The Catholic Church has seen many changes take place since the end of the Second Vatican Council in 1965. Some of those changes have had a positive impact on the Church, such as a greater participation on the part of the laity and a focus on collaborative ministry between the people and their pastor. Many parishes offer a variety in ministry opportunities and this should certainly be encouraged.
However, we have also experienced a major decrease in the number of people who receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Previous generations of Catholics seemed to bring their sins to the sacrament regularly if not eagerly. Today many of our parishioners see no reason to make even seasonal celebration of the sacrament a part of their lives. A recent study concluded that “Only about one-fifth of today’s Catholics go to private confession, a far cry from the hordes of people waiting for confession in the 1940s and
On Ash Wednesday 2005, the Most Reverend Arthur J. Saratelli, D.D., bishop of the Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey put together, as part of his Episcopal Teaching Series, a booklet entitled, “Reconciliation: Gift and Sacrament” which addresses the importance of this sacrament.
“The time has come. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the Good News” (Mk 1:15). In Mark’s gospel, these are the first words Jesus speaks in His public ministry. This is significant. The time of the Law has ended. The moment of grace has come. Jesus appears preaching in Galilee after the arrest of John the Baptist. He ends the centuries-long waiting for the coming of the Messiah. In the waters of the Jordan, He has already received the baptism of repentance at the hands of John the Baptist. Sinless, He joined Himself to sinners. He identified with those awaiting redemption. By His baptism, He made Himself one with all of us estranged from God so that He could lead us back to the Father. As St. Irenaeus said, “He became what we are to make us what He is”.2
Jesus begins His preaching on a note familiar from the preaching of the Baptist (Mk 3:2). On the lips of John, the ancient prophets’ call for conversion sounded with unusual clarity. John demanded the sinners to throw off their habits of sin, to bring forth righteous acts and turn their hearts back to God. John demanded such conversion from all, the public sinner and the outwardly pious. Jesus repeats the imperative, “Repent”, however, this is new. This is fresh. It is Spirit-filled. Unlike John, Jesus does not call for repentance as a preparation for the kingdom. No! Repentance is the effect of the kingdom already present.
Throughout His brief public ministry, Jesus continually reaches out to sinners. In fact, two telling events frame His ministry. At the beginning, He meets Matthew seated in the customs house at Capernaum. This tax collector is despised by his countrymen; however,
Jesus calls him from the tax collector’s table to table-fellowship with Him. In that personal exchange of friendship offered and received, Matthew comes to forgiveness. From the employ of the Roman emperor; he enters into service of genuine royalty. He follows Jesus with his life (Mk 2:13-17).
At the end of His public ministry, Jesus encounters another tax collector. Jesus is passing through the oasis town of Jericho. He is on the Roman road at the point where it begins its ascent from the Judean desert to Jerusalem. He is just twenty-three miles from His appointed destiny in the Holy City. The crowd presses in on Him. The curious Zacchaeus scurries up a sycamore tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus. Jesus looks up at Zacchaeus, singles him out and invites Himself to his house. Zacchaeus opens the door to his home to Jesus. In that offer of friendship and hospitality, Jesus welcomes him into the kingdom. Overjoyed with the gift of salvation, the tax-collector repents of his past.
Now a believer, he no longer takes from others, but freely gives even beyond what the law requires (Lk 19:1-10). 3
When the enemies of Jesus complain that He is welcoming tax collectors and sinners, Jesus announces in story form what He proclaimed in the first words of His ministry. He tells three parables that are rightly called, “the gospel within the gospel” (Lk 15). They teach the gift of grace being offered in Jesus. Jesus tells the story of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin to prepare for the climax in the most memorable parable ever told, the Prodigal Son. The most striking element in this entire story is the Father’s loving embrace of his sinful son: “…moved with pity, he ran to the boy, clasped him in his arms and kissed him tenderly” (Lk 15:20-21). It is only after this welcome that the son confesses his sin. Here is the point of the parable and the preaching of Jesus. Grace precedes repentance. Confession of sin is the response of the heart that rests in the assurance of God’s love. As our Holy Father John Paul II said, “Reconciliation is principally a gift of the heavenly Father.” 4
In forgiving sin, Jesus restores health as a sign of the grace He brings. To the paralytic carried by four men to Him, Jesus first says, “My child, your sins are forgiven”; then He adds, “Pick up your stretcher and walk” (Mk 2:5,10). When He cures Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever, He rebukes the fever with the same word epitimaō—“to rebuke”, “to command”, “to order”) He uses to cast out the demon from the possessed man in the synagogue in Capernaum (Lk 4:35). By the power of His word, Jesus is breaking the devil’s hold on us. He has come to make us whole in body and spirit.
When Jesus’ ministry comes to an end, He offers the Father the perfect sacrifice of obedience on the cross. He continues to love in the face of hatred. He blesses when cursed. He forgives all of us who crucify Him by our sins. Through His death and resurrection, the Father brings to completion His plan for our redemption. “He has taken us out of the power of darkness and created a place for us in the kingdom of the Son that
He loves and in Him, we gain our freedom, the forgiveness of our sins” (Col 1:13-14). When we fix our gaze on the crucified Jesus, we see reflected in His face the love of God who, “before the world was made, chose us…in Christ, to be holy and spotless, and to live through love in His presence…”(Eph 1:4). Nailed to the wood of the cross, Jesus imparts to all the gift of forgiveness, “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing” (Lk 23:24).
The Church Herself is the very sacrament of reconciliation. Her priests are the stewards of this great gift. On the night Jesus rose from the dead, He appeared to the apostles. “He breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. For those who sins you forgive, they are forgiven’” (Jn 20:22-23). Thus the Risen Lord hands on to the apostles and their successors the power to forgive sins.5 In the fourth century, St. John
Chrysostom recognized this gift given to priests. He said, “Priests have received an authority which God has given neither to angels nor to archangels.”6
“Over the centuries the concrete form in which the Church has exercised this power received from the Lord has varied considerably”.7 The present form of the sacrament of Reconciliation traces its origins to the work of Irish missionaries in the Seventh Century. Before then, it was the custom to receive this sacrament just once in a lifetime and only after rigorous, public penance for the most serious sins of idolatry, murder, and adultery. The missionaries introduced the private practice of penance and opened the way for a more frequent use of this sacrament for the forgiveness of sins. We are now in a privileged moment of the Church’s life when we can avail ourselves of the grace of this sacrament and grow in our relationship with the Lord.
The celebration of the sacrament of Reconciliation has developed since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). In the Church’s present discipline, there are three ways of celebrating the sacrament. The ordinary form of reconciliation is the individual confessing before a priest and receiving absolution. At times, there are communal celebrations of reconciliation that include individual confessions and individual absolution. Such celebrations help us realize the social effects of our sins as well as the sacrament’s power to restore us to a greater unity within the Body of Christ. In each of these two ways of celebrating the sacrament, the penitent is given the opportunity to enter into a very personal, intimate moment of dialogue with the Lord. 8
Some argue that communal reconciliation services, attractively arranged and joyfully celebrated, will encourage more people to make greater use of the sacrament. Others recommend more frequent preaching and teaching about the sacrament with special emphasis on the social and ecclesial aspects of sin and forgiveness. There are those who advocate General Absolution as the form of reconciliation the Church should adopt as its ordinary practice. Occasionally we come across one priest or another who maintains that the fire and brimstone approach remains the best solution.9
The practice of General Absolution is allowed in law under two precise conditions. Canon 961 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law states that these two conditions are: 1) the danger of death is imminent and there is no time for individual confessions. 2) A grave necessity exists because individuals would be deprived of the sacrament for a long time. Lest there be confusion on such an important matter, Pope John Paul II clarified the law. He said, “it is never just a question of whether individuals can have their confession heard ‘in an appropriate way’ and ‘within an appropriate time’ because of the shortage of priests; this must be combined with the fact that the penitents would otherwise be forced to remain deprived of sacramental grace ‘for a long time’ through no fault of their own.”9 What the Holy Father says in this apostolic letter has the force of law for the Church according to Canon 16.
Some question whether individual confession is required for forgiveness. The Church teaches that acts of charity and self-denial, fasting and prayer, sharing in the Eucharist take away venial sins. Even so, the confession of venial sins not only makes us aware of
sin in our lives but also makes us more receptive to the healing touch of Christ. For forgiveness of mortal sins that result in the loss of sanctifying grace, the integral confession of those sins before a priest is required. 10
The sacraments are defining moments for Christians—and for the world. They remind us who we are, in whom we believe; in whose name we were baptized and whose footsteps we follow. The sacraments challenge us to remember that, should the world want to know what we Christians believe, they have every right to look first at what we do. As the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar once remarked, “The value of Christianity need not be seen in itself; but it must be seen in us.”
If “going to confession” is to be experienced by our people as a grace-filled sacramental encounter with Christ, a wise and effective dialogue within the context of the sacrament will help bring this about. In no other sacrament are the personalities of both the minister and the recipient so determinative as to how the celebration will progress or how much of its potential will be realized. In no other sacrament are both minister and recipient encouraged to take the initiative in making this personal encounter.
As in every sacrament, the priest-as-confessor is a minister in two ways. He is minister, first, of the Church. As such, he is a representative of Church authority. It is he who offers the requisite satisfaction and pronounces sacramental absolution. It is he who, through the words, gestures, and signs proclaim the presence and power of the Reconciling Christ who is the head of the Church:
In the ecclesial service of the ordained minister, it is Christ Himself
who is present to His Church as Head of His Body, Shepherd of His
flock, High Priest of the redemptive sacrifice, Teacher of Truth. This
is what the Church means by saying that the priest, by virtue of the
sacrament of Holy Orders, acts in persona Christi Capitis.11
The priest is also the minister to the Church. Whether the sacrament is celebrated quietly with one another on a Saturday afternoon or enthusiastically with many others at a communal celebration, the priest is ministering to the Church. He is ministering to individual Christians who approach to sacrament for many reasons and from a broad spectrum of spiritual, psychological, and material situations.12
In each absolution given to an individual, there is repeated something that is a consistent part of God’s granting forgiveness. Cain kills Abel. God speaks directly to Cain. He offers him a sign of mercy and forgiveness (Gen 4:15-16). David commits adultery with Bathsheba. Then, to cover his sin, he murders her husband, Uriah. God speaks to David through the prophet Nathan. When David acknowledges his crimes as sins against the Lord, God forgives him (2 Sam 12:1-15). To the Samaritan woman and the woman caught in adultery, to the paralytic and the good thief on Calvary, to each who stand before Him contrite and humble apart from the many, Jesus gives the gift of divine forgiveness, it is always to an individual.
In our day, there has been a lessening of the true understanding of sin as an offense against God and a flight from personal responsibility for one’s actions. The examination of conscience we make before going to confession makes us face the truth about ourselves. We all sin and fall short of the glory of God (Rm 3:23-26). “If we say that have no sin in us, we are deceiving ourselves and refusing to admit the truth; but if we acknowledge our sins, then God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and purify us from everything that is wrong” (1 Jn 1:8-9). In fact, our very actions of contrition and penance, reparation and firm purpose of amendment are the work of God drawing us ever closer to Himself. Even more our willingness to do good is already God’s doing (Ph 2:13).
The time has come…Repent and believe the Good News” (Mk 1:15). Jesus is speaking these words to each of us. He addresses us with the present imperative because our turning away from sin and turning to God, our repentance and our faith, take place in the present and at every moment of our life. By regular, and even frequent, use of confession, our conversion deepens and our relationship with God becomes more intimate. How blessed we are to have the sacrament of Reconciliation so available to us in our journey with God. When we choose to celebrate this sacrament, we choose to stand in honesty and truth before our all-merciful God. We enter the quiet sanctity of the sacrament of Reconciliation. We unburden sins even as we are held in the loving embrace of God. By the power of the Holy Spirit working in the Church, we know the gift of grace that makes us God’s children in Christ.13
There are those people who have not made use of the sacrament of Reconciliation for decades and have walked around on a daily basis with an anchor weighing down their heart and soul. This is not what God intends for any of us. The sacrament has a profoundly cathartic dimension. The experience of having one’s sins absolved and knowing that he or she is free of its burden is unlike any other feeling one can have.
While the sacrament is certainly more than simply providing positive feelings to the penitent, the fact that one is able to experience such a feeling has the added benefit of drawing one back to the sacrament knowing that such a feeling is possible every time one’s sins are forgiven.
1) Stasiak, Kurt A Confessor’s Handbook (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1999), p. 7
2) St. Iraeneus of Lyon, Adversus Haereses (Book 5)
3) Saratelli, Arthur J. Reconciliation: Gift and Sacrament (Episcopal Teaching Series) Paterson, NJ: Office of the Bishop, p. 2
4) John Paul II Reconciliatio et Penitentia #5
5) Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) #1444
6) St. John Chrysostom The Priesthood 3:5
7) CCC #1447
8) Saratelli, p. 5
9) John Paul II Misericordia Dei #2, b
10) CCC #1456
11) John Paul II Familiaris Consortio #58
12) Stasiak, p. 12
13) Saratelli, p. 9