Understanding the sacraments: The Synod on the Family

Praying for the pope and bishops as they address how the Church can live more fully the sacrament of reconciliation

Pope Francis, recognizing the enormous challenges facing the family, has called the Third Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops to consider “pastoral challenges to the family in the context of evangelization.” The synod will meet Oct. 5-19.

In preparation for the synod, the Vatican sent out a questionnaire last October. The responses to the questionnaire have been distilled into what is known as the instrumentum laboris, or working document, the beginning of a profound reflection by the world’s bishops.

This working document consists of three parts. Part I is entitled “Communicating the Gospel of the Family in Today’s World,” Part II “The Pastoral Program for the Family in Light of New Challenges,” and Part III “An Openness to Life and Parental Responsibility in Upbringing.”

One of the topics considered in Part I is the liturgical-sacramental life of the family. A concern expressed by most of the questionnaire responses was “the need of living the Sacrament of Reconciliation” (Instrumentum Laboris, n. 42). In this month’s column I would like to reflect on this concern and give some background to the current situation.

In 1946, Pope Pius XII stated “the sin of the century is the loss of the sense of sin.” St. John Paul II quoted this statement in his 1984 apostolic exhortation Reconciliation and Penance and asserted, “The sacrament of penance is in crisis.” At the close of the Great Jubilee Year of 2000 he again acknowledged “the crisis of ‘the sense of sin’ in today’s culture” (Novo Millennio Ineunte, 37). At that time he proposed to the universal Church as a pastoral priority encouraging “persuasively and effectively” the sacrament of reconciliation.

In Reconciliation and Penance (n. 18) St. John Paul II discusses at length various factors that have have contributed to this crisis of “the sense of sin” and of the sacrament of confession. He begins by looking at four social-cultural factors that contribute to this loss of the sense of sin. First, he notes the influence of a secularism that emphasizes production, consumerism and pleasure-seeking and reduces sin to anything that offends man. Teachings that place the blame for sin upon society or the influences of environment and historical conditioning and declare the individual free of all responsibility are a second factor. Added to this is a denial that certain actions or attitudes are always wrong and sinful—everything is relative, there are no absolutes. Finally, he noted a false identification of sin with “a morbid feeling of guilt or with the mere transgression of legal norms and precepts”—breaking the rules rather than hurting a relationship rooted in love.

In addition to these factors, St. John Paul II also acknowledges certain trends in the thought and life of the Church that “inevitably favor the decline of the sense of sin.” In some cases, he observes, a tendency to see sin everywhere has been replaced by a failure to recognize it anywhere. Also, an exaggerated emphasis on the fear of eternal punishment has given way “to preaching a love of God that excludes any punishment deserved by sin.” Finally, some have passed “from severity in trying to correct erroneous consciences…to a kind of respect for conscience excluding the duty of telling the truth.”

A third set of factors noted by the saint concern sacramental practice. Sin has both an individual and a communal dimension—it wounds our relationship with God, and it hurts our relationship with others and the Church. Today, notes the saint, there is “the tendency to obscure the ecclesial significance of sin and of conversion and to reduce them to merely personal matters; or vice versa, the tendency to nullify the personal value of good and evil and to consider only their community dimension.” Finally, he notes “the danger, never totally eliminated, of routine ritualism that deprives the sacrament of its full significance and formative effectiveness” (18).

What is needed, he says, is “a rediscovery of Christ as…the one in whom God shows us his compassionate heart and reconciles us fully with himself. It is this face of Christ that must be rediscovered through the sacrament of penance.”

In February, Pope Francis exhorted the faithful, “Be courageous, and go to confession.” “Forgiveness,” he said, “is a gift of the Holy Spirit who showers us with mercy and grace that pours forth unceasingly from the open heart of Christ crucified and risen.” Let us pray for the pope and the bishops as they address how the Church can live more fully the sacrament of reconciliation.


Father Stice is pastor of St. Mary Church in Athens and directs the diocesan Office of Worship and Liturgy. He can be reached at