The Venerable Fulton Sheen said, “Hearing nuns’ confessions is like being stoned to death with popcorn.” I’m thinking that he means they aren’t all that exciting. I don’t know if I’ve heard more exciting than I have given, but there are some who come for confession that I know I’m going to feel like a hypocrite for sitting there and listening to.
As you are probably aware, confession (a.k.a. The Reconciliation of a Penitent) is not all that popular in the Episcopal Church. I encourage it because I know how helpful it can be, but as many are fond of saying, “All may, none must, some should.”
In the Book of Common Prayer (p.447), following the confession, the penitent says to the priest, “I humbly beg forgiveness of God and his Church, and ask you for counsel, direction, and absolution,” and the rubrics state that the priest is to give these things. That is the individual confession, but in the general confession, the one we say together, has no instructions. It is expected that you will have done some preparation prior to making the general confession, but in the end, you simply pray the confession and receive absolution, with no counsel, direction, etc. Not mentioned in either form is the giving of any act of penance: “Say five Hail Marys and two Our Fathers,” “Fifty lashes”, etc. Perhaps the reason being is that forgiveness of sins is a gift, so there should be no suggestion that you are somehow “paying” for that forgiveness through some act on your part. I get that, but should there still be some type of act / response on our part in receiving absolution? I believe the answer is “Yes” and it would seem that this is one of the many lessons we can take from our Gospel reading today.
Before Jesus was crucified, Peter denied him three times, so we understand why Jesus asked him three times, “Do you love me.” It was to fully restore Peter back to himself. Peter responds in the positive, “Yes, you know that I love you,” but as we read, Jesus didn’t pat Peter on the head and say, “Good boy.” No. Jesus gave Peter a means of responding to the forgiveness of sins, “Feed my sheep.” “Do you love me?” “Yes. I love you.” “Good. Go out and show the love you have for me to others. Remember: ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”
For the forgiveness of our sins, Jesus died on the cross. The absolution we receive for our sins is a free gift, an expression of Jesus’ love for us. Therefore, it is fitting that we respond to this love of Jesus by an act of penance. Not because we have to or we are being compelled to, but because we want to love Jesus by loving others.
An act of penance is not a punishment for our sins, nor is it payment for the absolution we received. An act of penance is an expression of love, freely given as a response to the great love that has been shown to us. So whether you have made a personal confession or a general confession, ask yourself, “How might I love others in response to the love I have been shown.”