Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of April 21, 2003
Confession reconnects people with God
Lord Have Mercy: The Healing Power of Confession, by Scott Hahn. Doubleday: Toronto, 2003. Hardcover. 214 pages.
Review by WAYNE HOLST
Special to the WCR
The sacrament of Reconciliation, traditionally known as Confession, Penance or forgiveness, has fallen into disuse in many Western nations such as our own. Yet never, according to author Scott Hahn, has the world so much required this sacrament.
"We need confession," he says in his new book Lord Have Mercy. "We can't live without it, though we continually try looking for substitutes."
Those who know the true benefits of confessing their sins tend to cling to it tenaciously. Interestingly, Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer, dispensed with all but two (Baptism and the Eucharist) of the seven classic sacraments. He did not see the others as endorsed by Scripture.
Yet Luther valued forgiveness in human experience. He added penance to his sacramental teachings if not to the number of sacraments themselves.
Interestingly, when many Canadian Christians, including most Catholics, seem reticent to engage in the practice, the Lutheran Book of Worship used by congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada includes a rite for private confession.
What happened to Confession? During the mid-'60s, in many parts of the Church, it seems that the perfunctory nature of the inherited confessional and changing notions about sin on the part of the laity contributed to the demise of this long-established rite.
But neglecting classic Christian themes like sin, guilt, forgiveness and penance does not make them insignificant or irrelevant. While Confession seems currently out of fashion the human condition addressed by this sacrament does not change.
Confession reconnects people with God. It is necessary for good mental health and revitalized relationships. It has healing effects, not only for individuals, but also for communities. Many see counsellors and therapists today when what they may really need is a trusted and understanding spiritual confessor.
The author, well versed in biblical and other classical writings, traces the history of Confession, beginning with the atonement ceremonies of the Hebrew Bible. He guides the reader through appropriate New Testament passages as well as selections from the Church fathers. The entire tradition of the Church, according to Hahn, has much to say to moderns. Key ingredients of confession have always been adaptable to the circumstances of the time.
As in his previous books (The Lamb's Supper, Hail, Holy Queen, and First Comes Love) Hahn takes a conservatively orthodox approach to his subject. In that, he is both refreshing, but also, to this reviewer, somewhat unrealistic and inadequate.
In places Hahn seems caught in a nostalgic time warp. While much of what he says might have been possible in an era when priests were in greater supply, Hahn does not adequately address that large pool of Catholics who today do not have regular access to those priestly confessors of whom he so eloquently speaks.
Confession addresses a universal problem - when something is not right with the world. This book is a helpful beginning, not a totally satisfying response, as the contemporary Church considers ways of responding to the basic human craving for forgiveness.
(Wayne Holst is a writer who has taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary.)