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 Confession/Reconciliation 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, 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.
Four Easy Steps
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:
1 – confession of sin – 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.
2 – expression of contrition or sorrow for sin – Contrition is one’s expression of sorrow for sin, an expression of the desire for a right relationship with God, which entails doing God’s will.
3 – doing penance, which expresses a desire to avoid sin – An act of prayer or action that is a symbol of one’s commitment to amend one’s life to reorient his or her life to the presence of Jesus Christ
4 – absolution from sin – Absolution from sin is offered by the priest acting in persona Christi, “in the person of Christ” 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.” God forgives sin, but the declaration, “I absolve you” is not a petition for forgiveness, but Christ forgiving by use of His agent in persona Christi.
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 took 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. And what is even better is that Zacchaeus doesn’t necessarily initiate the process, but his own movement is itself a response to some prompting of God’s invitation and grace.
This sacrament begins 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.