Saturday, October 18, 2008

What is in a Name?

We all have heard this Sacrament being called by many names:

* Confession
* Forgiveness
* Penance
* Reconciliation (also Penance & Reconciliation)
* Conversion
* Healing

Accusing ourselves of sins, confessing these sins, forgiveness, absolution, receiving God’s mercy, reconciling with the Church, conversion of our hearts and souls, performing the given penance, and our resolve never to offend God again – these are all aspects of this Sacrament. The names most commonly heard are the aspects associated with this Sacrament. What is the Sacrament’s real name?

Let’s take a closer look at each of these aspects.

Accusation & Confession of Sins

We accuse ourselves of the sins committed after Baptism and confess them to Jesus Christ, through a Priest. Why sins committed after Baptism? At our Baptism, we are created anew. The sins of Adam and Eve (original sin) are wiped away; we are then christened with water and oil signifying that we are now a part of God’s family. The sins committed after Baptism are the ones we commit against God and neighbor. We need to atone for these sins, requesting God’s mercy, in order to share in His Heavenly Kingdom.

God is pure holiness and nothing unholy can enter His Kingdom.

In the Parable of the Wedding Feast, a man sent invitations to all his relatives, friends, and neighbors, asking them to come and share in this joyous occasion. When his friends and neighbors refused to come immediately, he called for the poor, blind, and lame, the outcasts of society. Before they could enter, they are given basins to wash in and new clothes to wear. One man entered the home not dressed properly for the feast and was immediately escorted out of the house and off the estate.

If our hearts and souls are not properly cleansed, we cannot enter into God’s Kingdom nor join in His Heavenly banquet.

‘In a profound sense, it is also a ‘confession’ – acknowledgement and praise – of the holiness of God and His mercy toward the sinful man.’ You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. One must appreciate the magnitude of the gift God has given us in the Sacraments of Christian Initiation in order to grasp the degree to which sin is excluded for Him who has ‘put on Christ.’ But the Apostle John also says: ‘If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.’ And the Lord, Himself, taught us to pray: ‘Forgive us our trespasses’ linking our forgiveness of one another’s offenses to the forgiveness of our sins that God will grant us. (CCC 1424 – 1425)

We need to go into Confession with a contrite heart. Contrition is true sorrow for your sins with the resolution not to sin again. Perfect contrition is when your sorrow and repugnance for sins committed comes from a love for God Who is loved above all else. Contrition is imperfect when the fear of damnation and other punishments that could occur because of our sins are greater than the love for God. By itself, imperfect contrition cannot obtain the forgiveness of grave sins (mortal sins), but it does influence the sinner to obtain forgiveness through this Sacrament. (CCC 1453)

By confessing our sins, we are taking an in-depth look at ourselves and the sins we are guilty of, taking responsibility for them, and opening ourselves up to God and into common union with the Church.

‘Those who approach the Sacrament of Penance, obtain pardon from God’s mercy for the offenses 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, works for their conversion.’ (Lumen Gentium II)


Jesus instituted and entrusted to His disciples a gift of His love and mercy, a gift of forgiveness of sins. ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven. Whose sins you retain, they are retained.’ (John 20:22)

Through Jesus Christ, forgiveness of sins is offered to each person by means of sacramental absolution by His Priests, the ministers of the Sacrament. The Council of Trent stated that Jesus instituted this Sacrament so the faithful, who have fallen into sin after Baptism, might receive God’s grace and mercy and be reconciled with God and the Church. When the Priest absolves you of your sins, Christ is absolving you. God’s Priests are the stewards of the Sacraments; the Priest’s work is secondary to Jesus. What was visible through Jesus’ work on earth has passed over into His mysteries.

Throughout history, God made covenants with His people, and sealed the covenants with an outward sign, a physical sign, and a shared meal.

* Noah – rainbow; sacrifice of animals
* Abraham – circumcision; sacrificial lamb
* Moses – sprinkling of blood of first born lamb; first born lamb
* Us – A New Covenant – Jesus; the Lamb of God

At the heart of every Biblical covenant, there is a solemn and sacred oath, with real power to change lives and history. The Sacraments still carry this power today. When we confess our sins and ask for God’s forgiveness, we are also vowing to God that we will not sin again and will amend our lives.

But the effect of this Sacrament depends on our disposition to receive it. Are we truly sorry for offending God? Do we regret asking God to partake in our sin? Yes, when we sin, we are ultimately asking God to partake in the very sin we are committing. God made us in His image and likeness, and through Baptism, we become members of His family, partaking in a share of His Divine Nature. When we sin, we are asking God to also partake in that sin, which He is unable to do. By our sin, we offend God.

Confessing our sins and receiving forgiveness, restores us into God’s family.

The Sacramental Rites strengthen our resolve through His Divine Grace, so that we may also enjoy in the Divine society, the Communion of Saints. Jesus Christ is the redeemer of the world. He is also the creator, the second Person in the Most Holy Trinity. The One Who made matter and spirit also redeems matter and spirit; and He uses that matter and spirit to redeem us as well.

In the Our Father, we petition God to forgive our sins, but not only to forgive them, but also to forgive them ‘as we forgive others who sin against us.’ His mercy cannot penetrate our hearts if they are hardened against our brothers and sisters. The heart of the elder son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son was full of resentment and hatred toward his brother. When his brother returned, the mercy and forgiveness that his father had toward his brother was not able to penetrate his own heart, it was full of the enmity and prejudice and not open to God’s love and mercy. Love, like the Body of Christ, is indivisible; we cannot love the God we cannot see if we do not love the brother or sister we do see. In confessing our sins, our hearts are opened to God’s Grace. (CCC 2840)

In the Last Supper discourses of St. John’s Gospel, Jesus gives us a New Commandment: ‘You therefore, must be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. A new Commandment I give to you, that you love one another, as I have loved you.’ (John 13: 34) Not only are we to love each other, we are to love each other as Jesus loves us. Jesus’ love for us loves to the end of time. As disciples, we are commissioned to do the same.

The Parable of the Merciless Servant ends with ‘…so also my Heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.’ (Matthew 18:23-35) God will forgive us as we forgive others. If the resentment and hatred fills our hearts and we are unwilling to forgive them, God will forgive us in exactly the same way. ‘The heart that offers itself to the Holy Spirit turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory in transforming the hurt into intercession.’ (CCC 2843)

Jesus insists on forgiving our brothers and sisters: turning the other cheek, giving our cloak to the one who has taken our coat, forgiving and loving our enemies, and granting forgiveness seventy times seven times, without limit.

Absolution & Reconciliation

When we confess our sins, we are reconciled back to God, Who is anxiously waiting to take us back. We are also reconciled back to the Church, the Body of Christ, who was also wounded by our sins. He who lives by God’s merciful love is ready to respond to the Lord’s call: ‘Therefore, if you bring your gift to the Altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the Altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.’ (Matthew 5: 23-24)

During His public life, Jesus not only forgave sins, but also made plain the effect of this forgiveness: He reintegrated forgiven sinners back into the community from which their sin had them alienated or even excluded. A remarkable sign of this fact is that Jesus receives sinners at His table, a gesture that expresses in an astonishing way both God’s forgiveness and the return to the bosom of the people of God. (CCC 1443)

Reconciliation with the Church is entwined from the reconciliation to God. They are inseparable.

In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the younger son sins against his father by asking for his inheritance before his father is dead, stating that his father is already dead. The son is mesmerized by the temptation of living on his own, independent of his father and family. He becomes disappointed by the emptiness of the mirage but pride keeps him from returning. Alone and dejected, the son hits rock bottom and finally decides to return to his father’s house, humiliated. No longer feeling worthy as a son, he returns ready to become a slave.

We do the same thing every time we sin. By our sins, we proclaim that God is dead; that we can do anything and everything without his assistance and love. We decide that we can live the way WE want rather than doing His will.

Once we find that our way does not provide satisfaction, we return humiliated and broken, no longer feeling worthy to be His sons and daughters, we beg His forgiveness and ask to become hired hands.

‘The Church can forgive nothing without Christ and Christ does not wish to forgive anything without the Church. The Church can forgive nothing except to a penitent, that is to say, to a person whom Christ has touched with His grace: Christ does not wish to consider anything forgiven in a person who despises the Church.’ Sumo 11 (1 Dominica II Post Epiphaniam, 1)

When we forgive, our hearts have to be open to forgiveness and mercy. If they are hardened, we will be unable to receive God’s graces and love. God, Who has been anxiously awaiting our return, is waiting with open arms; He welcomes us back, forgiving and forgetting our sins. We are made anew – we are reborn, restored into His family.

Jesus prepared His Priests to act as fathers in the Church. They forgive like the father forgives in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. They help God’s children to be properly cleansed and clothed for the Heavenly banquet, to be reconciled back to God and the Church. The most important thing the Priest does in this Sacrament is to pronounce the words of absolution:

‘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 usfor the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Churchmay God give you pardon and peace,and I absolve you from your sinsin the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’

Penance & Satisfaction

It is called the Sacrament of Penance since it consecrates us, as sinners, to personal and ecclesial steps of conversion, penance, and satisfaction. For after we confess, we make amends for our sins. In our penance, we are not paying the price for our sins, since no human price could match what Jesus obtained for us on the Cross. It is, however, a personal commitment to God to begin anew. It is a way to join our physical and spiritual mortification to the Passion of Jesus, who obtained forgiveness for us.

In order to have the sins forgiven and absolved, the penitent receives from the confessor what is called a ‘penance’, usually in the form of prayers, actions, fasting, alms, the Stations of the Cross, etc. The confessor, according to the sins revealed, determines the quality and extent of the penance. Sometimes the penance can be performed immediately, other times it may take a couple days, such as during Holy Week. Penance can also be defined as ‘The payment of the temporal punishment due on account of the offence committed against God by sin.’ (St. Thomas, Summa Theologicae Supplement. 12.3)

In the early Church, not only were the confessions heard publicly, but also public penance was prescribed and performed in order to ensure that the penance was completed.

Conversion of our hearts & souls

Although we receive pardon for our sins through this Sacrament and God’s grace and mercy, it does not permit us to commit sin in the future. In fact, if we go to Confession with the attitude of expecting forgiveness and the intention of committing future sins, expecting those will also be forgiven, not only is our confession meaningless, but we have also sinned to a much greater degree.

This is a Sacrament of Conversion because it makes Sacramentally present, Jesus’ call to conversion, the first step in returning to the Father after straying by sin. (CCC 1423) We recognize ourselves as sinners and inclined to commit sin, but through this Sacrament, God’s grace, and His mercy, our hearts are returned to God’s. When we request this Sacrament frequently, it also gives us greater resistance against sin and a resolve to do what is right and pleasing to God. When we are faced with difficulties, we can and are encouraged to seek assistance from friends, Priests, or Religious, who are faithful, prudent, and well informed of the Church’s teachings and the Catholic Faith. The Church also invites us to take our concerns to God in a special way, through this Sacrament.

At times, more than one decision can be morally justified but we may never do evil so that good may result from it. (CCC 1789)

Moral and spiritual conversion must be rooted in prayer and the Sacraments, especially the Sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharistic. The more we pray with humility before God, the better we will be able to hear Him speak in the depths of our hearts. If we sincerely desire to live in a manner holy and pleasing to God, we must ask for the help of the Holy Spirit, Who will remain in us and lead us all to Truth. A conscience formed by the Spirit of Truth will be upright and reliable. (How to Form Your Catholic Conscience)

Contrition and Conversion draw us nearer to God, through rediscovering our true identity, which was upset and disturbed by sin. It is a liberation of the very depth of self and thus a regaining of lost joy, the joy of being saved, which the majority of people in our time are no longer capable of experiencing. (Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation – Reconciliation and Penance)

So, what is the real name? It depends on which aspect you are speaking. As a whole, the Church, in the Catechism, says it is the Sacrament of Penance. Pope John Paul II, in his Apostolic Exhortation – Reconciliation and Penance, calls it both the Sacrament of Reconciliation and Sacrament of Reconciliation and Penance. In Lumen Gentium II, the Sacrament is called the Sacrament of Penance. As long as you frequent the confessional with a humble and contrite heart, it really does not matter.

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