Teaching Aid - Msgr. Richard Hilgartner

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The Sacrament ofPenance and Reconciliation: Forgiveness in Four Easy Steps

by Rev. Msgr. Richard B. Hilgartner
Executive Director, Secretariat of Divine Worship
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

In every relationship, there comes a time when something goes wrong and one person or one group hurts or offends the other, and the relationship is damaged. Whether it is a personal relationship between family members or friends or a more structured relationship between an individual and a group or organization, some process of healing or repair is required to restore the relationship. Sometimes it takes as little as an apology—"I'm sorry"—but in some cases, a more significant act or gesture to demonstrate good will or an attempt to make up for the harmful action is required.

The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation (as it is called in the Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC]) is one of the means by which our relationship with Jesus Christ and the Church is healed, restored, and ultimately strengthened. The sacrament is known by several names: the liturgical book that contains the rite is called the Rite of Penance, but it is commonly referred to as "confession," "Penance," or "Reconciliation." Those different names focus attention on the various elements of the sacrament: confessing sin, doing penance, reconciling the sinner. Some of those elements require the work and effort of the penitent (the one confessing), but the principal act of forgiving and reconciling belongs to God alone. There are four primary actions in the celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, all of which contribute in some way to the healing that takes place: confession of sin; expression of contrition or sorrow for sin; doing penance ("satisfaction"), which expresses a desire to avoid sin; and absolution from sin. Essentially there are two "movements" in the sacrament: our movement toward God and God's toward us.

Jesus' encounter with Zacchaeus (see Lk 19:1-10) demonstrates the twofold movement at work in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It takes both parties' willingness to reconcile in order to bring about healing, and when the Sacrament of Reconciliation is celebrated, the sinner makes a move toward Jesus Christ, and the Lord himself makes a move to welcome, embrace, and forgive the sinner. Zacchaeus knew who he was: "a tax collector and a wealthy man." Tax collectors made their money by taking their own cut of the taxes they collected, so they were particularly despised, because their work was often motivated by personal gain. Zacchaeus must have been good at what he did, because St. Luke tells us he was a wealthy man. Zacchaeus climbed the tree, because, as St. Luke tells us, he wanted "to see Jesus." In doing so, he knew that Jesus would see him, too, and in that way he takes a step forward. Jesus then enters into Zacchaeus's life, and the process of healing and conversion is made manifest in Zacchaeus's intention to make restitution. To be clear, Zacchaeus doesn't necessarily initiate the process, but his own movement is itself a response to some prompting of God's invitation and grace.

To understand the working of forgiveness, one must also understand the work of sin. St. Augustine describes sin as "an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law" (Contra Faustum manichaeum, PL 42, 428; see also CCC, no. 1849). Sin offends God and harms relationships with others. Sin is a choice to do the wrong or avoid the good. We actively cooperate in the act of sinning (because it is a conscious decision), and so we must actively participate in the process of being forgiven from sin.

When one speaks of reconciliation, referring either to the theological concept or to Catholic sacramental practice, one must begin with the primacy of God's work and free gift flowing from his love for his people. It is God who forgives, and it is Jesus who embodies that forgiveness in his ministry and preaching, and in his Passion, Death, and Resurrection. From him flows the gift of forgiveness for those who believe. This "first" act of reconciliation is referred to as justification. Human forgiveness (i.e., as we forgive one another) is the response to what is already accomplished in Christ.

Justification is the broad activity of redemption and forgiveness in which the specific action of the Sacrament of Reconciliation functions. The Praenotanda of the Rite of Penance sets the context of sacramental forgiveness within a larger framework: in the first place there is Christ as reconciler, and in the second place is the Church as a "locus of reconciliation" (Rite of Penance, nos. 3-5; see also Kenan Osborne, Reconciliation and Justification: The Sacrament and Its Theology, 1990). If the working of the Sacrament of Reconciliation is understood incorrectly, it could lead to a false sense of "controlling" the grace of forgiveness in one's life simply by confessing and receiving absolution, or of earning the grace of forgiveness by acts of satisfaction. The Rite of Penance emphasizes that justification is the action of God in Christ Jesus. The sacrament is one locus where that justification is made manifest for the believer in a particular way.

Only within this proper context of the primacy of God's work in Jesus Christ is it then possible to see the way in which the Rite of Penance outlines the four steps—and our work—in the "process of forgiveness": confession, contrition, satisfaction, and absolution. The celebration of the sacrament, under normal circumstances, is the "Rite of Reconciliation of Individual Penitents," otherwise known as "private confession," in which the individual sinner gathers with a priest who stands as the face of Jesus Christ, who offers mercy and pardon. In this form the "work" of the sinner (the first three acts) and the "work" of God in Jesus Christ (through absolution by the priest) is clear, as the various parts flow directly from one to another (it should be noted that the same elements are present in the so-called "communal celebrations"—found in Chapters Two and Three of the Rite of Penance—but this article is limited in scope to the individual celebration of the sacrament). In addition to the essential elements, the celebration of the rite also includes a welcome and greeting, reading of the Word of God, and the proclamation of praise of God.

Confession entails admitting and naming one's sin. It is in this act that the penitent names his or her sins, acknowledging the judgment of God over his or her actions. For some, especially those who are celebrating the sacrament for the first time or after a long time, this might seem awkward, for it is difficult to admit one's faults. The Catechism of the Catholic Church points out, however, that even on a strictly human level, confessing one's sins can be a freeing experience (CCC, no. 1455) as a means of unburdening oneself of those burdens. Generally there is an expectation that confession of sin be integral and thorough, and the priest can be of assistance in guiding the penitent through such a process. He can also offer counsel regarding the process of conversion from sin.

Contrition is one's expression of sorrow for sin. Simply approaching the Sacrament of Reconciliation can at some level be an expression of contrition. Contrition "occupies first place" in the work of the sacrament (see CCC, no. 1451), but the expression of the "Act of Contrition" usually follows after the confession of sin. The Council of Trent defined contrition as "heartfelt sorrow and aversion for the sin committed along with the intention of sinning no more" (Council of Trent, Session XIV, De Sacramento Paenitentiae, Chapter 3: Denz., 1673-1675). The sinner expresses the desire for a right relationship with God, which entails doing God's will. Contrition comes about through understanding the nature of one's relationship with God as an invitation and a call to discipleship, and an awareness of the ways in which one has not lived up to that call. The sinner who desires God's forgiveness seeks the Lord, because he or she recognizes that overcoming sin and resisting temptation come not from one's own abilities but with God's help.

Satisfaction for sin is the way in which the sinner shows his or her "firm purpose of amendment," which means that the sinner demonstrates by action the intention to heal the harm done by sin. When someone harms another, the process of reconciliation in that relationship entails making restitution, and that gesture in itself is a healing remedy. In the celebration of the sacrament, the penitent is offered a suggested act of penance as a means of making satisfaction. Sometimes the suggested penance is a concrete gesture to make amends for a particular sin, but at other times the penance can be something broader, such as a particular act of charity. Even a penance involving prayer or devotion can be offered, because such prayer helps the sinner to reorient his or her life to the presence of Jesus Christ and his love for the sinner, which flows from his Cross. An integrated Christian life is one in which actions flow from prayer. The sinner's expression of contrition and demonstration of firm purpose of amendment together manifest such integration in his or her life.

Absolution from sin is offered by the priest acting in persona Christi, "in the person of Christ." The real power of the sacrament is this incarnational moment, as the healing power of Christ in his forgiveness is given a real face and a real voice in the person of the priest. One can pray to God to ask forgiveness anytime, and all are encouraged to do so as a means of seeking and finding forgiveness for minor everyday faults (i.e., venial sins), but only in the sacramental celebration is that gift of forgiveness offered in such concrete form. The priest's prayer of absolution states, "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." This makes clear the prayer for God's gifts ("of pardon and peace"), but the declaration, "I absolve you," is far more powerful than an invocation or request for forgiveness. The power to offer absolution has its roots in Jesus' giving the authority to forgive to the Apostles (see Mt 16:19; Jn 20:23).

The process of seeking, receiving, and celebrating God's mercy and forgiveness is meant to be source of joy. It is difficult to admit one's faults, and sometimes even more difficult to ask forgiveness. Pope Francis, however, reminds us that it need not be something to fear, because the Lord is always ready and eager to bestow his healing love:

Whenever we take a step toward Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms. Now is the time to say to Jesus: "Lord, I have let myself be deceived; in a thousand ways I have shunned your love, yet here I am once more, to renew my covenant with you. I need you. Save me once again, Lord, take me once more into your redeeming embrace." How good it feels to come back to him whenever we are lost! Let me say this once more: God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy. (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium [The Joy of the Gospel] [Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2013], no. 3)

Pastors, catechists, and parents must never tire of extending this invitation with love and genuine joy!

Copyright © 2014, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted to duplicate this work without adaptation for non-commercial use.

Scripture excerpts used in this work are taken from the New American Bible, rev. ed.© 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

Excerpts from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, second edition, copyright © 2000, Libreria Editrice Vaticana (LEV)–United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. Used with permission. All rights reserved.