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Reconciliation: a spray-on solution or an age old practice that works?

Mary Bryant

Published on Catholic Weekly 13/8/06 and OnlineCatholics, 16/8/06

Can a Catholic understanding of sacramental reconciliation help unlock a stuck door for Australian policy makers and bring about national healing?

Early this year a meeting of academics and activists was organised to discuss the state of the reconciliation process, to see whether reconciliation was still a useful concept and to explore how the reconciliation process could be revitalised.

The discussion became a debate on the merits and deficits of symbolic and practical reconciliation. The upshot of the discussion was that the focus by the current government, policy makers and service providers on the provision of practical support and services, has become the vehicle for delivering reconciliation to the Indigenous people of Australia.

As the word reconciliation was tossed around I pondered on what little knowledge I had of the word and process, and I realised that all I really knew about reconciliation was my experience of the sacrament of reconciliation. This insight became significant in the discussion as reference was made to the Christian and more particularly the Catholic understanding of the word. If one hoped to evaluate its meaning one should also have knowledge of the history and the act of reconciliation.

It became clear to me that even my little knowledge about the sacrament could offer a new vision of what reconciliation might include and involve. It is, after all, a method that has been tried and tested over hundreds, if not thousands, of years and it might be the key to unlock the door for policy makers, governments and communities as to what reconciliation truly involves and aims to achieve.

I was not surprised that most people in the meeting had a misunderstanding of what the sacrament of reconciliation involves and promises. I, myself, had spent most of my life reducing it to an act of saying sorry. In fact, I had spent most of my life avoiding it all together.

The truth is that the real pearls hidden in the sacrament were only revealed to me in my personal journey and struggle towards healing and in my deepest need to forgive those who had broken my heart and spirit so I could find peace.

The pearl is an accurate metaphor in that the pearl lies in an oyster that at face value looks ugly and lifeless - dirty even.

That is probably how I had come to see reconciliation, as a moment of looking at the dirty, lifeless part of me, the part I had been ashamed of. Worse still, looking into myself only exacerbated the pain and trauma which reminded me of my imperfections and flaws -- until I started to consider what I could take from the sacrament; what healing it might promise.

It seemed unlikely to me that any sacrament was intended to humiliate me. What seemed more plausible was that I had misinterpreted the significance of reconciliation in my spiritual life. It also intrigued me that the Catholics had held on to this act of confession and forgiveness and I was somehow proud of that; it seemed the right thing to do. I had come to know that for me no peace would come in my life without forgiveness. I also knew that sharing one’s story, pain or guilt with another person had a therapeutic consequence and this knowledge led me to my first understandings of the relevance of the sacrament in my life.

I made the assumption that reconciliation would offer and promise me healing. I began to interpret the steps involved in that healing, all equally important and sequential. I also came to value the priest who acted as mediator, merciful judge and, yes, God’s stand-in.

I should add here that I shopped around: I would only go to reconciliation with a priest who seemed to have some compassion, some love and hopefully, wisdom, to share. Sometimes I found wisdom most unexpectedly. When you reflect on the sacrament and the individual steps you take, it is wonderful to see how the majesty and insight of each step leads to the next, until the act is complete.


The celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation, over time, has been celebrated in a variety of forms and yet a number of fundamental truths and convictions have been highlighted and preserved.

The first conviction is that the sacrament offers the primary way of obtaining forgiveness and the remission of serious sin.

The second conviction is that the act of penance is a kind of judicial action, in so far as sinners announce the sin they have committed, accept the punishment (penance) imposed by the confessor (priest) and subsequently receive absolution or pardon.

The third conviction concerns the requirements of the sacrament of forgiveness and reconciliation which include an examination of conscience, a penitent heart which recognises that sin has been committed, and a resolution not to commit the sin again. The confession of sin and act of contrition are followed by an act of penance (prayers or action founded in love) where the confessor must act as the healer, acquainting himself with the wounded person in order to treat or heal the person. This reflects the conviction that the confessor acts as judge. A crucial stage of the sacrament is for the confessor (or judge and healer) to offer absolution.

One thing I have always loved about the bible and most Catholic rituals is that even if you lack faith or belief in God, the rituals still represent good practices for mental health.

I have studied and taught in social work and related fields. Most modern psychology acknowledges the benefits of rituals that allow people to examine areas of their lives that may ordinarily lie hidden, and deal with them in an effort to move on.

National reconciliation

So what does an understanding of the sacrament offer to a national process of reconciliation? What should this process include and involve? What would the act of saying sorry include? When would it be time to move on and accept penance? Who would determine the penance, who would receive it and when would the time come for absolution?

It is confronting to remember that sin and acts of malice continue. As long as they do, the need for reconciliation is maintained. So how can refugees, immigrants, people with a disability, anyone who has been hurt by national policies become involved or be invited into a process of reconciliation?

The sacrament requires a sequence of actions.

People don’t walk out of confession half way or appear for the penance alone.

Where national reconciliation is concerned, therefore, is saying sorry only the first step?

I began to wonder if a sincere attempt was being made to reconcile with Indigenous people or whether mere talk of reconciliation was a spray-on solution to a serious problem. Is the language of reconciliation reminiscent of the word “community”, used in the 1980s to soothe and calm pain and anger?

The Catholic Church has recognised the difficulties and challenges of sustaining the commitment of reconciliation in the hearts and minds of people. The report by the Synod for the Papal address on Reconciliation and Penance noted that the sacrament was in crisis, that it was being undermined by a lessening of the concept of sin, a distortion in human conscience and a misunderstanding of penance.

This may give us some insight into our own process of reconciliation as a nation: Are we tempted to lessen or distort the sin? Do we want to remove the mediator (judge or priest) and simply say sorry? If so, what is left out? How can the healing come?

Christians are promised salvation, a word derived from the word ‘salve’ meaning to heal. The word to forgive means to give completely, or completely give. The mystery of the sacrament of reconciliation is rooted in the notion that the sinner’s offence is transformed - not into a moment of admonishment but of mercy, healing and restoration. It is an act of love, to which the ideal response is made lovingly.

The sacrament of reconciliation is designed to bring peace, healing and restoration to the minds, hearts and souls of people who have committed sin or people who have been wounded by sin and need to forgive.

For the most part the healing is a mystery and yet many people accept that to forgive or ask forgiveness brings a freedom and release to the heart (feelings), soul (relationship to God) and mind (conscience).

What isn’t a mystery is what we need to do for reconciliation to occur:

We must acknowledge our sins.
We must ask forgiveness.
We must invite justice, love and righteousness into the process.
We accept our penance.
We must perform our penance.
We must determine not to sin again.

We can then rejoice in the healing that comes - not only for us but for our relationships with others, our communities and our nation.

There must be no short cuts or quick fixes. Every step must be a movement towards healing. Yes, we have to say sorry. But that is only the first step on the journey towards reconciliation.

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