By Chorbishop Seely Beggiani
Traditionally, the Maronite Church's liturgical year devoted several periods for fast and prayer, times of spiritual reflection and penance. Besides the time of Lent, there were the twenty days of fast before Christmas, fifteen days each before the feasts of Saints Peter and Paul and the feast of the Dormition of the Blessed Mother.
II. THE RELATIONSHIP OF RECONCILIATION TO THE MYSTERIES OF BAPTISM AND THE EUCHARIST
The Mystery of Reconciliation itself should be seen in its relationship to the Mysteries of Baptism and the Eucharist. Our baptism signifies that we have committed ourselves to live as "new beings" and as children of God the Father. Baptism involves conversion from the sinful ways of the world and embracing of life according to the spirit. Ideally speaking, the baptized person would never deviate from the law of Christ.
The Eucharist is the mystery of communion, the sign and cause of unity. The Christian participating in the Eucharist should never think of injuring his fellow brother or sister. The Eucharist is the sacrifice of Christ that obtains divine forgiveness once and for all.
Unfortunately, sin (and especially grave sin) is a betrayal of our baptismal promises and an offense against the community, which in reality is the Body of Christ. The unrepentant sinner is effectively separating himself from the community and thus ceases to participate in the Eucharist.
Christ taught us that the Father is ever-forgiving and, in His compassion, granted to His Apostles the power to forgive sins. Thus the Mystery of Reconciliation enables us to reaffirm our baptismal conversion, and re-admits us to participation in Holy Communion.
III. THE RITE OF PENANCE
The Rite of Penance found in the Maronite Ritual is identical to the practice of the Roman Church before its revision in recent years. It consists of the penitent confessing his sins to the priest, being attentive to the priest's admonition and the giving of penance to be performed, the expression of sorrow followed by the prayer of absolution.
While we do not have documents that give us a precise description of what the ancient Maronite practice was, we can offer some speculations based on the practices of the other Eastern Churches who share the Syriac tradition. This rite would have probably involved, besides the confessing to the priest, a complete Liturgy of the Word including Psalm 51, Hoosoyo and scripture readings. After reciting a proper prayer and the giving of suitable penance, the priest pronounced the prayer of absolution, probably with the imposition of his right hand.
IV. GREAT SATURDAY OF LIGHT
Perhaps an indication of the Maronite tradition regarding the Rite of Reconciliation can be found in the Holy Week Liturgy of the Great Saturday of the Light, which includes many of the above elements. The Sedro (prayer of incense and purification) proclaims that the Word of God had descended and humbled Himself as a servant to sanctify Adam who was in His image. It continues in the form of an absolution by praying:
O Lord, You forgave sinners and sanctified those who repent; may Your powerful and generous grace come to forgive our sins and the sins of all your servants, those who asked You for the pardon of their faults and the forgiveness of their sins. As You forgave the family of Cornelius through the hand of Simon Peter the Apostle, in the same way may pardon of sins descend upon us and upon all the children of your flock, who have been redeemed by Your Precious Blood, that we may glorify You, Your Father and Your Living Holy Spirit, now and forever.
While serious sin is to be confessed to the priest, lesser sins can be forgiven through other spiritual means. We have previously noted that the Eucharist itself is the source of forgiveness. The prayer of Hoosoyo of each Divine Liturgy is directed to our seeking purification. The prayer after the "Invocation of the Holy Spirit," the Lord's Prayer, and the prayer of forgiveness offered by the celebrant before communion are directed to the forgiveness of the sins of the worshipers. Traditionally, prayer, fasting, almsgiving and good works were considered means of obtaining forgiveness of lesser sins.
V. THE PRESENT SITUATION
Until about thirty years ago, Maronites and Catholics in general approached the Mystery of Reconciliation frequently during the year and on a regular basis. Certainly in many Catholic schools, the emphasis was that children should receive the Mystery of Penance every two weeks, and many of their parents followed the same schedule. The number and types of sins were explicitly taught and emphasized in religion classes. Priests often delivered sermons on sin and its ramifications.
Also, in past years, Catholics seemed quite sensitive in their consciences about their worthiness to receive Holy Communion and often did not approach the Eucharist if they had any doubt of conscience. In fact, some of the "older generation" would not approach Holy Communion unless they had first "gone to confession."
Somehow, in Catholic practice, all this has changed. Rather than significant number going to confession on Saturdays, only a handful is found in most parishes. Rarely does one see on the days before Christmas and Easter the long lines of penitents waiting for confession and the battery of priests as confessors. The impression is created that most Catholics approach the Mystery of Penance only a few times a year, if that often. On the other hand, we have the sight in most churches of almost everyone in attendance receiving Communion at Sunday Liturgy.
How are we to interpret this phenomenon? It does not seem that there are fewer sins being committed these days. The concern is that many Catholics have become ignorant of what constitutes sin or have become insensitive to the reality of sin and its effects. We are living in a time when responsibility for one's harmful actions is excused by a psychological explanation of the perpetrator's personality or by blaming society for making the person what he is. This kind of rationalization is not only attempted by evildoers, but by mainstream Catholics. Our culture seems to have redefined what is sinful and tolerates and embraces behavior that would have been considered outrageous not too long ago. For example, television shows and movies directed at adolescents glorify pre-marital sex and couples living together.
Yet, we know that sin exists and that sin always hurts someone, even if that someone is ourselves. In our quiet moments, no matter what the contemporary world says, we know that we have done wrong. The tragedy of sin is that it repeats itself and the harm that it does only accumulates. All sin ultimately lowers the moral tone of society; therefore, sin not only destroys the sinner's moral fiber, but contaminates innocent others, eventually our own children.
In the present time when there is so much talk of "family values," we Catholics should take inventory of our own individual moral code of behavior. While the government can and should help citizens with its laws and resources, nothing will change in our society until we provide moral example to each other and to our children. Just as the "Prodigal Son" in the Gospel, we must become aware of our sinful condition, take responsibility for our behavior, repent of our sins and arise and return to our Father. And the "Compassionate One, Full of Mercy" will meet us on the way offering healing and reconciliation.
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