Initial Preparation to Encounter Christin the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation: A New Evangelization Perspective
by Ximena DeBroeck, MA
Coordinator of Adult and Sacramental Formation
Archdiocese of Baltimore
Thirteenth Ordinary Assembly of Bishops met in October 2012 to discuss the
topic of the "New Evangelization
for the Transmission of the Christian Faith." At the conclusion of this Synod,
fifty-eight propositions were formulated by the bishops and presented to Pope
Benedict XVI. Among these propositions, there is one of particular interest to
this Catechetical Sunday's topic, as it articulates the important connection
between God's forgiveness and the New Evangelization. The Synod Fathers
expressed that "the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation is the privileged
place to receive God's mercy and forgiveness. It is a place for both personal
and communal healing. In this sacrament, all the baptized have a new and personal
encounter with Jesus Christ, as well as a new encounter with the Church,
facilitating a full reconciliation through the forgiveness of sins" (XIII
Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, Final
Propositions, no. 33, www.vatican.va/news_services/press/sinodo/documents/bollettino_25_xiii-ordinaria-2012/02_inglese/b33_02.html). Certainly all sacraments
are gifts of encounter with Christ; however, each sacrament is unique in the
particular way in which the encounter can transform the person. In the
Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation the particular effects are healing,
reconciliation, and restoration.
Since it is often thought that
sacramental formation is exclusively the responsibility of the catechist who
has the specific "task" of sacramental preparation, this essay will begin by
presenting a fuller understanding of who a catechist is and therefore raise the
awareness of whose responsibility it is to transmit the faith. The purpose of
this essay is to offer the following significant points to be presented during a
catechist in-service: a relationship in need of healing, the disposition to
receive the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, and essential catechesis in
preparation for this sacrament. Furthermore, this essay will offer suggested Scripture
passages and reflection points to be used during the catechist in-service, as
well as additional biblical passages and reflections for use as resources when
providing sacramental preparation to children, youth, or adults. Three articles
offered as teaching aids are among the resources for Catechetical Sunday 2014
and should be included as part of the catechist in-service: "The Sacrament of
Penance and Reconciliation: Forgiveness in Four Easy Steps," by Msgr. Richard
B. Hilgartner, "Exploring the Forms and Options of the Sacrament of Penance and
Reconciliation," by Fr. Daniel Merz, and "Catechesis on the Sacrament of
Penance and Reconciliation," by Fr. Peter Ryan, SJ.
Who Is a Catechist, and Who Is Responsible
for Sacramental Preparation?
Sacramental formation is an integral component of evangelization and
catechesis. Catechesis, first of all, is the responsibility shared by the
entire Christian community (Congregation for the Clergy, General Directory for Catechesis [GDC] [Washington DC: USCCB Publishing,
1998], no. 220). The bishop is the
chief catechist of his diocese and is assisted by clergy and laity (USCCB
Committee on Education and Committee on Catechesis, National Directory for Catechesis [NDC] [Washington DC: USCCB
Publishing, 2005], 218-220, and GDC,no.
222). Anyone who teaches the faith to children, youth, or adults is a
catechist. Some lay women and men are volunteer catechists; others work for the
Church in various catechetical roles. Parents hold a place of great responsibility
and privilege as the first evangelizers and catechists of the children (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC],
2nd ed. [Washington, DC: Libreria Editrice Vaticana–USCCB, 2000], nos.
2225-2226, and GDC,nos. 226-227),
and the clergy's primary duty is to proclaim the Gospel and to catechize
(Vatican Council II, Presbyterorum
Ordinis [Decree on the Ministry and
Life of Priests], promulgated by Pope Paul VI, no. 4§1, www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decree_19651207_presbyterorum-ordinis_en.html.
Also see GDC, nos. 224-225). Therefore, this catechist in-service can be
utilized with diverse groups of catechists or with parents of children and
youth who are preparing for sacraments.
A Relationship in Need of Healing
God created us in his image and likeness (Gn
1:26-27). Human language is inadequate to fully express what this image
embodies, but there are some key attributes revealed in Scripture that help us catch
a glimpse of what God's image is. God is holy, God is love, God is merciful,
God is a God in relationship! The
Trinity, God in relationship, constitutes the most fundamental mystery of our
faith. God is a community of three distinct persons who, sharing in the same substance,
exist in relationship as a communion of love. Since God is a relational being—God
exists in relationship—and he created us in his image, we are created to be IN
relationship with God and with others.
We were created in the image of
the harmonious and just relationship within the Trinity; in other words, we
were created in right or just relationship with God and with other creatures. Sin
disrupted this state of "original justice." Scripture tells us of the ongoing
invitation from God to humanity to return to a right and just relationship. God
never tires of offering us forgiveness and welcoming us back into relationship.
In the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Evangelii
Gaudium, Pope Francis reminds us of this:
God never tires of
forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy. Christ, who told
us to forgive one another "seventy times seven" (Mt18:22) has given us his example: he has forgiven us
seventy times seven. Time and time again he bears us on his shoulders. No one
can strip us of the dignity bestowed upon us by this boundless and unfailing
love. With a tenderness which never disappoints, but is always capable of
restoring our joy, he makes it possible for us to lift up our heads and to
start anew. (Pope Francis, Evangelii
Gaudium [The Joy of the Gospel] [Washington,
DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2013], no. 3)
Christ reconciled humanity with
God, thus restoring the just relationship. This is what justification is all
about. Msgr. Hilgartner's article refers to justification as the first act of
reconciliation. In the Incarnation, Christ assumed human nature to fully reveal
God's love, to be a model of holiness, to heal our wounded humanity, and to
reconcile us with God. Through the Paschal Mystery (Passion, Death, Resurrection,
and Ascension), Christ reconciled us to the Father and made humanity partakers
in his divine nature so that we might have eternal life (see Jn 3:16; Rom
3:23-26; 6:4-8; 2 Pt 1:3-4). Christ's miracles during his public ministry were
primarily occasions of healings and restoration to life within the community. This
tangible restoration to the community was a sign that pointed to the invisible
restoration of the relationship with God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that Christ's words and
deeds anticipated the power of the Paschal Mystery from which flow the gifts of
love, justification, and salvation that are received through the sacraments
It is important to understand that
the power to forgive and reconcile belongs to God alone; yet this
reconciliation is mediated through the Church in the Sacraments of Baptism and
Reconciliation. As is noted in the articles by Msgr. Hilgartner, Fr. Merz, and
Fr. Ryan, the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation expresses a divine
invitation and calls for a human response. God's love and mercy have primacy in
this sacrament. The Church, through her ministers, offers God's forgiveness and
reconciliation; nevertheless, the gift is not complete until the one receiving the
gift accepts it and cooperates with God's grace.
Disposition to Receive the
Disposition is a fundamental element to be
discussed in preparation for all the sacraments. When properly disposed, the
effect of the grace received in the celebration of the sacraments leads to
transformation and growth in charity in the relationship with God and others. "They [the sacraments] bear fruit in those who receive them
with the required dispositions" (CCC, no. 1131).
is essential that we understand, and therefore teach correctly, that the
sacraments are not simply "magic" rituals that cause a particular effect. The
sacraments do not cause effects
independent of the will and disposition of the recipient. True, the
sacraments are efficacious signs which effect the grace they signify, because
it is Christ himself who is at work (CCC, nos.1127-1128). Yet the fruitfulness of the sacraments depends on the
disposition of the one receiving them (CCC, nos. 1128, 1131). To explain the importance of disposition, Aquinas expressed
that, for those who receive Baptism as adults, the effects vary greatly; some
receive greater grace than others according to their disposition (Summa Theologiae, Tertia Pars Q. 69
"The effect of Baptism is twofold, the essential effect, and the accidental.
The essential effect of Baptism is that for which Baptism was instituted,
namely, the begetting of men unto spiritual life. Therefore, since all children
are equally disposed to Baptism, because they are baptized not in their own
faith, but in that of the Church, they all receive an equal effect in Baptism.
Whereas adults, who approach Baptism in their own faith, are not equally disposed to Baptism; for some approach thereto with greater,
some with less, devotion. And therefore some receive a greater, some a smaller
share of the grace of newness; just as from the same fire, he receives more
heat who approaches nearest to it, although the fire, as far as it is
concerned, sends forth its heat equally to all. [emphasis added]).
in the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, the penitent must not only
believe in God's grace, forgiveness, and mercy, but also be aware of the
reality of sin in his or her own life, desire a conversion of heart, and be
willing to cooperate with God's grace. This disposition of the penitent is
expressed in the actions of contrition, confession, and penance (satisfaction)
(CCC, nos. 1450-1460), which are discussed in the articles above cited. Even though
it is not always mentioned as a separate action of the penitent, it is
important to be mindful that an examination of conscience is crucial to being
properly disposed to receive this sacrament (CCC, no.1454). It is in this first
step that one realizes and acknowledges that the relationship has been wounded
and needs healing, and it is from this moment that contrition will follow, as
well as confession of sins, and satisfaction.
Essential Catechesis for the
Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation
As conscientious and diligent catechists, we desire
to offer the right preparation for the celebration of this sacrament. We
sincerely want to give as much information as possible so that those receiving
the sacrament will know enough; however, at times we risk losing sight of what
is truly essential. Often, in spite of our best efforts to impart information,
we find ourselves somewhat perplexed when the children, youth, or adults whom
we have prepared fail to practice the faith consistently in the months and
years following reception of the sacraments. It is not for the catechist to judge
these individuals but rather to meet them wherever they are on their faith
journey and continue to guide them toward Christ. However, it is appropriate
for the catechist to reflect on current catechetical practices and, with a
humble and open heart, ask the Holy Spirit for wisdom to evaluate those
practices and courage to change what needs to be changed.
It is important for the catechist to
understand the goal of faith formation at all levels, including sacramental
preparation. This goal is not simply an accumulation of information but rather
the formation of intentional disciples of Christ. An intentional disciple is
one who desires to have a personal relationship with Christ; an intentional
disciple is not formed in one or two school years; an intentional disciple is
one who embarks on a lifelong journey to deepen that relationship and who
desires restoration of that relationship when sin has occurred.
Disciples are formed by first
hearing the good news. Thus, it is vital to understand that evangelization
needs to occur prior to catechesis; it is essential not only to understand this
but to practice it. The proclamation of the kerygma,
the telling of the story of God's love and his invitation to a personal
relationship, provides the fertile soil where catechesis can take root. This is
not simply a new fad or an experiment; this is truly divine pedagogy. This is
how Christ formed his first disciples; he invited them to follow him (Mt 4:18-19; 9:9; Mk 1:16-17; 2:13-14; Lk 5:27), to come and see (Jn 1:39); he revealed
the Father's unconditional love, mercy, and forgiveness.
Often we focus on providing information,
but this information, received by the intellect, will not lead to
transformation unless the heart is open to an encounter with God. The National Directory of Catechesis offers
us key elements to be included in the preparation for the Sacrament of Penance
and Reconciliation. Catechesis for this sacrament "depends on the person's
acknowledgment of God's faithful love, of the existence of sin, of the capacity
to commit sin, and of God's power to forgive sin and reconcile the sinner with
himself and with the Church" (NDC, no. 36, B, 1). Essential catechesis for the
preparation for the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation should emphasize:
plan for the holiness and salvation of all people, which is expressed in his
desire that each and every person will be reconciled with him and live in just relationship
with him and with others
infinite love and mercy, which are experienced as he continuously reaches out
to us and welcomes us to return to him. This Sacrament is an "encounter with
the Lord's mercy which spurs us on to do our best" (Evangelii Gaudium, no. 44).
whose perfect love restored the wounded relationship and who gave us the Holy
Spirit, the Spirit who proceeds from the Father and from Christ himself, to
guide us and strengthen us in our faith journey
Christ himself who forgives and reconciles. The priest is the minister through
whom Christ forgives. The priest is bound by the seal of confession to keep
secrecy regarding what is heard in the context of the sacrament (CCC, no. 1467).
existence of sin. Sin is a turning away from God; it is failing to love God and
neighbor as we should. The Ten Commandments teach us about loving God and
others. The consequence of sin is a
wounded relationship with God and others (CCC, nos. 1849-1851).
mortal sins are more serious sins. A mortal sin is a sin of serious matter that
is committed with full knowledge and with intentional and conscious consent (CCC,
duress, fear, habit, some psychological or social factors, or lack of full
knowledge can diminish and even remove culpability and responsibility for an
action (CCC, nos. 1735, 1860)
the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation consists of contrition
(repentance), confession, penance (reparation, satisfaction), and absolution
(CCC, nos. 1450-1460, 1449). (The articles by Msgr. Hilgartner and Fr. Merz
offer further explanation on these four elements of the sacrament.)
centrality of a desire for conversion and the importance of disposition. Desire
for ongoing conversion is a sign of readiness for receiving this sacrament and
is fundamental in the life of a disciple.
effects of this sacrament: healing, reconciliation, and restoration
explanation of the meaning of the symbols, gestures, and prayers of the Rite of
and respect of the person's age, abilities, limitations, and circumstances, with
preparation modified accordingly
involvement of parents of young children and adolescents in the preparation
process. This offers opportunities for ongoing formation and mystagogical
catechesis for the parents.
essential elements for catechesis for the Sacrament of Reconciliation are
presented in the NDC, pp. 132-136. Additional citations from the CCC or other
resources are provided for further information.)
reflection after presenting the section on disposition:
[Proclaim the reading and
also give copies to the catechists and/or show the text on PowerPoint]
[10 minutes for private reflection and 10 minutes for
Luke 18:35-43: What does this passage say about the
blind man's encounter with Christ? What does Jesus ask in verse 41, and what
does this tell you about the disposition of the man? What else is significant
to you in this passage? How can this passage help you prepare others to
encounter Christ in the Sacrament of Reconciliation?
reflection after presenting the section on essential catechesis for sacramental
Catechetical Sunday 2014 will be the 25th Sunday in
Ordinary Time, Year A.
The readings for that day are: First Reading: Is 55:6-9;
Responsorial Psalm: Ps 145:2-3, 8-9, 17-18; Second Reading: Phil 1:20c-24, 27a;
Gospel: Mt 20:1-16a.
[Proclaim the readings, and also give copies to the
[20 minutes for private reflection and 20 minutes for
Reflect on these readings. What is the central
theme of these readings? What connection do you notice between the First Reading
and the Gospel? What advice does Paul give concerning conduct, and how do you
think this relates to discipleship? How does the message of the Responsorial Psalm
relate to the encounter with Christ in the Sacrament of Penance and
Suggested Meditation Song: "Hosea" ("Come Back to Me with All Your Heart") (Gregory Norbert, OCP), based on Hosea 14
Reflections for Those Preparing to Receive the Sacrament
Scriptural Reflection: Choose one or both of the following passages and
[Proclaim the reading, and
also give copies and/or show the text or artwork of text on PowerPoint.]
[Children: 5 minutes for private reflection and 10 minutes
[Youth: 10 minutes for private reflection and 10 minutes
[Adults: 15 minutes for private reflection and 15 minutes
What does this story tell you about the two blind men's meeting with Jesus? How
do you think these men felt before they realized Jesus was near? What do they
start shouting? What does Jesus ask them? What do they say they want? Does
Jesus show kindness? Do you think God is kind and loving?
For youth: What does this story tell you about the two blind men's
encounter with Jesus? Initially, what are these men asking for in verse 30?
What do they say they want? Do you think we can "see" things clearly when our
relationship with God is wounded? How do you feel when you have hurt a relationship
with a good friend? Does Jesus show compassion? What do the men do after they can
see? What do you think God would do if you ask for his mercy?
For adults: What does this story tell you about the two blind men's
encounter with Jesus? What are they asking for in verse 30? As they realized
Jesus was near, were the two men intentional about seeking Jesus? Why do you
think Jesus asked what they wanted? What do they say they want? Do you think we
can "see" things clearly when our relationship with God is wounded? What do you
desire when a relationship with a loved one has been hurt? What is Jesus'
reaction to the men's request? What do the men do after they can see? What
message does this story tell us concerning our asking Christ for mercy?
Did the younger son show love and respect to his father? What does the younger
son do when he returns home? What does the father do? Is the father happy to
have the son back? What do you think God would do if you tell him you are sorry
for having acted in a way that was not loving? Do you think God loves you?
For youth: Did the younger son act in a loving and respectful way? What
does the younger son do when he returns home? Do you think the younger son was
sorry for his actions? What are the father's reactions when the son returns and
asks for forgiveness? Do you think God loves you? What is a time when you
experienced forgiveness? What does this story tell you about what happens in
the encounter with Christ in the Sacrament of Reconciliation?
For adults: What speaks to you about this story? What do you think
about the father's reaction when the younger son comes back? Do you think
feeling sorrow for one's faults is important for the process of conversion and
healing? What is your greatest memory of having experienced forgiveness? Have
you experienced God's abundant and merciful love? How does this story help you
reflect on what awaits you in the encounter with Christ in the Sacrament of
Suggested Meditation Song:"Hosea" ("Come Back to Me with All
Your Heart") (Gregory Norbert, OCP), based on Hosea 14
Copyright © 2014,
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reserved. Permission is hereby granted to duplicate this work without
adaptation for non-commercial use.
Excerpts from the Catechism
of the Catholic Church, second edition, copyright © 2000, Libreria
Editrice Vaticana–United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC.
Used with permission. All rights reserved.
Excerpts from XIII
Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, Final Propositions, copyright © 2012, Libreria Editrice Vaticana (LEV),
Vatican City; Presbyterorum Ordinis,
copyright © 1965, LEV. Used with permission. All rights reserved.