In our continued study of the seven sacraments, the next two fall under the category of the sacraments of healing. Although we are full members of the Church through the sacraments of initiation, we need to be continually healed by the Divine Physician throughout our journey to heaven. Despite being members of the body of Christ, “we are still in our ‘earthly tent,’ subject to suffering, illness, and death. This new life as a child of God can be weakened and even lost by sin” (CCC #1420). Therefore, we have the sacraments of Penance & Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick to provide us spiritual healing from our human condition.
Unfortunately, despite all of our best efforts and all of our attempts at trying to be perfect receptacles of God’s good and free graces, we are still human and still subject to sin and its effects. Even though original sin was washed from us at our baptism, we continue to suffer from concupiscence, which is the tendency toward sin. Thank God for giving us the gift of the Sacrament of Reconciliation to help us along! The Catechism calls this particular sacrament five different things in order to convey the extent of what it offers us. Firstly, it is the sacrament of conversion because it enables us to answer Jesus’ call for constant conversion of our hearts back to Him (CCC #1423). Secondly, it is called the sacrament of Penance because it allows for us to make reparation and satisfaction for the sins we have committed against God and against neighbor (CCC #1423). Thirdly, it is called the sacrament of confession because it allows for us to disclose our sins out loud to a priest, which is an essential part of the sacrament (CCC #1424). Fourthly, it is referred to as the sacrament of forgiveness because, through the priest, we are granted absolution through which God offers us “pardon and peace” (CCC #1449). Lastly, it is the sacrament of Reconciliation because it reconciles us to God after we have been separated from Him by our sins (CCC #1442).
As with all the sacraments, this one was also instituted by Christ Himself. If you pay attention to the gospel readings, you’ll notice that Jesus is constantly calling believers to conversion and penance. However, while the prophets call for outward signs of conversion and penance, like fasting and wearing sackcloth and ashes, Jesus calls us to an interior conversion, a conversion of the heart. That is not to say that He is abolishing the old ways of expressing penance, but rather clarifying that, without an interior conversion of the heart, the works remain meaningless. Our visible signs of conversion should match the sorrow in our heart for what we have done wrong (CCC #1430).
It is often questioned by those outside of the Catholic Church why we must confess our sins out loud to a priest when we can simply go to God in private to express our remorse. In the Gospel of John, Jesus appears to the disciples after His resurrection and says to them, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you. And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:21-23). Here, Jesus gives the first priests the power to act as His representatives on earth for the forgiveness of sins. It is absolutely true that only God can forgive our sins as appropriate to gaining entrance into heaven, but as we have said before, He uses earthly means to communicate spiritual realities because it is a much more effective means of communication for us humans (CCC #1441-1442). He comes down to our level. How much harder is it to admit our faults out loud to another human being than to quietly retreat into private prayer? Our comfort is disrupted in order to facilitate meaningful conversion – it hurts to admit the same error out loud over and over, so we are more inclined to change! The Catechism puts it like this:
The confession (or disclosure of sins, even from a simply human point of view, frees us and facilitates our reconciliation with others. Through such an admission man looks squarely at the sins he is guilty of, takes responsibility for them, and thereby opens himself again to God and to the communion of the Church in order to make a new future possible. (CCC #1455)
It is important to note here, that the priest is not the person of the priest in this sacrament (or in any sacrament). He is acting “in persona” of Jesus Christ. He is a physical representation of Jesus Christ in the flesh and when you confess your sins, you are confessing them directly to Jesus Himself. With regard to the priest, “the confessor is not the master of God’s forgiveness, but its servant. The minister of this sacrament should unite himself to the intention and charity of Christ. He should have a proven knowledge of Christian behavior, experience of human affairs, respect and sensitivity toward the one who has fallen…” (CCC #1466). Priests are bound to strict and absolute secrecy under severe penalties. The faithful should feel safe in confessing their sins to a priest (CCC #1467).
The first fruit of this sacrament is that it restores our relationship with God. When we sin, we fracture that relationship. Our sins hurt God. Further, our sins are what perpetually nail Jesus to the cross. In coming to God with a contrite heart and a desire to amend our behavior, we are met with His endless mercy and love and He is anxious to embrace us and welcome us back home to Him. There is no sin too big to bring to the sacrament of Reconciliation in order to reconcile yourself to God (CCC #1468). The second fruit of this sacrament is that it reconciles us the Church. Sin, by its very nature, fractures our relationships with others and sometimes has far reaching ramifications, like the ripples from throwing a stone into a pond. Through the sacrament of Reconciliation, God pours out His healing grace in order to repair and restore the fractures that run throughout the body of Christ due to the effects of sin (CCC #1469).
The Sacrament of Reconciliation is perhaps the scariest of all the sacraments because it requires a level of vulnerability from us that, in this culture, we are not used to giving freely. Not only have we been conditioned to present ourselves as having it all together at all times, but we also live in an age where the lines between right and wrong have become blurred and sin is less recognizable. Being honest with ourselves and admitting when our actions have hurt God and have hurt others is very difficult. It is even more difficult to admit what we’ve done out loud to another human. The take away from this week is to remember God’s infinite mercy and love. He loves YOU no matter what you have done! If you have been away from the sacrament of Reconciliation lately, look to the coming season of Lent and commit to returning in order to restore your relationship with God and with other members of His body. If you frequent the sacrament already, note how God’s grace has transformed you. Was there a sin that you used to commit often, but no longer have to confess because He has healed you of that particular affliction? Either way, thank God for this beautiful healing sacrament that He gave to us out of His abundant love for us.
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