This Week’s Ask Alice: Confusion about communal penance services, and a philosophical question about the soul and spirit.

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Helen K. asks: If you attend a communal penance service does this absolve you from sins both venial and mortal, or do you still need to go to confession, one-on-one with a priest? I am confused on this matter.

Alice replies: A communal penance service is no substitute for the sacrament of Penance. Absolution for a mortal sin can ONLY be obtained when a penitent confesses his/her sin individually to a priest.

Sin separates us from God. Through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, our relationship with our Heavenly Father is fully restored. Since Penance is a sacrament, the person who goes to confession receives pardon for every mortal and venial sin as well as a wealth of graces. The purpose of a Communal Penance service is to prepare the Faithful for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Why should I settle for a Communal Penance Service and pass up the treasury of healing graces that the Lord longs to shower upon me in the Confessional?

It is recommended that Catholics receive the Sacrament of Penance once a month. Although I have committed no mortal sins, going to confession refreshes my soul. Confessing my sins to a priest (who represents Jesus) helps me to clean out the junk that accumulates in my soul. A monthly soul cleaning, keeps me spiritually strong and focused, patient and loving. When God forgives me, His grace fortifies me to forgive others. For me going to Confession is like taking vitamins. God’s gracious mercy pumps me up when I am weak and stumbling.

A communal penance service, general confession and general absolution can suffice only in case of dire necessity, such as imminent danger of death without adequate time for a priest(s) to hear each person’s confession. Or if there are not enough priests available to hear each person’s confession in a reasonable time. In this instance, the individual must have the intention of confessing his/her sins as soon as possible. The bishop of the diocese typically decides whether or not the conditions needed for general absolution exist.

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Peggy G. Asks:

We have been discussing Soren Kierkegaard’s philosophy of the soul in theology, how we are not souls and that we have this ability to bring our souls into existence by the choices we make. So, here I am pondering about it at 2 a.m.

I have always believed that God gives us our soul from the time of conception. As Genesis 2:7 says, “The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathes into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). Without God’s breath, man would only exist in the physical form and we would all be robots. The breathing individual is alive, living and full of LIFE. I believe that the soul is a little piece of God within us. I have believed that the soul is an inner, vital, and spiritual principle which is capable of existence apart from the body. The freedom to make our own decisions has everything to do with free will, not with the existence of our souls or bringing our souls into existence like Kierkegaard believed, for they already exist prior to our ability to decide for ourselves. I do believe our choices here on this plane of existence will affect what is going to happen to our souls at the end of our existence.

So here are my questions…just because I am curious….

What is a soul?

What compromises the spirit within someone? Is that spirit within us the same as The Holy Spirit?

Are our souls and spirits connected?

Can we alter the soul that was given to us by God through our choices?

Does God judge our soul on judgment day, or does he judge our deeds? Is it possible to judge our deeds without looking upon our souls?

Alice replies:

Your reflections on the theology of the soul are spiritually insightful.

Every human being is created in the image of God. Our soul is the essence of our being. It is spiritual, immortal and will be united with our resurrected body in Heaven. Although the Catholic church uses the words, “soul” and “spirit,” interchangeably, St. Paul refers to “body”, “soul,” and “spirit” separately. Theologians contend that his comments were Trinitarian (spirit-Holy Spirit, soul-Father, and body-Son) in nature.

The Holy Spirit indwells every baptized person.

The state of our soul can be altered through serious sins. “Do not fear those who deprive the body of life but cannot destroy the soul. Rather, fear him who can destroy both body and soul in Gehenna.” (Matthew 10″28) Mortal sin endangers the state of our soul. God will judge the state of our soul when we face Him at our particular judgment day. God does not condemn people to hell. We choose where we will spend eternity. Even the worst sinner has an opportunity to repent and beg for God’s Divine Mercy when he/she dies. The only people in hell are those who choose to refuse His mercy.

Since Soren Kierkegaard is considered the father of the existentialist movement, theologians such as St. Augustine present the soul from a Catholic point of view. “The Catechism of the Catholic Church” is a sound source that clarifies soul questions. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote about the soul and spirit in, “Summa Theologica.”

Hope these ideas provide a bit of inspiration for future 2 a.m. discussions.

Doug Lawrence adds: You’re supposed to ponder this stuff, until it drives you nuts (just like Kierkegaard, with his multiple personas.) It drives me nuts just trying to remember how many a’s are in his name!

Anyway, here goes:

Q: What is a soul?

A: The soul is the receptacle of our human intellect … the “home” of our spirit (and our rational self.) Together with our body, these three (body/soul/spirit) constitute the essence of our eternal, human “person hood”.

Q: What comprises the spirit within someone? Is that spirit within us the same as The Holy Spirit?

A: The spirit is the personal, rational essence which animates the human soul and gives us our distinct, identifiable personality.

The Holy Spirit is God. God’s “essence” is pure spirit and divine, while our essence is human and intended to be composite … consisting (ideally) of body, soul and spirit.

It should be noted that Jesus’ divine essence always existed, as a pure spirit … in the 2nd person of the Holy Trinity.

When he became man, Jesus also “took on” a human body, complete with a human soul, all of which will continue to endure into eternity, as a permanent aspect of his divine person hood. (Also a composite, but as God … with a divine spirit … plus human body … plus human soul.)

Taking on flesh to become man, Jesus never ceased to be God, nor did he become some sort of an amalgamated “mixture”.

Jesus remains true God and true man … and that is suitably demonstrated by the fact that he forever retains: 1) his eternal, divine spirit; 2) his eternal, human soul; 3) and (since the resurrection) his glorified, transformed, eternal and incorruptible human body.

So, under the proper circumstances, the two different essences can and do co-exist.

In particular, at baptism, the Holy Spirit takes up residence in the human soul, and we become temples of the Holy Spirit.

This begins the process of actual spiritual transformation (theosis) which should (eventually) lead us to become like God (although still fully human).

Q: Are our souls and spirits connected?

A: Yes. Just like your body and your brain are connected.

Q: Can we alter the soul that was given to us by God through our choices?

A: God’s grace and his actual presence in the soul (or the lack of it) determines the state of the soul … and whether it will be pleasing and acceptable to God and worthy of/compatible with heaven.

God does not hang around in our soul when we choose to do seriously evil stuff. That’s why mortal sin leaves the soul in danger of hell.

The most practical aspect of this:

God is love. Love is just another name for charity. Anyone who departs this earthly existence with at least a modicum of charity remaining in their soul is not likely to see eternal damnation (although we would expect a whole lot of remedial work to be necessary for those who just “squeak” by.) Alternatively … Mary … full of grace … now in heaven … complete with her spotless soul, forever untainted by sin of any kind … along with with her (already) transformed and glorified human body … practically runs the place! (By the grace of God, of course.)

Q: Does God judge our soul on judgment day, or does he judge our deeds? Is it possible to judge our deeds without looking upon our souls?

A: See the preceding answer regarding God, love, charity, and eternal damnation/reward.

This may not all match up with what is being covered in your philosophy class, but that’s the way philosophy works.

Philosophy is the search for truth, while Jesus IS the truth, and the authentic teachings of the Catholic Church faithfully reflect that truth.

What constitutes a “good confession”?

BpKaffer 

Q: Regarding the Catholic sacrament of reconcilation, what’s the difference between a “good confession” and some other kind?

A: The only type of confession that is typically acceptable to God and effective for the forgiveness of sins is a “good” one. The late Auxilliary Bishop of Joliet, Roger L. Kaffer, who was known to hear lots and lots of confessions throughout his more than fifty year priesthood, once explained it to me like this:

It is absolutely essential for the penitent to confess every mortal sin that they can remember, since deliberately holding back even one grave sin, no matter what the reason, typically results in the penitent remaining in a state of mortal sin, still deprived of God’s grace, still unforgiven, no matter how many other sins they might have confessed … whether the priest provides absolution … or not.

(By definition, a mortal sin must be gravely serious, the person committing the sin must KNOW that it is gravely serious, and the sin must have been committed with the full consent of the sinner.  An experienced priest is the best guide for evaluating and explaining the “fine points” of these matters.)   

Deliberately holding back serious sin(s) in the confessional may also constitute another grave sin … the sin of sacrilege … which is defined as the abuse, deliberate misuse, or profanation of a holy thing.

If one actually forgets about a particular serious sin(s) and so fails to confess for that reason alone, there is no real problem … but if the “forgotten” sin one day comes to mind again, it should be properly confessed, as soon as possible.

The circumstances which lead a person to commit sins are also often important. If and when a priest inquires about such details, it is important to respond honestly.

For example, someone confesses the sin of fornication or adultery: Under normal circumstances, it might be a “one time event”. But if the sin is the result of an unmarried couple “living in sin”  under the same roof, without benefit of matrimony, then absolution (forgiveness) is typically NOT available unless and/or until the illicit living arrangement is terminated.

This would apply equally to ANY unmarried couple who might be living together … whether straight or gay … without distinction.

Minor or venial sins may also be confessed to the priest in the confessional, but since those can also be routinely forgiven through reciting a good act of contrition, by attending Mass, and in other ways, confessing venial sins is laudable and recommended, but not required.

Assuming that the penitent has accurately confessed ALL the mortal sins of which he/she is aware, then, acting in and through the ministerial priesthood of the Holy Catholic Church, in the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the priest prescribes an act of contrition, assigns a small personal  penance, absolves the penitent of all sin, and dispenses the graces necessary to fill any spiritual “void” that the sin(s) might have caused.

The whole idea behind confessing one’s sins in the great sacrament of Reconciliation and subsequently receiving absolution (the absolute assurance that ALL of one’s sins have truly been forgiven by God) is to avoid the prospect of divine judgment, and to truly be at peace with both God and man, since once sins have been properly absolved through a “good confession” God will never bring them up again. 

For this reason, it is also advisable for the penitent to listen carefully, after his confession has been completed … to make certain that the priest does not fail to provide the necessary absolution.  The “formula” for absolution (at a minimum) sounds like this, “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” 

So, a “good confession” is one where we properly prepare by conducting a through examination of conscience, we subsequently confess every mortal sin without exception, providing details to the priest/confessor as necessary, we recite a good act of contrition, do our assigned penance, and we receive absolution and grace from the priest, who acts in the person of  Jesus Christ, for the purpose of our salvation.

Any confession other than a “good” one is simply unacceptable … and may actually be worse than no confession at all!

For a complete, Traditional Catholic study of this entire matter, click here.