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Synod on the Family: the path of the Ordo Paenitentium

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Synod on the Family: the path of the Ordo Paenitentium

Thomas Michelet, op

“So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” (Matt. 19:6). The family founded on marriage, a fruitful matrimonial covenant, exclusive, stable and definitive, is something precious in the eyes of God, yet so very delicate. Having been weakened by individualism, liberalism and profound changes in socio-economic structures, and sometimes challenged as a bourgeois institution, marriage remains for the greater number of our contemporaries one of the most desirable universal values, but a difficult ideal to attain and to maintain with all its demands: “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry.” (Matt. 19:10)

For a subject of such importance, which has excited public opinion and the media more than any other ecclesial question in recent years, and in view of the gravity of the situation today, Pope Francis has decided to establish for the Synod of Bishops a special trajectory in two stages: one year to take stock of the question, begun with a vast consultation of the People of God brought together in the Instrumentum laboris and concluded by the Extraordinary General Assembly held 5-19 October 2014; a second year for deeper study, on the basis of the relatio synodi presented to the Episcopal Conferences as lineamenta for the Ordinary General Assembly of October 2015; inviting in the meantime the contributions of theologians, particularly in respect of disputed questions which did not obtain a consensus of the synodal Fathers during the Synod itself, such as the question of sacramental communion for the divorced and remarried, that of spiritual communion, or of the law of gradualness. Even if we should not reduce the Gospel of the Family to negative aspects or to particular cases, it is appropriate to search nonetheless for adequate solutions to difficult problems which may constitute a cause of great suffering, not only for those directly affected but also for pastors confronted with these situations and for the rest of the faithful.

Rather than setting out and justifying the present discipline of the Catholic Church, or calling it into question, we would like here to propose a “third way”, that of the order of penitents (ordo paenitentium), that is to say the re-establishment, adapted to modern circumstances, of the ancient practice of penitence, called in the Middle Ages public and solemn penitence. We do not see that it is possible to propose a modification of the discipline of the sacraments of marriage and the Eucharist in the sense proposed by some[1] without also changing doctrine, which is impossible[2]. On the other hand, the sacrament of penance has been subject to historical development and local diversity, and could lend itself to real changes always respecting those elements which pertain to the truth of the sacrament. This would allow it to assume the just and traditional aspect of the idea of a “penitential path”.[3]

“Non possumus”

We cannot set aside the rule of indissolubility of marriage established by Christ himself, who reveals that it formed from the beginning part of the natural order of Creation and of the divine covenant made in Adam with all humanity. If sin was able to darken our knowledge of marriage and to wound it in practice, the new Covenant in Christ re-established it and restored it by grace, giving it a new meaning: that of being a sign and instrument (mysteriumsacramentum) of the undying love of Christ for his Church (Eph. 5 :32), he who has given his life for her (Eph. 5:25). Consequently, it is impossible for two baptised persons to live a conjugal life other than under the seal of this sacramental union. Likewise, it is impossible to receive fruitfully the sacrament of the Wedding feast of the Lamb, his body and blood, while contradicting it through infidelity in one’s life, and especially when human love is wounded by carnal relations in the absence of or in the rupture of a legitimate union. There would be a flagrant contradiction between the intention of these acts which do not attain their end and that which these rites properly signify in Christ. The sacraments communicate what they signify and are not able to impart grace if they express a lie.[4] It would therefore be not only useless, because unfruitful, but also dangerous: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.”(1 Cor. 11:27).

We cannot in this last case refer the faithful to their conscience[5] without indicating that it would be mistaken.[6] For this would amount not only to letting them go astray, deprived of the light of the Gospel, and failing to assist them in their search for the truth, but it would also mean participating in the formation of their judgment by such a recommendation: a double failure in pastoral charity. Indeed, it would give people cause to believe that someone could be married simultaneously to more than one person, or that a civil marriage without a Church marriage is legitimate for a baptised person, or that sexual relations outside marriage are not a grave sin, or that one can communicate whilst persisting in a state of grave sin[7], or that it’s possible to be pardoned without detesting one’s sin and having a firm purpose not to sin again. In allowing it to be understood that even one of these five propositions could be true, contrary to the teaching of the Church expressed in the Council of Trent[8] and the Catechism of the Catholic Church[9], would offend against the truth of Marriage, of the Eucharist and of Penance, denying at the same time the reality of sin. It would mean leaving the sinner in his sin but in good conscience, with the result of him losing the sense of the necessity of conversion and barring the way to authentic spiritual progress. This is simply pseudo-mercy which runs counter to the Gospel. It is at root the forensic justification of Luther, except that we take God’s place in decreeing the innocence of the sinner who doesn’t believe himself to be a sinner, changing only the label without touching the profound reality of the soul. Sin is covered with a veil of justice, whereas the Lord is merciful precisely in illuminating the mind and transforming the heart, revealing at the same time both sin and the means of grace for deliverance from it.[10]

Some have proposed modifications in sacramental discipline, presented as simple exceptions to principles, limited to particular cases, as if we were dealing with an ideal which had to be combined with the realism of what the faithful can actually attain to in practice. But this is not so, for these rules do not express an ideal but the truth of that which is. It would be like declaring that each person is the image of God “in principle”, and then to multiply exceptions (not embryos, not persons at the end of their lives, not those in an irreversible coma or those without the use of reason): it would also destroy the principle and replace it with another one, quite different, which would neither have the same basis nor the same guarantee of conformity with the Divine Word. It is not possible without contradiction to affirm that marriage is absolutely indissoluble except in certain cases. Leading also to this is the practice of the orthodox Churches of a non-sacramental “penitential” remarriage granting access to the Eucharist, in which they have strayed from the common heritage of the Fathers.[11] In celebrating this marriage in the Church and asking God to bless it, doubt is fostered about whether it is sacramental; in admitting them to the Eucharist, it is not truly held to be penitential; in granting absolution, it’s implied that it is legitimate, and that the Church therefore recognises remarriage after divorce; in maintaining that the sacramental bond has not been dissolved, it contradicts the exclusive character which is one of the foundations of marriage.

On the other hand, we cannot be satisfied with refusing access to the sacraments, leaving the faithful with the impression that they have been excommunicated, excluded from any path of sanctification or of salvation. We cannot content ourselves with projecting from on high the light of the truth as from a distant lighthouse, without also accompanying them on their journey, their exodus, like a flaming torch[12], the living flame of love which warms the heart and illumines the spirit. We cannot close the door of the Church in the name of the sanctity of the edifice, imprison the sinner in his condition and leave him half-dead on the roadside, without taking the trouble to go in search of the lost sheep and carry him on our shoulders, so as to pour on his wounds the oil of healing. It would be paradoxical if the sacrament of penitence were refused precisely to those for whom it was made, and we were to care only for the just who have no need of pardon.

The distinctive feature of these attitudes that Pope Francis vigorously denounced at the Synod, as he did the opposite temptations,[13] is that they are pastoral strategies of despair. They urge us to choose between two opposing chasms which meet at the extremes: that of the presumption of a salvation understood, as humans will, without regard to the reality of sin; and that of despair of imprisonment in evil, without the full and audible announcement of the path of reconciliation which God opens to all those who seek him with a good will. Between the two, the ridge path of hope, difficult but virtuous, consists in expecting God from God (nothing less than him, and from him alone) while refusing the “all or nothing”, without opposing the light of his truth to that of his love, with absolute respect of persons and of the divine Covenant. But the question remains: how can it be done in practice?

Way of hope

It is often suggested that the “liberalisation” of the morals of our secularised societies is without precedent, that it has reached such a degree that it can’t any longer be ignored by the Church, and that new and exceptional measures are required. This is to forget a little too quickly that Christ took the opposite stance to the legislation of his time which permitted divorce by repudiation. It’s also to forget that Christianity took root in Greek and Roman antiquity in which divorce was something perfectly well-accepted and usual, not counting the barbarian invasions. Now not only did the first Christians always reject it so as to remain faithful to the teaching of Christ, when this was hardly more easy than today, but this evangelisation of the family had as its improbable effect that of making divorce disappear at least from the West for centuries, which shows that this word of Christ was just as much a true promise of life as it was a challenging commandment. These days, it seems that the spirit of the world has taken its revenge and won over even Christians themselves and some of their pastors. Has the salt of the Gospel lost its taste? Has it lost its force of conviction, of conversion or of contradiction? Have we still faith in the power of Christ to transform and transfigure the ethos of the faithful and the culture of nations? The firm hope that every sinner, even the most hardened, can radically change his life, not without the grace of God? The charity to teach it in word and in act?

The way of hope for humanity and the Church must pass through the hearts of human beings. It is not enough to say “for every sin, mercy”, but it is necessary to specify: to every sinner who repents, God never refuses his forgiveness – the repentance already being an effect of grace, to which the sinner has not placed an obstacle. True repentance is necessary, a radical conversion (metanoia) which supposes a complete transformation of his life (aversio a creatura et conversio ad Deum). And it must be accepted that this can take time, sometimes a lot of time. But God is patient …. Certain priests who have dedicated a good part of their pastoral ministry to the divorced and remarried tell us that we must reckon on ten to twenty years. Are we ready to commit ourselves for the long-term, in a support process far more difficult than the mere act of closing our eyes and giving the sacrament to those who are not ready to receive it in truth, or in refusing them without offering any path of hope? These same priests can testify that it is worth it, and that one is fully recompensed in seeing the work of God in these wounded hearts, whom he comes to visit, to bring relief, and to heal by the power and the tenderness of his mercy. On the condition of not taking the teaching of the Church as an obstacle to overcome, a simple ideal to attain in the optative rather than the imperative (when it’s not taken for a past hypothetical); but the indicative, always present, of a pathway of liberation and of sanctification to which the Lord invites with generosity, to move forward with him and towards him, putting out into deep waters.[14]

This pastoral journey can of course work only with those who desire to follow it and who truly want to progress in the spiritual life, be it those who have discovered or rediscovered the Lord, or those who have never lost theological faith.[15] Another condition is that it be done in a “host group” which forms with them a small Christian community in the Church. One must above all listen to them, let them express freely their suffering, their anger, their questions. We must allow them to see that they are still God’s children, sons and daughters of the Father of mercies, for the baptismal character is never lost; that they have the possibility and the responsibility of a filial vocation with a mission to fulfil in the Church; there may be already a certain practice of prayer and of the service of neighbour which must rightly be recognised and valued. Secondly, they are encouraged to enter afresh into the meaning of marriage and of matrimonial ministry[16] (parental and conjugal) with which they have been entrusted by Christ, asking themselves how they can still exercise this in their own position. As the question of the validity of their sacramental bond would ordinarily be raised, we should positively invite them to seek the truth on this subject; to initiate, if necessary, a canonical procedure for the recognition of nullity, helping them to overcome the fears that this can arouse. They will also have to deepen their notional and spiritual knowledge of the mystery of the Eucharist, and of its personal and ecclesial fruits, as the desire for communion can be the source of remarkable progress. Finally, there is the need for forgiveness, given and received, and for a remote preparation for the sacrament of penance, including the study of its conditions and its effects. There is also the need for symbolic or liturgical gestures which have an efficacy not to be overlooked, such as the washing of feet which the Lord has commanded us to do after his example (mandatum). For some people, a confession without absolution could at times be envisaged.

Experience shows that such a path is possible. Demanding but fruitful, it can lead to reconciliation and full sacramental communion when a person comes to recognise the truth of, and live in fidelity to, an indissoluble nuptial union, even if under the form of separation if the re-establishment of the common life is not conceivable.[17] We know that this involves the commitment to live as “brother and sister”[18] or as friends in the Lord. While this mustn’t be brandished too quickly before couples who are not necessarily ready to hear it, and one conceives that in the context of an ambient hedonism this may be badly received, it mustn’t be too easily cast into oblivion as if it were outdated, incongruous or unreal. Here too, experience shows that couples who want to advance on the path of holiness end up understanding it, desiring it, practicing it and even appreciating this beautiful form of friendship, which for them is the only way to rediscover a peace which is authentic, durable and profound, in a renewed fidelity to their sacramental marriage and fully respecting the Covenant in Christ. This outcome is something we should hope for, and propose to couples when the time is right.

Order of Penitents

The true difficulty is not Eucharistic communion but absolution, which supposes the renunciation of one’s sin. It’s this which accounts for the impossibility of admitting to the Eucharist not only the divorced and remarried, but “others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin” (CIC 915), once called “public sinners”. It’s beneficial to recall this, no doubt in less abrupt terms, so that the divorced and remarried do not believe themselves to be the only ones affected by what is, moreover, not a disciplinary measure of the Church, but an impossibility which is imposed a priori on her. Neither therefore should our pastoral response focus only on their case – with the risk of imprisoning them in a category of sin, without seeing that they are, above all, baptised persons in search of God – but rather be understood more broadly, being for all those who find themselves in the same situation, and who could, for want of a better term, be called “impenitent” or “non-sacramentalisable” [non-sacramentalisables].[19]

If it is not possible for them to receive the Sacrament of Penance, this stems as much from the obstacle to be found in them as it does from the actual conditions of the sacrament, participation in which supposes that the person is ready to receive absolution and to make the three acts of the penitent: repentance (contrition), the disclosure of one’s sin (confession) and its reparation (satisfaction)[20], with the firm purpose to detach oneself from the sin (if this has not already been done), not to sin again and to do penance. These elements are of themselves inviolable, being the object of conciliar definitions, but the order in which they come is not, since it’s only since around the year 1000 that penance has normally followed absolution as an effect of the sacrament with a view to reparation, whereas penance was a precondition in the ancient penitential practice[21], certainly intended as a reparative penance but also to the end of disposing a person to contrition. Likewise, the ordinary form of the sacrament has become so to speak “instantaneous”, uniting all these elements into only one brief ritual act, whereas the ancient penitential discipline spread them over many years and into several liturgical stages, from admission into the order of penitents up to a final reconciliation. Now this is exactly the scenario of the divorced and remarried, and more generally of all those who struggle to detach themselves completely from their sin, who have need of a penitential journey over the long-term. In its present form, the sacrament of penance cannot integrate this temporal and progressive dimension, which was in fact the distinguishing characteristic of the ancient penitential system, which was still in use in the Middle Ages and indeed was never suppressed.[22] In these two points, the penitential discipline could be enriched anew – and it would be good if this could be done because it is a true deficiency[23] – integrating side by side with the three sacramental forms already foreseen in the current ritual[24], another “extraordinary” one, at once new and profoundly traditional. Recent history indicates that to pursue such a reform a simple motu proprio would seem sufficient; but it would be opportune without doubt to devote an assembly of the Synod of bishops to it, just as the 1980 synod on the family[25] was followed by that of 1983 on penance and reconciliation[26].

Apart from the advantage of its duration, which was also its weakness in the absence of other forms, the ancient discipline conferred on penitents a canonical and ecclesial status according to a system established by the canons of the Councils, from which its name at the time derived, that of “canonical penance”. One evidently may regard it as an ignominious punishment; and in this the discipline of the Church has much changed, dissociating the judicial from the sacramental forum. But most of all it’s a mark of protection, a recognition of an ecclesial bond which remains in spite of everything. For the sinner remains a member of the Church; the Church is indeed made for the sinner, because she is holy whilst made up of sinners, so that they may share in the holiness which flows from her spouse, the Christ. So it is necessary to reaffirm continually that the divorced and remarried person is not excommunicated as such, even if he is excluded from Eucharistic communion as are other “public sinners”. But he will understand all the better that he truly forms part of the Church if he is told officially that he has a traditional place in an “ordo”, alongside the order of virgins and the order of widows, the order of catechumens and the order of monks. And this is no small thing: experience shows that this simple recognition of his existence in the Church could grant some peace and remove an initial obstacle to reconciliation.

But there is more. The ordo does not only consist of giving each part its place according to a defined structure; it is not content with establishing a simple status, a static state of life. It points also to a finality and to a dynamic (ordo ad finem). It is an order of march and of progress, a rule of life and of a mission. So, what are designated as “states of perfection” are rather in reality “paths of perfection”, holiness (in facto esse) still to be acquired (in fieri). This is even clearer in the case of the order of catechumens, who are in the transitory state of preparation to receive the sacraments of initiation, as the order of penitents prepare for reconciliation. The two itineraries were indeed seen in parallel (penance as a “second baptism” or a “baptism of tears”) and both may be found in the liturgical traditions of Lent to which they gave birth: the imposition of ashes, the Lenten fast and the public reconciliation of sinners on the evening of Holy Thursday (specifically, the washing of feet); the solemn welcome, the great baptismal catecheses, the scrutinies and the “illumination” of the catechumens at the Easter Vigil. In both cases we find the same renunciation of Satan and his works, the same battle against sin and its consequences, the same salvation obtained through the ultimate victory of Christ on the cross, won by the blood of the Lamb.

Hence the proposal formulated at the 1983 Synod to draw inspiration from the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults to create a liturgy of welcome and of reconciliation for those who return to the Church after a period of separation, and which could come to constitute a new Order of Penitents.[27] This amounts to considering this process of reconciliation – by stages and over a period of time – as a second catechumenate (it’s also the idea of the Neocatechumenal Way, which one could call a deutero-baptismal itinerary). There are advantages to imitating the new rite of initiation – not only in transposing it to the situation of the “returners” and more broadly all those who have need of a structured penitential journey; but also in re-establishing, as in the case of the RCIA, an institution dating from the third and fourth centuries, which had little by little lost its usefulness in Christian practice, but which has become necessary again in a time like our own.

For all that, it’s not a question of re-establishing the ancient system in all its details, any more than, for example, the new ordo of catechumens has re-introduced the “sacrament of salt”[28]. The understanding of the deposit of faith has developed, and certain once-typical elements we now understand not to be attached to the essence of the sacraments. Likewise, we should put behind us the regrettable confusion which grew up between punishment (poena) and penance (paenitentia, rather than poenitentia).[29] There is thus no need to re-establish the system of penalties characteristic of the ancient discipline, the severity of which led to disaffection. Besides, the only penalty imposed in all times and in all places for all public sins, and which remains today, consists in the privation of the Eucharist, which in fact is not a penalty (even if it can be experienced in this way) but an impossibility based on the coherence of the sacraments.

Sacramental penance

We admit that, in our proposal, there would be a considerable change in the succession of acts required of the penitent, but this order is not inviolable. In the ancient discipline, before entering the ordo paenitentium it was necessary already to have met the condition of having renounced one’s sin and put an end to the public disorder which it had caused. There followed a period of doing penance, measured by the gravity of the offence and the interior disposition of the penitent. Its duration, according to the case and the period, could be fixed in advance (tariff penance) or could remained undetermined, lasting as long as was necessary until the person was ready for reconciliation. The present discipline, as we have seen, also requires such a renunciation of sin as a precondition, but the penance is transferred to a point after the reconciliation. In the renewed ordo paenitentium, it is proposed to return to the previous discipline with respect to the penance, which would then become again a prerequisite of reconciliation – this already corresponds to practice and shouldn’t of itself raise major difficulties. On the other hand, total conversion would not be demanded at the time of starting the penance: it would be rather the fruit, the measure of its duration, and the condition of pardon. To put it differently, someone wouldn’t wait to be fully converted before doing penance, but would do penance until he was fully converted, with a view to obtaining this conversion as a grace of the sacrament and so to be made ready to receive sacramental reconciliation.

The form of this penance preceding reconciliation has already been established by the magisterium: the divorced and remarried (and surely all those referred to by canon 915) are invited to “to listen to the word of God, to attend the Sacrifice of the Mass, to persevere in prayer, to contribute to works of charity and to community efforts in favour of justice, to bring up their children in the Christian faith, to cultivate the spirit and practice of penance and thus implore, day by day, God’s grace.”[30] Or again: “the Church … encourages them to live as fully as possible the Christian life through regular participation at Mass, albeit without receiving communion, listening to the word of God, Eucharistic adoration, prayer, participation in the life of the community, honest dialogue with a priest or spiritual director, dedication to the life of charity, works of penance, and commitment to the education of their children.”[31]

What is missing is simply to recognise that all this corresponds to an ordo, a canonical system of penance, and that this penance is already sacramental, from the acts of the penitent which supply the matter up to the words of absolution which provide the form, constituting thereby the sacrament properly so-called of penance and of reconciliation. We see better that penance so understood is not a simple precondition detached from the sacrament, but is rather an integral part of it, albeit separated some years from reconciliation, because it is not only the matter but also an anticipated fruit of the sacrament. The grace of the sacrament works through this penance, exterior and interior, elevates and supports it, so as to transform it ultimately into perfect contrition. In this way, these penitents would no longer be considered excluded from the sacrament: on the contrary, understanding and desiring it, they enter into this great sacrament of the resurrection which, little by little, makes of the “dead” the “living”, so that they might have life to the full.

In a certain way, the new ritual of penance has prepared the way for such a restoration of the ancient penance: on the one hand, by putting the celebration of the rite back into its ecclesial, community and liturgical setting, giving it once against a public and solemn character; on the other by providing, alongside the three sacramental forms, a fourth penitential form[32], often overlooked (doubtless because it is only found in the rubrics). These are “non-sacramental penitential celebrations” without individual confession or absolution, in which it is rightly indicated that the divorced and remarried can join in like any of the faithful, and which are helping in preparing for confession, expressing repentance and the ongoing desire for conversion, especially during the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent. It is unfortunate that these are presented as “non-sacramental” on the grounds that these do not include absolution, because the rubrics specify that these celebrations “can mark stages of a sacramental reconciliation towards which they are orientated”, which is precisely a characteristic of the ordo paenitentium. We see here something of the catechumenate, the stages of which are orientated towards the celebration of baptism. If these are not sacramental, in that the sacrament properly so called has not yet been administered, they do nonetheless form part of the complete celebration of the rite in its totality, in the same way that the celebration of the Eucharist is not to be reduced to the institution narrative but includes the whole Mass. These stages and these preparatory rites may be broken down into so many sacramentals, not only insofar as they relate to the sacrament and dispose persons for it, but because they form with it a liturgical whole. Playing a little with words, or rather taking them in their strict but less habitual sense, we can consider that they represent a sacramental penance but not yet a sacramental reconciliation. But the rite in its totality is sacramental.

Law of Gradualness

The last assembly of the synod of bishops also examined the “law of gradualness”,[33] which had been proposed at the 1980 Synod on the Family[34] and retained by Pope John Paul II in Familiaris consortio no. 9, with the need mentioned in no.34 not to confuse the “law of gradualness with the gradualness of the law”[35]. Subsequently, this expression has not often been used by the Magisterium[36] and necessitated theological clarifications.[37] The fact is that if the law of gradualness remains locked within the framework of the morality of law, it risks relativizing the law in the light of what individuals are actually able to live up to in their particular situations, which amounts to the “gradualness of the law” which John Paul II denounced. Rather, it’s necessary to present a proposed end not as proportioned to our strength alone but to that of the Word of God and his grace.[38] The law of gradualness therefore obliges us to reconsider the whole of moral theology from the angle of the human and theological virtues, reinstating the entire dimension of spiritual growth[39], transforming it into a “pedagogical journey of growth” and a “dynamic process” orientated and tending towards the true good, an itinerary of conversion and of progression “step by step” towards holiness.[40]

We believe that the ordo paenitentium constitutes not only an application par excellence of the law of gradualness but is actually one of its ancient sources. It is also a touchstone, as it allows us to verify objectively that we are not in the process of establishing – even without wishing to – a system based on “gradualness of the law” which would confuse the path of conversion and rejection of evil with an itinerary of spiritual progress in the good and in the state of grace, thus making the distinction between good and evil a simple difference of degree and not of kind. Between the state of grace and the state of sin there is no continuity nor intermediary, even if in both cases there is the possibility of progression or of regression. Also, we cannot apply even by analogy the ecclesiological schema of degrees of communion of Lumen Gentium no. 8 to the situation of the sinner[41], precisely because the practice of ecumenical dialogue supposes that, with the passing of centuries, the separated brother has no longer any personal intention to participate in the sin of schism, which is not the case of the first generations who are still subject to the discipline of the Church. Likewise, the good cannot be presented as an optional ideal but as the end which one must endeavour to attain through acts which become ever more fully ordered towards that end – a journey of small steps which by dint of perseverance ends up in reaching its goal. It is only in this way that we can admit a progressive path achieved in stages.

We find then in the ancient penitential discipline a characteristic gradualness, which led the sinner from one stage to another leading up to the moment of public reconciliation. Already Tertullian spoke of two degrees: those who had to stay outside the Church (paenitentia pro foribus ecclesiae) and those who were admitted to the interior (paenitentia in ecclesiam inducta). Then there was a distinction within this latter category between those who had requested to enter penance (petentes paenitentiam), who had to leave the Church just after the liturgy of the Word and the homily (audientes) and those who had been officially admitted (proprie paenitentes), who assisted at the celebration of the mysteries but on their knees, so as to receive the blessing of penitents which was given in the West at the end of the liturgy. In the East this blessing occurred earlier, after the sending-out of the catechumens, so that there are still today those who leave once they have received the blessing from the hands of the bishop (substrati) and those who remain to the end of the service and may participate in it standing (stantes or consistentes) without however taking part in the oblations and the Eucharist until their reconciliation.[42] The period before admission to penance could be itself quite long: Dionysius of Alexandria required of apostates that they passed three years as audientes before spending ten as substrati. In total one arrives therefore at four classes of penitents or four “penitential stations”, attested to together by the Churches of Asia minor, as in Gregory of Thaumaturgus: “Those who weep outside the doors of the Church (flentes); those who are admitted to the narthex to hear the biblical readings and are dismissed immediately afterwards (audientes); those who are admitted into the church itself, who remain there prostrate and leave with the catechumens (substrati); finally those who remain standing during the Eucharistic synaxis but who may not participate in the consecrated gifts (stantes).”[43]

Perhaps it is possible to take up again these liturgical and canonical “stations” so as to elaborate a spiritual process marked by stages, inspired by the catechumenate and the pastoral journey described above. The criterion can no longer be “physical” – the admission to the church building or to a particular part of the celebration – because we no longer do that for catechumens. But we can retain the idea of gifts received progressively, new lights discovered and insights achieved, the degree of detachment from sin and depth of conversion – in a word, a true journey from one interior stage to another, confirmed in the context of individual support and spiritual discernment.[44]

1. “Flentes” (“Those who weep”) – We are speaking here of welcoming or rather of going to seek out[45] all those who weep outside the church because they believe themselves rejected, excommunicated. To establish a climate of confidence and of goodwill, of respect and of listening; to allow them to express what is in their heart – their difficulties, their indignation, their own analysis of the situation; then to show them, by a reformulation of their expectations, that they have been heard. This will be the occasion of a kerygmatic first proclamation and of an invitation to take the time to hear the response of Christ to their questions. If they wish to make this journey in the Church, they can pass to the next stage, concluding with a liturgical prayer of blessing which enables them to hear the voice of the Father who places his hand on them and recognises them as his lost children, the voice of the Son who has given in advance his life for them, the voice of the Spirit who speaks to their spirit to lead them along unknown paths to true life.

2. “Audientes”. (“Listeners”) – In the second stage, they are invited to be assiduous in listening to the Word of God, in the silence of their personal meditation and in the assembly; to wear out the threshold of the House of God assisting at the celebration of the mysteries; to take up again in the context of adult catechism those points which present difficulties, situating them within the whole according to the connection of the mysteries with each other and the hierarchy of the truths of faith; to become aware afresh of the gift received in baptism and confirmation, and also in the sacramental marriage; to establish what is already lived of the Gospel; finally, to re-read the action of God across the entire span of their lives. This stage can be marked by the liturgical handing-over of the Scriptures, with the sponsorship of one or two members of the community, or even of a couple if appropriate.

3. “Substrati”. (“Those who are prostrated”) – When the person is ready, she may make the request to enter officially into the order of penitents, preferably in a Rite of Election celebrated by the bishop at the start of Lent (in capite jejunii) using the liturgical imposition of ashes and inscription of her name in the register of penitents. This marks an important moment spiritually, that of the heart which is rent so as to be opened to grace. During this phase now beginning, the penitent is invited to lead a life of fidelity to the duties of her state and to her responsibilities according to the programme described above[46], performing especially the traditional works of mercy dear to the confraternities of penitents, which may find their origin here. This penance is simply that which characterises Lent according to its three pillars (fasting, prayer and sharing), which indeed every Christian should practice in all seasons. Exterior penance is the sign and the instrument of interior penance, which must lead to contrition, to the recognition of one’s sin before God and to the persistent imploring of pardon; it will be necessary to ask for the Lord’s light for the multiple pardons both to give and to receive, which can be buried very deep in the heart. To accompany this stage at the liturgical level it may be good to adopt the “non-sacramental penitential celebrations” already mentioned, prolonging the penitential liturgy of each Mass, or also confession without absolution if this is properly understood, without forgetting the profoundly expressive act of the washing of the feet, which is not reserved to Holy Thursday. According to the parallel with the initiation of catechumens, this is the time of purification and illumination with the “scrutinies”: exorcisms, the handing-over and giving back of the Credo, the anointing with the holy oil.

It would not make sense to enter upon such a “penitential journey” without humbly recognising one’s sin and desiring to be purified of it, to “lower oneself to the ground” (substrati) before the Lord so that he may himself come to raise us up. Likewise, it would not be just to bring this penitential journey to an end in a sacramental reconciliation if its conditions were not fulfilled, that is, as long as there exists an attachment which is opposed to it, whether that of a remarriage or of any other relationship contrary to the Gospel. Such an absolution would be deceitful and one has reason to believe it would be invalid. This period is above all one of liberation from interior chains, something not within man’s capacity and which God alone can grant in his own time, even if perhaps not for this world. It may at least be hoped, for those who have resolutely set out on this path, that death will be their reconciliation and their door to salvation, as the catechumen called to the Lord before his baptism and with good dispositions will receive its grace without the sign.

4. “Stantes”. (“Those who stand”) – for some, the work of grace will give them finally the strength to commit themselves to end their disordered union in one manner or another, in such a way that they can stand upright (stantes). In the case of the divorced and remarried this can occur at the death of the partner, something of course which it is not possible in itself to desire. Otherwise, apart from the cases – less rare than one would think – of a resumption of the common life with the original spouse, the only solution is to undertake to live as “brother and sister”. This is not simply a matter of continence, but rather of a transformation of outlook and of the acquisition of that interior purity which allows the person to be faithful to the truth of their marriage, albeit in the form of a separation which has shown itself to be legitimate. The fact is that only grace allows us to comprehend and to live that which already falls under natural justice, of which men have lost understanding. If therefore such a resolution is possible and desirable, it must have matured over the long term and been freely chosen, with the agreement of a spiritual director. An initial private decision could be followed by a period of probation at least until Lent, so as to allow a solemn reconciliation by the bishop on the evening of Holy Thursday, according to a ritual parallel to that of the neophytes at the Paschal Vigil, in the purity of white garments washed in the blood of the Lamb. There would follow the time of grace of the mystagogy and of witness.

Spiritual communion

Another expression which left the synodal fathers in perplexity[47] is that of spiritual communion: if someone can make a spiritual communion, why could they not communicate sacramentally? If grace is given without the sign, what is to prevent them from receiving the sign also? Beyond the question already mentioned of the coherence of the sacraments, we find ourselves here before a much broader theological difficulty: the risk in the sacraments of disjoining the ritual action from the order of grace, reproducing the Bellarminian error of an ecclesiology of visibility and of the institution separable (and therefore separated) from an ecclesiology of interiority and of communion to which Luther laid claim. Why should I compromise myself with the society of sinners if I have part with that of the saints? How would I be lacking if deprived of the Eucharist if I could be nourished without even receiving it? More broadly, why did the Word become incarnate if I am just as well able to enter into communion with God without having to pass through the flesh of the Church and the sacraments? The question is therefore of importance.

We will confine ourselves here to recalling as others have already done[48] that the expression “spiritual communion” is an analogical one, and in fact has three possible meanings which it would be perilous to ignore, even if with good intentions. The first is that of the grace of the sacrament: in receiving the sacramental sign with good dispositions, we also receive its grace. This is to make a communion which is not only sacramental but also spiritual. If on the other hand someone is ill-disposed or unworthy, he receives the sign without the grace: the communion is then “only sacramental”. The second sense is the more common one: it refers to a Christian who lives habitually in the grace of the sacraments, and who also has good dispositions and is in a state of grace, but for a circumstantial reason cannot receive the sacrament. He may then make a spiritual offering in living faith, that is to say faith informed by charity, and receive the grace of the sacrament without the sign. This is “communion of desire” or more broadly the “sacrament of desire”: it is the case of the catechumen who is preparing to receive baptism springing from a right faith and who could therefore already receive its grace (filial adoption and the wiping away of original sin), which doesn’t dispense him from receiving the sign without which he would not have the character giving him access to the other sacraments. What is mostly not appreciated is that the magisterium has recently used this expression[49] in a sense apparently close to this but in reality completely new, and which constitutes a third meaning to be distinguished very carefully from the two preceding ones.

The third sense refers to one who cannot receive the sacrament, not for a circumstantial reason but because there is an obstacle in him in respect of the sacrament. In the case of the catechumen, the obstacle to the reception of the Eucharist is that he has not yet received baptism – but if he has good dispositions, he can receive its grace: this returns us to the previous meaning. Likewise, the child who has not made his first communion, if he is well disposed, can and should make spiritual communions to prepare himself for sacramental communion. The obstacle in view according to this third sense is however of another order: here in question is someone who is unworthy, badly disposed or in a state of sin. We understand therefore that he cannot receive the sign, but no more can he receive the grace; otherwise the sign would be false and he would receive it as the Apostle says for his condemnation. Nonetheless he can and should preserve the desire of the sacrament, which is not a sacrament of desire but the hope and the firm intention that the obstacle standing between him and the sacrament may one day be lifted so that he will be able to receive it. It is therefore if you wish a “spiritual communion” but “in hope” only and not as the fruit of charity. It does not yield sanctifying grace as given by the sacrament, but it can nevertheless be the source of grace, that of repentance and of contrition. As long as the sinner maintains this desire for the sacrament along with an ever-growing perception of what separates him from it, there remains the hope that he will convert and change his life. Otherwise, if he loses both the desire of communion and the sense of his sin, he risks being trapped in it for the long-term.

Very well, but the nagging question remains: how does this last scenario relate to the divorced and remarried person? Is it possible to say that she is in a “state of sin”, when she is not aware of it, lives admirably and beautifully in many respects, and manifests the fruits of grace in her life? That she has graces is undeniable, but these can be linked to theological faith which sin does not erase (except if it’s a question of a sin against the faith). That she doesn’t have a sense of sin is precisely where the problem lies, even if this should not astonish us, as the world today has never stopped denying sin, the world which wants to “make angels of us all”. For the divorced and remarried person has done something which contradicts the commitment made in his first marriage which, if it is valid, remains the only true one. We cannot be contented here with opposing the objective aspect of things with the subjective dimension of intentions and feelings: marriage is by nature a freely-chosen public act, uniting two lives. There was truly in the first marriage the choice of each of the two future spouses to enter with the other into a stable, definitive and exclusive communion of life, the mutual exchange of a “yes for life”; and in the case of the divorced and remarried person, a statement of rupture, of revocation of this covenant, and another public statement of a new commitment with a third person, excluding thereby in an even more radical manner the original spouse. Certainly, one may be the innocent party in a divorce, but the new commitment is still a free and responsible act. And we should not rush to invoke circumstances which might diminish or eliminate responsibility, or ignorance of what such an act really implies, for this would be a ground for nullity of one or the other marriage and the question would be entirely different. It would in fact be the same situation for cohabitation without remarriage: even if there has not been a public attestation of a new union, there is in actual fact a personal tie which is the expression, both objective and subjective, not to respect the commitment made at the first marriage. Now this free act contrary to the vow of marriage stands for as long as the choice to maintain a common life with someone other than one’s legitimate spouse lasts. And even if a person would wish to end this second union without being able to do it, owing to weakness, the refusal of the partner or from responsibility for children, the choice not to do so still endures. From which we see the difficulty of speaking here of a “spiritual communion” in a sense which would imply that the grace of a sacrament could be given in contradiction to the grace of another sacrament. It cannot be more than a desire of communion, or of a communion in hope.

What is at stake here is truly spiritual discernment in the service of souls. This truth may be difficult to hear, but that is no reason to keep quiet about it or to deny it. We must do so in charity, accepting that the other may need time to “come to the truth”, to allow it to emerge in her heart, to recognise it as it is, to accept it and to draw consequences from it. It is also matter of charity of language, which consists in finding the right words to express the truth in a way that is audible yet without bending it. For truth without charity is not truth; equally, charity without truth is not charity. We see this for example in respect of the “nullity” of marriage, which must not be understood as an existential nullity of what the couples have shared, or of the fruitfulness manifested in the gift of children. However, it is necessary to be firm on this vocabulary, which should not make us think that the Church “annuls” a marriage when in fact she confines herself to recognising the truth of the situation. Likewise it’s necessary to be cautious with the expression “divorced and remarried”, which it is impossible to avoid using if we want to make ourselves understood, but which is not correct because the Church recognises neither divorce nor remarriage but only separation and the existence of a new union which is not a marriage. It would be more precise therefore to speak of the “separated and re-committed” (séparés-réengagés)[50] both in the magisterium and in pastoral work, so as to manifest clearly that the Church does not adopt the point of view of the world on this question, which is in fact a condition of its liberation.

As well as Eucharistic spiritual communion, which must be correctly understood, the Church has at her disposal numerous other gestures which manifest her love, the Lord’s love, for the sinner but not for his sin, and at the same time the bond that the Lord desires to maintain with him so as to deliver him from it. These are the gestures of communion for all those who, without being in full communion with God and his Church, are neither in total rupture with her, and to whom the Church is right to express charity, and even communion with their suffering. And so there exists a whole range of blessings and sacramentals, which do not involve “saying it’s okay” in respect of the sin, but rather of recognising and supporting the intention of the sinner progressively to move away from it. Traditionally, there was the general blessing of penitents at the end of the Mass, which has been replaced by the very widespread custom[51], necessitating further evaluation[52], of an individual blessing in the communion procession, along with all those who for one reason or another cannot yet communicate (children before their first communion, catechumens, etc.). In this regard, we may regret the disappearance of the very ancient and universal custom of blessed bread or eulogy[53], which signifies in a tangible and welcoming manner the communion of the Church with non-communicants.

Pilgrims of the Covenant

Let us not deceive ourselves: penitence has never had a good press and doesn’t draw the crowds. But it doesn’t have to become a bitter pill which discourages the sick to the point of making them despair of healing. The fact is that the ancient penitential system brought about its own decline through an excessively rigorous discipline not connected with its essence, in favour of the more accessible forms of penitence which ended up replacing it. This provides us with a double lesson. Among these substitutive forms, the penitential pilgrimage (peregrinatio)[54] had its hour of glory, firstly from the sixth to the twelfth century in the context of the tariff penance, then from the thirteenth century establishing itself as a third form of penance, public and not solemn, alongside public solemn penance and private penance. Not every pilgrimage is to be classified as expiatory penance, far from it, as there has always been what may be called by way of distinction a devotional pilgrimage; but every pilgrimage, given the element of difficulty and riskiness, includes an aspect of adventure, of sacrifice and of penance. Having almost disappeared in modern times, being assimilated by the public authorities to vagrancy (a certain Benedict Labre paid the price for it), pilgrimages have for several decades now undergone a certain resurgence, starting with that of Santiago de Compostela. We do well to note that in many cases it is the expression of a religiosity which is not only popular[55] but also marginal, for a certain number of those who do not find their place in the Church and in parish churches, on account of their “non-normative” situation in respect of the faith or of morals. This is for them an alternative place of connection and of informal communion not only with God but also with their ancestors in the faith, following in their footsteps. With the ashes and the palms, this is one of those concrete gestures which can still be performed even by the greatest sinners and those who are far from the Church – and so their popularity continues unabated.

For all these reasons, it may be wise to propose the “penitential path” which has been in view in these pages as above all a pilgrimage: for the important thing is not to arrive but to set out and to persevere in the right direction, as the first psalm teaches in declaring blessed him who makes progress on the path of happiness. It is the journeying condition of the Christian[56], homo viator, moving forwards in this world towards a heavenly homeland. This is the condition adopted by Christ[57], viator et comprehensor, but also is that of the Church, which, “while on earth it journeys” in its “pilgrimage toward eternal happiness,” will “attain its full perfection only in the glory of heaven.”[58] It was not unusual to stay for one’s whole life in the order of penitents; today too, certain sinners remain prisoners in situations from which they do not succeed in removing themselves, incapable of finding a true solution. May they at least do what they can and be found by the Lord in a state of journeying towards the heavenly Jerusalem.

Studies have shown that the couples who remain together are those who know how to forgive. It’s the same for communities, and for the Church across the ages. The disaffection for the sacrament of penance is not only the sign of a religious crisis: it is also its cause. Let us venture that a renewal of this great sacrament of liberation and of the resurrection will lead to a new springtime for the Church, such as that to which the cry of St. Dominic gave birth: “My God, my mercy! What will become of sinners?”

Thomas Michelet, op

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[1] For example, Card. W. Kasper, The Gospel of the Family (New York: Paulist, 2014) (text of his address given at the opening of the extraordinary consistory of Cardinals on the family, 20 February 2014).

[2] For more details, see the following: J. Corbett, O.P., et al., “Recent Proposals for the Pastoral Care of the Divorced and Remarried : A Theological Assessment”, Nova et Vetera - English Edition, 12/3 (2014), 601-630; Card. G. L. Müller, “Indissolubilità del matrimonio e dibattito sui divorziati risposati e i sacramenti”, L’Osservatore Romano, daily edition, Year CLIII, no. 243, Wednesday 23/10/2013, 4. English translation available online; R. Dodaro (ed.), Remaining in the Truth of Christ: Marriage and Communion in the Catholic Church (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2014). See also International Theological Commission, Propositions on the Doctrine of Christian Marriage, 1977.

[3] Synod of Bishops, Third Extraordinary General Assembly, 2014, Relatio Synodi no. 52 (this paragraph did not receive the required two-third majority), where the original Italian “cammino penitenziale” (literally, “penitential path”) is rendered in the official English translation as “penitential practice”; W. Kasper, ibid., de Clerck; “La réconciliation pour les fidèles divorcés remarries”, Revue théologique de Louvain 32/3 (2001), 321-352 ; B. Petrà, “The Divorced and Remarried: A New State within the Church?”, INTAMS review 16/2 (2010), 194-207.

[4] B. de Margerie, Les divorcés remariés face à l’eucharistie (Paris: Téqui, 1979)

[5] O. Saier, K. Lehmann, W. Kasper (German bishops of the Upper Rhine Province), Pastoral Letter of 10 July 1993, English trans. in Kevin T. Kelly, Divorce and Second Marriage: Facing the Challenge, 2nd ed. (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1996), 90–117.

[6] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church concerning the reception of Holy Communion by the divorced and remarried members of the faithful”, 14 September 1994, nos. 3 and 6; G. Grisez, J. Finnis, W. E. May, “Indissolubility, Divorce and Holy Communion. An open letter to Archbishop Saier, Bishop Lehmann and Bishop Kasper”, New Blackfriars, 75/883 (1994), 321-330.

[7] Code of Canon Law [CIC], Can. 915: “Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion”; Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, Declaration of 6 July on Canon 915.

[8] Council of Trent, Decree on Justification (1574), chaps. 14-15, Denz. 1542-1544; Decree concerning the Sacrament of the Eucharist (1551), Denz. 1646-1647; Canons concerning the Most Holy Sacrament Of Penance (1551), Denz. 1701-1715; Doctrine and Canons on Marriage (1563), Denz. 1797-1812, Tametsi Decree (1563), Denz. 1813-1816.

[9] Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], 1650-1651, 1664-1665, 2382-2386, 2400.

[10] Blaise Pascal, Pensées (trans. W. F. Trotter) No. 526, 143: “The knowledge of God without that of man’s misery causes pride. The knowledge of man’s misery without that of God causes despair. The knowledge of Jesus Christ constitutes the middle course, because in Him we find both God and our misery.” Ibid., no. 525, 143: “Misery induces despair, pride induces presumption. The Incarnation shows man the greatness of his misery by the greatness of the remedy which he required.”

[11] Card. J. Ratzinger, “Concerning some objections to the Church’s teaching on the reception of holy communion by divorced and remarried members of the faithful” in Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Sulla pastorale dei divorziati risposati, Documenti e Studi 17 (Vatican City, 1998), 20-29, no. 2.

[12] Synod of Bishops, Third Extraordinary General Assembly, Relatio synodi, no. 24 (Bollettino B770, 18 October 2014); cf. Ibid., Relatio post disceptationem no. 23 (Bollettino B751, 13 October 2014).

[13] Pope Francis, Discourse of Saturday 18 October 2014 to the Third Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, 15th General Congregation (Bollettino B771, 18 October 2014).

[14] J. Nourissat, “Au service des baptisés, divorcés remariés, quelques moyens”, Christus 30/120 (1983), 464-471; Id., “Une expérience canadienne. Ouvriers de la onzième heure… (Mt 20, 1-16)”, Christus 33/130 (1986), 216-224; É. Jacquinet and J. Nourrissat, Fidèles jusqu’à l’audace. Divorcés remariés: un chemin nouveau dans l’Église (Paris: Salvator, 2008); Mgr A.-M. Léonard, L’Église vous aime. Un chemin d’espérance pour les divorcés, séparés, remariés, 2nd ed. (Paris: Éd. de l’Emmanuel, 2010); A. Bandelier, Le mariage chrétien à l’épreuve du divorce (Paris: Éd. de l’Emmanuel), 2010; Id. (ed.), Séparés, divorcés à cœur ouvert. Témoignages, réflexions et propositions de fidèles et de pasteurs catholiques (Paris: Lethielleux, 2010); G. Berliet, Parcours Miséricorde et Vérité. Un chemin pour les personnes divorcées remariées (Paris: Éd. de l’Emmanuel, 2011); Id. and N. Provencher, Divorcés remariés et Eucharistie (Montréal: Mediaspaul, 2011); M. Martin-Prevel, Divorcés, aimer encore. Des chemins d’espérance (Nouan-le-Fuzelier: Béatitudes, 2011). We must also note various associations and events dedicated to the pastoral care of the divorced and remarried: Amour et vérité (Emmanuel Community), Cana Samarie (Chemin Neuf community), Miséricorde et vérité (Fr Jacques Nourissat, also the founder of the “Fraternité Lataste” in 1948; Fr Gérard Berliet); without forgetting the separated divorced faithful: Communion Notre-Dame de l’Alliance, Renaissance, Solitude Myriam.

[15] Sin in fact does not result in the loss of faith, except when it is a sin against faith, such as heresy.

[16] John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, 22 November 1981, no. 28: “The sacrament of marriage gives to the educational role the dignity and vocation of being really and truly a ‘ministry’ of the Church at the service of the building up of her members. So great and splendid is the educational ministry of Christian parents that Saint Thomas has no hesitation in comparing it with the ministry of priests: ‘Some only propagate and guard spiritual life by a spiritual ministry: this is the role of the sacrament of Orders; others do this for both corporal and spiritual life, and this is brought about by the sacrament of marriage, by which a man and a woman join in order to beget offspring and bring them up to worship God.’”

[17] CIC 1151-1155, 1692-1696; CCC 2383.

[18] Familiaris consortio no. 84; CCC 1650; Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church concerning the reception of Holy Communion by the Divorced and Remarried members of the Faithful”, 14 September 1994, no. 4; Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, Declaration of 6 July 2000, no. 2; Benedict XVI, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, 22 February 2007, no. 29.

[19] A.-M. Henry, “Les non-sacramentalisables”, Parole et Mission 8 (1960), 106-118.

[20] CCC 1450-1460.

[21] É. Amann, “Pénitence”, DTC 12/1 (1933), 749-948; P.-M. Gy, “Histoire liturgique du sacrement de la penitence”, La Maison Dieu 56 (1958), 5-21; H. Rondet, S.J., “Esquisse d’une histoire du Sacrement de Pénitence”, Nouvelle Revue Théologique 80 (1958), 562-584; B. Poschmann, Pénitence et onction des maladies (Paris: Cerf), 1966; C. Vogel, Le pécheur et la pénitence dans l’Église ancienne, (Paris: Cerf, 1966); F. Berrouard, “La pénitence publique durant les six premiers siècles”, La Maison Dieu 118 (1974), 92-130; Adnès, “Pénitence”, Dictionnaire de Spiritualité 14/1 (1984), 943-1010; J. A. Favazza, Ordo paenitentium. Historical roots and pastoral future (Leuven, 1986) (The Order of penitents, Collegeville, 1988); M. C. Mansfield, The Humiliation of Sinners. Public Penance in Thirteenth-Century France (London/Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005).

[22] The Solemn Rite of the exclusion and public reconciliation of the penitent has been preserved in the Roman Pontifical up to our days, and still theoretically therefore forms part of the penitential system, even if today it has fallen into disuse. Cf. P.-M. Gy, “Histoire liturgique du sacrement de la penitence”, in La Maison Dieu 56 (1958), 16; Adnès, “Pénitence”, Dictionnaire de Spiritualité, 14/1 (1984), col. 970.

[23] Others have highlighted this before us: A.-M. Henry, “Les non-sacramentalisables”, 115-116, who regrets the absence of a body previously known as the “penitents”; A. Nocent, in L. Ligier et al., La Penitenza, dottrina, storia, catechesi e pastorale, Turin, “Quaderni di Rivista liturgica, 9”, 1968, who makes a general presentation of this suggestion of a new ordo paenitentium, 11; V. Richard, Les divorcés remariés et l’admission au sacrement de pénitence, Mémoire de licence (ed. Adnès, S.J.) (Rome: Pontificia universitas gregoriana, 1988), 164-166; Mgr Jacques Jullien, “L’Alliance éprouvée. Les divorcés remariés dans l’Église”, Christus 30/120 (1983), 388-400, with a reference to the ordo paenitentium, 400.

[24] Ordo paenitentiae, published in Rome on the 2 December 1973, editio typica, 1974. An English edition was published as The Rite of Penance (Great Wakering: Mayhew-McCrimmon, 1976).

[25] Synod of Bishops, Fifth Ordinary General Assembly (26 September - 25 October 1980), “Mission of the Christian Family in the Modern World”; John Paul II, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio (22 November 1981).

[26] Synod of Bishops, Sixth Ordinary General Assembly (29 September – 29 October 1983), “Penance and Reconciliation in the Mission of the Church”; John Paul II, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et paenitentia (2 December 1984). One may also profitably reread the prophetic speech of Cardinal J.-M. Lustiger at the Sixth General Congregation (4 October 1983), “Une épreuve significative du destin spirituel de notre temps”, Documentation Catholique [DC] 80 No. 1861 (1983), 997-1000.

[27] This proposal to restore the order of penitents was made by Cardinal Joseph Bernadin, then Archbishop of Chicago, in the course of the 1983 Synod of Bishops on Penance and Reconciliation, based on discussion in a working group of the North American Academy of Liturgy. The idea was to apply the model of the Christian Initiation of adults to the pastoral care of “returning Catholics”, which would give four basic stages, of variable duration according to the needs of the individual, each marked by appropriate rites: the confession of sins, the practice of penance, celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, a prolongation of the sacramental experience. This proposal, enriched by a study of J. Lopresti on the process of conversion and initiation, gave birth to a pastoral programme implemented in parishes, “Remembering Church”. Cf. J. Bernardin, “New rite of penance suggested”, Origins (Catholic News Service) 13 (1983), 324-326; J. Slattery, “Restore the Ordo Poenitentium? Some Historical Notes”, The Living Light 20 (1984), 248-253; R. Blondell, “The Order of Penitents”, Celebration - A Creative Worship Service, Supplement, February (1984), 78; J. Lopresti, “RCIA and Reconciling the Alienated”, in R. J. Kennedy (ed.), Reconciliation: The continuing agenda (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1987), 159-170; reprinted in Church 1 (1985) 11-16; Id., Penance: a reform proposal for the rite, (Washington, D.C.: Pastoral Press 1987); J. A. Favazza, The Order of penitents, op. cit. 253-269; J. G. Schaller, “The Order of Penitents : Theological and Pastoral Directions”, Worship 64/3 (1990), 207-224; R. J. O’Donnell, “Reconciling the Alienated Catholic”, The Catholic World 236 No. 1412 (1993), 60-66; J. Dallen, The reconciling community: the rite of penance, (Collegeville: Liturgical Press) 1991, 390-395; Id., “History and the Reform of the Penance”, in R. Kennedy (ed.), Reconciling Embrace. Foundations for the Future of Sacramental Reconciliation (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1998), 79ff.

[28] S. Augustine, Confess., I, XI, 1; De catechiz. rudibus, 26, 50; De peccat. merit., II, 26, 42; First Council of Carthage, Can. 5. Cf. G.-H. Baudry, Le baptême et ses symboles: aux sources du salut (Paris: Beauchesne, 2001), 154ff.; Id., Les symboles du christianisme ancien, Ier - VIIe siècle (Paris: Cerf, 2009), 151ff.

[29] The confusion between punishment and penance has long been made on the basis of a false etymology: A. Ernout and A. Meillet, Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue latine (Paris, 1951), 840, 917 and 1051. Paenitentia was already being written poenitentia in classical Latin, by assimilation with poena, punishment, with the sense of compensation assigned for a “fault, ransom; expiation or retributive penalty”; and then of “affliction, pain” with the derivative punire or poenire, “to punish, avenge”. From here the idea of penance as punitive. Whereas in reality penance comes from paene, which means “nearly, scarcely, not enough, insufficient”, which is therefore the opposite of satis, “satisfied” (by food). The impersonal verb paenitet has for its primary sense “I do not have enough of, I am not happy or satisfied with”; then it passed to the moral sense of “having regret, repenting”, which led to the spelling poenitet under the influence of poena. Penance therefore is based on regret and repentance, but it stresses less penalty and more what is lacking, and aims more at satisfaction than it does at punishment; it finds its term and its culmination not so much in suffering as in fullness.

[30] John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, 22 November 1981, no. 84, CCC 1651.

[31] Benedict XVI, Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, 22 February 2007, no. 29.

[32] Ordo paenitentiae, 1974, nos. 36-37. The Rite of Penance, nos. 36-7.

[33] Synod of Bishops, Third Extraordinary General Assembly (2014), Relatio post disceptationem, no. 13; this text was entirely reformulated in the Relatio Synodi, no. 13, without the term “gradualness”.

[34] Synod of Bishops, Fifth Ordinary General Assembly (1980), Proposition 7. See “Les 43 propositions du synode”, DC 78 No. 1809 (1981), 537-550, 538.

[35] John Paul II, Homily at the conclusion of the 5th General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, October 25, 1980, no. 8, AAS 72 (1980), 1083.

[36] John Paul II, Third Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for the Family, 13 December 1985, no. 3; Pontifical Council for the Family, Vademecum for Confessors, 12 February 1997, no. 9 and note 43; Congregation for the Clergy, General Directory for Catechesis, 15 August 1997, Part 1, Chapter 3, “The baptismal catechumenate: structure and progression”; Id., The Priest and the Third Christian Millennium: Teacher of the Word, Minister of the Sacraments and Leader of the Community, 19 March 1999.

[37] J. Ratzinger, Letter to the Clergy of Munich, “Lettre sur les 43 propositions du Synode”, DC 78 No. 1806 (1981), 385-394; J.-M. Lustiger, “Gradualité et conversion”, DC 79 No. 1826 (1982) 315-322; P. Eyt, “La loi de gradualité et la formation des consciences”, Documents Épiscopat 17, 1991; A. You, La loi de gradualité: une nouveauté en morale? (Paris: Lethielleux, 1991); Id., “La loi de gradualité et non pas la gradualité de la loi”, Esprit et vie, 101/8 (1991) 120-127; L. Melina, “La Loi de gradualité” in J. Laffitte and L. Melina, Amour conjugal et vocation à la sainteté (Paray-le-Monial, Éd. de l’Emmanuel, 2001); G. Irrazabal, “La ley de la gradualidad como cambio de paradigm”, Moralia 27/102-103 (2004), 167-190; O. Bonnewijn, Éthique sexuelle et familiale (Paris: Éd. de l’Emmanuel, 2006), Ch. 8, 219-241; M.-J. Huguenin, “La morale de gradualité. La morale catholique à l’aune de la miséricorde divine”, Revue d’Éthique et de théologie morale No. 280 (2014/3), 75-100.

[38] J.-M. Lustiger, “Gradualité et conversion”, 318 and 321.

[39] M.-J. Huguenin, “La morale de gradualité. La morale catholique à l’aune de la miséricorde divine”, 79-81. The end of the article, critical of the magisterium in respect of the divorced and remarried, returns curiously to the conception of the “gradualness of the law” which initially it had seemed to denounce.

[40] J. Ratzinger, Letter to the clergy of Munich, 388: “The Christian journey taken as a whole is a ‘conversio’ – a conversion, but one which occurs through progressive steps”. John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Asia, no. 20: “The presentation of Jesus Christ as the only Saviour needs to follow a pedagogy which will introduce people step by step to the full appropriation of the mystery”; Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, no. 171.

[41] Synod of Bishops, Third Extraordinary General Assembly (2014), Relatio post disceptationem, no. 18.

[42] B. Poschmann, op. cit., 82.

[43] E. Amann, col. 804. Cf. Adnès, col. 961.

[44] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, nos. 169-173.

[45] Pope Francis, Discourse of Saturday 18th October 2014 to the Synod of Bishops (op. cit.).

[46] John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris consortio, no. 84; CCC 1651; Benedict XVI, Post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum caritatis, no. 29.

[47] Synod of Bishops, Third Extraordinary General Assembly, Relatio synodi, no. 53 (not approved, for want of the required two-thirds majority).

[48] B.-D. de La Soujeole O.P., “Communion sacramentelle et communion spirituelle”, Nova et Vetera, 86/2 (2011), 147-153; J. Corbett et al., op. cit., 616-617; P. C. Landucci, “Communio spiritualis”, Dictionarium Morale et Canonicum I (1962), 790-793.

[49] Benedict XVI, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, 22 February 2007, no. 55.

[50] We take this expression from Mgr Bruno Feuillet, “La consultation en vue du synode dans le contexte de l’Évangélisation”, Revue d’Éthique et de théologie morale No. 280 (2014/3) 35-51, 45-48.

[51] I have found it in France as in the United States as far as California. What about elsewhere?

[52] It seems that in a response to a letter which put this question in 2008, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments has deemed this practice not permitted. As a private response, it has appeared in a number of places on the internet, giving the protocol number 930/08/L.

[53] N. Collin, Traité du pain béni, ou l’Église catholique justifiée sur l’usage du pain (Paris, 1777).

[54] C. Vogel, “Le pèlerinage pénitentiel”, Revue des Sciences Religieuses 38 (1964), 113-153.

[55] Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy: Principles and Guidelines, December 2001, chap. 8, nos. 261-287, “Shrines and Pilgrimages”.

[56] J. Hofinger, “Le pèlerinage, symbole de la vie chrétienne”, Lumen Vitae 13 (1958), 277-290; C. Spicq O.P., Vie chrétienne et pérégrination selon le Nouveau Testament, Paris, “Lectio divina, 71”, 1972; A.-M. Besnard, Par un long chemin vers Toi. Le pèlerinage chrétien (Paris: Cerf, 1978).

[57] G. Carbone, O.P., “Homo viator et peregrinus dans les œuvres de S. Thomas d’Aquin”, Nova et Vetera 75 (2000), 63-76; N. Bériou, “Parler de Dieu en images: Le Christ pèlerin au Moyen Âge”, Comptes rendus des séances de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres 152/1 (2008), 157-201.

[58] Vatican Council II, Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, nos. 6, 21, 48.