Synod of Bishops XI Ordinary General Assembly


The rapport between
the Sacrament of Penance and
the Sacrament of the Eucharist

Your Holiness,

Brothers and sisters in Christ,

I speak in the name of the Union of Superiors General. My point of departure is the discussion of the rapport between Eucharist and Penance that is found in n. 23 of the Instrumentum Laboris.

The Instrumentum laboris makes frequent reference to the relationship between Eucharist and Penance [1] and this relationship is most often presented as a reason for the concerned attention of this Synod. The document notes contemporary trends in some areas of the world, such as a decrease in the celebration of the sacrament of Penance and an increase in those receiving the Eucharist; this development leads to speculation that some of the faithful are receiving the Eucharist without fulfilling the canonical requirement of sacramental Penance for those guilty of mortal sin. The rapport between Eucharist and Penance poses serious theological and pastoral challenges. How can we help people to regain what St. Alphonsus Liguori calls an “affection” for the sacrament of Penance [2] and appreciate the gift of the Eucharist as a supreme motivation for loving God who has given Himself to us? [3]

The challenge presents itself at various levels. There are canonical rules that govern the celebration of both sacraments and practical norms to be followed in pastoral practice; [4] these are at times ignored or neglected. There is also a widespread ignorance of the faith in some local Churches that leads to a superficial understanding of these great sacraments. There is the dilemma of people in difficult pastoral situations who do not know whether they are excluded from the sacraments. Their pastors often are confused as to how they should respond. And, although the relationship between the Eucharist and Penance presents itself as an excruciatingly painful problem for particular groups of people, such as those in second unions, the solution does not start here.

I will identify four levels to the problem I have indicated. There are important differences between these levels as well as implications for the way we eventually ground pastoral practice in sound doctrine and solid theology. The levels to which I refer are the ecclesial, sacramental, moral and juridical understanding of Eucharist and Penance.

The Church, the community of those who by the power of the Spirit believe in Jesus as the Saviour through his death and resurrection, is recognised by its faithfulness to the Word of God and its constant celebration of the sacraments. [5] If the Eucharist is not celebrated and frequented, or if people are wrongly excluded from participating in its celebration, then there is the ecclesial difficulty of demonstrating the actual unity of the Church in Christ as an anticipation of its future unity in the Kingdom of God. If the sacrament of Penance is de facto absent in many local Churches we must wonder whether the Church can be properly recognised as the Church willed by Jesus Christ. Our fundamental concern, therefore, is how the Church is recognised as a Church that celebrates the sacraments. Everything else is to be formulated in the light of this ultimate concern.  In public discussions, participation in the Eucharist or the sacrament of Penance is presented sometimes in terms of the rights of individuals or the duties of pastors. These categories can and should be discussed, but not as the primordial question, which is related to the mystery of the Church itself.

It is obvious that both Penance and Eucharist pose a sacramental question, although here too there is confusion. The Eucharist is a sacrament because it is the sacred meal in which the unity of the Church in love is symbolized and made efficacious, the one sacrifice of Christ is recalled and the future Kingdom is anticipated. No wonder we say: “Mystery of Faith”! The Eucharist should never be instrumentalized in an ideological way, for instance, when the Eucharist is used to prove some personal or political point that has nothing to do with the sacrament. The sacramental aspect of the Eucharist is often obscured because of an inadequate catechesis and deficient manner of celebration. We must be worthy to participate in the Eucharist [6] and the Eucharist should be celebrated in such a way that its full sacramental power is made obvious. There is an analogous problem with the sacrament of Penance. The presentation of the sacrament is often that of an individual and private reconciliation, lacking is the sense of how we are reconciled to God in a sacramental way through the ministry of the Church, or simply as a requirement for the reception of the Eucharist. The latter misunderstanding is often expressed by the faithful with the following formula: “I have to go to confession; Iget to receive Holy Communion”, conveying the perception that one sacrament is simply an obligation while the other is a gift. The crisis of Penance may be rooted in the fact that we are not successful in showing how the forgiveness of sin is neither cheap grace nor guilty self-obsession but rather the free offer of God’s restored peace in Christ to those who have gravely sinned and who sincerely repent.

The Instrumentum laboris treats the moral aspect of the Eucharist in a most useful way by showing how it is the font of Christian morality [7] . This emphasis recalls the importance of a proper understanding of the ecclesial and sacramental dimensions of the Eucharist: if people do not comprehend the gift of the Eucharist to the Church in the sacramental presence of Christ in a way that entices them to full participation, then how can we say that the Eucharist is the font of Christian morality? There are many people who are not participating in the Eucharist because they cannot, will not, or feel excluded. How, logically, can they be faithful to Christian morality if they are not nourished by its font? We must be more determined to find solutions to the practical problems of exclusion from the Eucharist precisely for this moral reason: we all need the nourishment of the font and none should be excluded on grounds that are not demonstrably adequate.

The moral aspect of the sacrament of Penance is self-evident. In relation to the Eucharist, however, there is a point that needs to be underscored. It is not our human effort that reforms us; such change is entirely the work of Christ in us. A better celebration of the penitential rite at the Eucharist will not diminish the sacrament of Penance. Rather, by placing the confessing of our sins as an integral part of the Liturgy of the Eucharist where we confess the greatness of God, we will be reminded of the need to continue along the road of conversion by celebrating the sacrament of Penance too.

The Church has always been concerned for the respect due to Eucharist and Penance. [8] The disciplinary aspect is clearly important for the correct celebration of the sacraments, but it receives its deeper significance because it is a practical application of the truths expounded at the previous levels.

We face very grave problems with regard to the tension between the celebration of the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist. These will not be easily or quickly solved. The pain of those who feel excluded is real and actual; the concern of the Church that the two sacraments be celebrated worthily is also real and actual. It is worth considering, in the light of the Instrumentum laboris, how we proceed on this question. We should begin with the ecclesial dimension of both sacraments, and then continue to the proper sacramental presentation of both. In the light of these two foundational aspects we may proceed to the moral questions and the juridical problems involved. This is a better way and more faithful to Scripture and Tradition than the tendency to begin with moral and disciplinary aspects, which may needlessly provoke division in the Church. The way I propose has the potential for identifying the unifying aspects of both sacraments. The human realities of both sacraments are important, but not as essential as the fact that the sacraments receive their deepest significance from the Paschal Mystery of Christ, which is the key to understanding the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the freeing from the bonds of grave sins in the Sacrament of Penance.

Joseph W. Tobin, C.Ss.R.
Superior General

[1] For instance: numbers 22, 23, and 45.

[2] A recurring theme in the Pratica del Confessore (San Alfonso Maria de’ Liguori, 1755) is that the priest take care that the penitent remainsaffezionato dal sacramento.

[3] Confer “L’amore che merita Gesù Cristo per il dono dell’Eucaristia” in Pratica di amar Gesù Cristo (Sant’Alfonso Maria de’ Liguori, 1768, Chapter 2).

[4] Confer Codex Iuris Canonici, Canons 897-958 and 959-997.

[5] Confer Lumen gentium, (Vatican Council II, 1964) 1-8 and 48-51.

[6] From the earliest days of the Church this worthiness is a matter of concern: this is clear in St. Paul, for instance 1 Corinthians 10.

[7] Numbers 72-75.

[8] Recent examples are the Vademecum per i confessori  su alcuni temi di morale attinenti alla vita coniugale (Pontificio Consiglio per la Famiglia, 1997) with regard to the Sacrament of Penance, and Redemptionis Sacramentum: su alcune cose che si devono osservare ed evitare circa la Santissima Eucaristia (Congregazione per il Culto Divino e la disciplina dei Sacramenti 2004) with regard to the Eucharist.