Last week, we began by looking at sin and the difference between venial and mortal sin. Even though we’ve all been cleansed from Original Sin at Baptism, we are all still wounded by Original Sin. Because of this, we still suffer the effects of Original Sin, which is why we have a tendency to sin. This tendency is called Concupiscence.
If you remember your grade 8 Catechism (and what I’ve written here before about Sacraments, a “Sacrament is a visible sign instituted by Christ, of an invisible Grace.” A Sacrament is an action of God and, at the same time, it is our response to that action – in a way, our response, also brings about God’s action. And so a Sacrament symbolises or points to (like a road sign points to a destination) a Grace, but at the same time, it is the very Grace it points to. Every Sacrament gives us God’s Grace, that is, the very Life of God. In the Sacrament of Reconciliation we receive the Graces that slowly bring the disorder of concupiscence into proper order.
Let’s look at what happens at Reconciliation, but first, let’s be clear that all Sacraments are instituted by Christ: After Jesus rose from the dead, the Gospel of John tells us that he appeared to the apostles. “Jesus stood among them… and he said, ‘peace be with you. As the father sent me, so I send you.’ Then he breathed on them the Holy Spirit and said, ‘receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them, if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’” (John 20:19-23) This is when Jesus gave the Apostles, the power to forgive sins. The Apostles in turn passed it on to their disciples and so on until this day.
Receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation is very simple. There are 4 elements that have to be present for the Sacrament to be valid:
- God’s action through the intervention of the Church
Contrition means that you have to be truly sorry for the sins you’ve committed. You have to have a genuine desire to be better and to not commit the same sin again (even though, for most of us, it’s always the same sins that we commit over and over again – more on that later). This means that if you’ve committed a crime, like murder, you have to be willing to turn yourself in to the police.
Confession: We have to confess the sin specifically. It’s not enough to say that you are sorry for ‘stuff’ you did. You actually have to name the sins. This also helps us name the behaviour with the hopes of putting an end to it. More on this later as well, but we have to confess out loud, in person, to a priest.
Satisfaction means that you are willing to do something (although not perfect satisfaction) to repair the damage or harm done. If you stole something, you have to return it. If you hurt someone, you should apologize. If you committed a crime, like murder (as stated above), you have to turn yourself in to the police. For most of us, satisfaction is done symbolically in the form of penance. We know that praying Psalm 51 or doing a Decade of the Rosary is not going to repair the damage done, but in God’s perfection, our actions (if we are truly repentant) will suffice. Of course, if you need to apologize to someone, or return what you stole, just reciting a Decade of the Rosary won’t be enough.
Lastly, the action of God needs to take place. We must remember that it is not the priest that is forgiving the sins, but God. It is the priest, “in the person of Christ” who forgives sins. This is why the priest doesn’t say, “Jesus absolves you of your sin,” but rather, “I absolve you…” These are the words of Christ.
Remember that every Sacrament has a “matter” and “form”. Matter is the physical matter that is necessary for the Sacrament to take place. In the case of Reconciliation the matter are the sins confessed. The form are the words that are used. In Reconciliation, it’s the words of absolution.
The Catechism says:
“The formula of absolution used in the Latin Church expresses the essential elements of this sacrament: the Father of mercies is the source of all forgiveness. He effects the reconciliation of sinners through the Passover of his Son and the gift of his Spirit, through the prayer and ministry of the Church:
God, the Father of mercies, through the death and the resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (CCC#1449)
Those are the words that a priest must say in order for the Sacrament to be valid. He can’t say, “Jesus loves you and he forgives your sins” or anything like that. He has to say, “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” otherwise the Sacrament is not valid. If you do not hear the priest say those words, you should respectfully ask him to please say them.
We must also remember that because it is the action of God, everything about the Sacrament is made perfect. So, if you forgot a particular sin (not “forgetting” it on purpose), if doesn’t matter, all your sins are forgiven. If you forget to do your penance (again, not “forgetting” on purpose), it doesn’t matter, satisfaction or reparation is still achieved. God perfects in the Sacrament what is lacking because of our imperfection.
The Catechism also says that:
“Those who approach the Sacrament of penance obtain pardon from God’s mercy for the offense committed against him, and are, at the same time, reconciled with the Church which they have wounded by their sins and which by charity, by example, and by prayer labors for their conversion.” CCC#1422
One of the main objections people have to “confession” is the part that requires us to confess to a priest. You have to wonder why 1 John 5:16-17 says that there “is such a thing as deadly sin, about which I do not say that you should pray.” Does he mean that there is some sin (mortal) that cannot be forgiven with just prayer? Can he be implying what Christians at the time already knew (and practiced), that some sin needs to be confessed to a priest out loud?
We must remember that just because we are confessing to a priest doesn’t mean that we are not confessing to God. And think of this: If you confess to God in the privacy of your room, do you think that God will forgive you? Do you think it’s different if you go to Confession? I would like to think that God will forgive us if we are truly repentant and want to be better; especially if we’ve made reparation for our sin. But do you know for sure? That’s what a Sacrament does: It gives us the guarantee that something is actually taking place. We actually hear the words, “I absolve you from your sins.” It’s nice to hear it. That’s why it’s a “visible sign”.
Plus, it’s true that when we sin, we are not only sinning against another human being (or against ourselves); we are sinning against God and against the Body of Christ, which is the Church. If we believe that, we must believe that we must confess to the Church. It used to be that people would have to stand in front of the whole community and confess their sins (some monasteries still have this practice). At least we now do it in privacy, just to the priest (who promptly forgets what you’ve told him). (Not to mention the therapeutic value of confession. Some people pay thousands of dollars to speak to a therapist, and they have no problem confessing to that person. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is free!)
Plus, in the Sacrament of Reconciliation we get the benefit of the Grace of God that comes with the Sacrament, and our sins are forgiven. No therapist can do that!
Photo credit: CNS
Every week, Deacon Pedro takes a particular topic apart, not so much to explore or explain the subject to its fullness, but rather to provide insights that will deepen our understanding of the subject. And don’t worry, at the end of the day he always puts the pieces back together. There are no limits to deaconstructing: Write to him and ask any questions about the faith or Church teaching:firstname.lastname@example.org