some years ago of the Association of Catholic Priests?

  3. Chris McDonnell

    psalm 54 includes these words:

    If this had been done by an enemy,
    I could bear his taunts.
    If a rival had risen against me,
    I could hide from him.
    But it is you, my own companion,
    my intimate friend!
    How close was the friendship between us.
    We walked together in harmony
    in the house of God.

    a pity that they are so apt to present circumstances

  4. Lloyd Allan MacPherson

    Be a witness to what is.

    It’s great to have an opinion on everything but if you are acting like a vessel, the Spirit is going to flow not only within you but through you upwards without impediment. How does this happen? Question everything.

    Take for example this paragraph:

    “The sacrament is supposed to be an act of worship, a celebration of God’s forgiveness and a prayer to God who forgives. For many, in reality, it was none of these things; just a terrible ordeal to be gone through. Christ surely never intended it so.”

    Does it seem less critical when questions are asked:

    “Isn’t the sacrament supposed to be an act of worship, a celebration of God’s forgiveness and a prayer to God who forgives? For many, in reality, is it none of these things; perhaps a terrible ordeal to be gone through? Did Christ intend it to be so?”

    I guess my question is if this paragraph would have been met with the same contempt? I know this is a clearly technical aspect of the statement and doesn’t attempt to comment on its subject matter but at the same time, could there be a better strategy when questioning the “status quo”?

  5. Eddie Finnegan

    I suppose one should never resist the temptation to give the CDF a good kicking. Besides, Article 52 of John Paul II’s ‘Pastor Bonus’ makes clear that the CDF has oversight of all other Curial dicasteries, and Article 62 says that the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments carries out all its duties without prejudice to the competence of the CDF.

    But those “Certain Parties in this Country” may, accidentally, have given Fr John O’Connell’s Furrow recollection of his use of Rite 2, five years earlier, greater prominence and wider international readership than either he or Bray could ever have hoped for. The dates seem significant.

    Gaetano Alibrandi’s letter is dated 4th August 1988. On 28th June Pope Saint John Paul II had done two things – or at least two things that we know about. He had published ‘Pastor Bonus’, the apostolic constitution on tightening up the Curia that, for different reasons, both Joseph Ratzinger and Jorge Bergoglio must know backwards and inside out. JPII had also held a consistory to create 24 cardinals – most prominent being Eduardo Martínez Somalo from Rioja, Spain. [Most notorious of the two dozen was Groer of Vienna, while most deserving would have been Hans Urs von Balthasar if he had not died two days before the consistory.]

    On 1st July the German Benedictine Cardinal Paul Mayer resigned as Prefect of ‘Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments’, re-united as one Congregation by ‘Pastor Bonus’. He was replaced the same day by the new Cardinal Eduardo Martínez, very close to JPII and probably even closer to Opus Dei. His sister was a ‘numerary’ and his nephew a priest of Opus Dei.

    So July 1988 must have been a busy month for the underlings of CDWDS, what with all those delations from Certain Parties in this, that and the other Country, ignored with a suitable contempt by Cardinal Mayer’s more laid back cohorts since 1984. No escape from Rome’s July heat till they have supplied ammunition to all those unfortunate Papal Nuncios who might have had other stuff to keep them busy. Fr O’Connell, my sympathy is with Alibrandi and his fellow hitmen!

  6. Sean O'Conaill

    I do hope that the Papal Nuncio to Ireland will see how this instance of secretive delating to the CDF helps to explain the freezing of vocal communion between clergy and people that put the Irish Church in all-but-fatal hypothermia in the wake of Vatican II.

    Meanwhile a media-driven tsunami of secularising social change was sweeping over Ireland – while that alliance of ill-educated ‘Irish’ informers and the paranoid CDF made discussion of how to meet that challenge virtually impossible.

    It was chiefly that dismal alliance that ‘secularised’ Ireland in my adult lifetime. When you starve a people of the freedom to discuss and develop their own faith, how on earth can you expect it to thrive?

    I have already related on this site an occasion (also in the 1980s) when a priest of a northern diocese delivered a rousing address on the implications of Vatican II for the role of the laity. Following a break for tea this enthusiastic audience settled back to their seats in anticipation of further discussion of the implications of what they had heard – only to be told there would be no such discussion. One attendee known and trusted by myself had overheard the reason: the vibrant speaker had warned the chairman, over their cups of tea, that any such discussion could “open a hornets’ nest”.

    It was that fear of open discussion, created primarily by the CDF, that paralysed the Irish Catholic Church in the very era when prayerful dialogue – in obedience to Vatican II – was most needed.

    And we still haven’t thawed out – because the CDF has still absolutely no compunction about the paralysis it creates here by encouraging its cells of informers. While it remains unreformed our hypothermia must continue.

  7. MM

    If confession was like Fr John O’Connell’s description of Rite 2 on 14th March 1982 I might be persuaded to use the sacrament again rather than my present stance, as a committed catholic, of wanting nothing to do with it. And I say ‘use’ deliberately as too often the sacraments are presented as something that we have to serve rather than the other way around.

  8. Andrew Young

    I find myself in total sympathy with the sentiments expressed by MM. I am sad to have to say that when I find myself in the situation where I recognise that there is a need to be reconciled to Christ, I recoil from any attempt to undergo the confessional box experience. Instead, in a church or at home, I set aside time to stand ‘naked’ before Christ and bare my soul honestly and with integrity, asking for his forgiveness and strength and committing myself to make amends. A recent forage into a confessional box was an unmitigated disaster. It was a joyless and unwelcoming experience. The priest even sounded like he would rather be elsewhere. No sooner than I had begun, I found myself dispatched after a mechanical, cold and clinically sterile formula with no spiritual or pastoral engagement whatsoever, save some pious words and a meaningless perfunctory prayer penance the like fo which you would address to a child. The Sacrament of Reconciliation, as it was envisaged by VAT II could be such a rich, inviting and redeeming experience. Instead, we are dictated to by canonical legalists; give the lists, listen to the penance, recite the dreadful form of the act of penance and leave. Sterile and dead. So sad.


Scroll Up