Christianity is a broad term that includes Catholicism, Protestantism, and Eastern Orthodox. Within Christianity, there are diverse beliefs and practices. One of these practices is the sacraments, which consist of seven rites. The sacrament of Reconciliation within Christianity is considered complex and difficult to understand. This sacrament allows individuals to seek forgiveness from God for their sins and reconcile with the Church, which they have harmed through their wrongdoing. Sin has two forms with distinct consequences. The sacrament of Reconciliation has different names and originates from Jesus Christ who established all the sacraments as symbols or means of grace. The act of Reconciliation involves multiple parts and actions. Additionally, this sacrament produces various spiritual effects.
Reconciliation, or penance, confession, and forgiveness, encompasses several elements. The sacrament of Penance sanctifies the personal steps of conversion for Christian sinners. It includes three forms of penance – fasting, prayer, and almsgiving – which express conversion towards oneself, God, and others respectively. Confession is crucial in this sacrament as it involves disclosing one’s sins to the priest. Finally, the sacrament of forgiveness is achieved through the priest’s sacramental absolution that grants pardon from God to the Penitent. To achieve full reconciliation with God, all these aspects are necessary.
Sin is primarily an offense against God, resulting in a disruption of communion and harming the relationship with the Church. The Church views sin as the most severe wrongdoing, as it brings detrimental consequences for both sinners and the Church. Sin inflicts damage upon God’s honor and love, as well as on the individual’s human dignity since every Christian is meant to be a child of God and should strive towards this. Thus, the sacrament of Reconciliation exists to cleanse one’s sins.
The Church considers sin to be a significant transgression that offends God and creates division within its community. It recognizes that sin has negative effects on both individuals and the Church itself. Not only does it harm God’s honor and love, but it also diminishes a person’s human dignity since Christians are intended to be children of God. Consequently, people are encouraged to seek reconciliation through the sacrament designed for cleansing sins.
The text explores the distinction between two types of sin: venial and mortal. Mortal sin destroys kindness in a person’s heart by gravely violating God’s law, leading them away from God – their ultimate end and complete happiness – by choosing a lesser good over Him. Conversely, venial sin allows kindness to coexist while still offending and injuring God’s law. To be categorized as mortal, a sin must involve grave matter and be committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent. Grave matter is defined by Jesus in response to the rich young man, specifying the commandments stated in the Ten Commandments. The seriousness of sins can vary; murder is more severe than theft, just as violence against parents is graver than violence against strangers. For a sin to be considered mortal, both full knowledge and complete consent are required assuming that the sinful act is knowingly done and intentionally goes against God.
Venial sins occur when one disobeys a less serious aspect of the moral law without full knowledge or purposeful action. However, deliberate and unrepented venial sins gradually lead to committing a mortal sin. It should be noted that although venial sins do not violate the covenant with God, they fall short of it
Sin has two consequences: firstly, grave sin separates us from God and prevents us from attaining eternal life (also known as the eternal punishment of sin); secondly, any sin – including venial ones – creates an unhealthy attachment to worldly desires that must be purified either during our earthly life or after death in Purgatory. This purification process eliminates what is called the temporal punishment of sin. It’s important to remember that these punishments are not acts of vengeance from God but rather a result of our sinful nature. Reconciliation with God can aid in the purification process and eliminate the need for any punishment. While forgiveness of sin and restoration of communion with God pardon the eternal punishment, the temporal punishment remains. As Christians, we should embrace this temporary punishment as a grace and strive to start anew through acts of mercy and charity, prayer, and penance.
The church holds the belief that forgiveness of sins is performed by priests on behalf of God, as it is only God who possesses the ability to forgive sin. This conviction is based on Sacred Scripture, which references reconciliation and Jesus granting ordinary individuals the power to forgive sins through the Holy Spirit. After His resurrection, when Jesus appeared to His disciples, He bestowed upon them the Holy Spirit and declared, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” (Jn 20:22-23) This aspect of the Gospel allows apostles to continue their mission of proclaiming the Gospel and participating in Christ’s work of redemption. By bestowing upon them His own authority to forgive sins, Jesus also grants them the power to reconcile sinners with the Church in His name. In the sacrament of Reconciliation, priests assume dual roles – those of a compassionate Good Samaritan and a fair judge who shows mercy. They serve as both a symbol and an instrument of God’s merciful love for sinners.
During their time in the seminary, priests are trained in the ministry of sacramental penance to forgive sins in God’s name. This training includes studying various theological subjects like dogmatic, moral, spiritual, and pastoral theology. In addition, priests learn about human sciences and how to engage in dialogue within a pastoral context. It is important for priests to have knowledge of Christian behavior and firsthand experience with human affairs. They must also show respect and sensitivity towards sinners. Moreover, it is critical for priests to have a genuine love for truth and remain faithful to Church teachings while guiding penitents towards healing and spiritual growth with patience (Catechism 368).
The Church emphasizes the importance and significance of the ministry of confession by stating that all priests must maintain strict confidentiality regarding the sins confessed to them. This strict confidentiality, known as the sacramental seal, cannot be broken under any circumstances, as it ensures that whatever is shared by the penitent remains sealed by the sacrament.
During the act of Penance, there are various parts and actions that take place. The penitent is responsible for three actions: contrition, confession, and satisfaction. These actions are crucial in the process. The priest’s role in this act is called absolution. Out of all the penitent’s actions, contrition holds the highest significance. Contrition is defined as “sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again” (Catechism 364).
Confession is a vital aspect of the sacrament of Penance, where we confess our sins to a priest. It has the ability to free us and repair our relationships with others. By admitting and accepting responsibility for our wrongdoings, we not only reflect on our actions but also assume accountability for them. This allows us to rebuild an authentic bond with both God and the Church, opening up opportunities for a new beginning.
It is essential to make efforts to mend the damage caused by numerous sins that harm our neighbor. This may involve returning stolen items, restoring the reputation of someone who has been mistreated, or providing compensation. Sin not only harms the sinner but also affects their relationship with God and their neighbor. Although absolution eliminates sin, it does not resolve all of the negative consequences it has brought about.
To fully restore one’s spiritual well-being, additional action must be taken by the sinner to make reparations for their sins. This process is called penance and requires acknowledging and seeking forgiveness for one’s sins. The penance given by a priest should consider the specific circumstances of the penitent and aim for their spiritual growth, taking into account the nature of the committed sins.
Penance can include prayer, acts of charity, helping others, making sacrifices, and most importantly, patiently enduring hardships. These acts of penance guide us towards Christ who has already granted complete forgiveness for our sins.
The priest has the authority, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to forgive sins in God’s name. When someone’s sins are absolved during Penance, the priest will recite a formula that acknowledges God’s reconciliation of the world through his Son’s death and resurrection and the sending of the Holy Spirit for forgiveness of sins. Through the Church’s ministry, may God grant you pardon and peace. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, I absolve you from your sins.” (Catechism 364) This moment allows sinners to experience both God’s power and mercy. The absolution given by priests is a clear indication that it is facilitated by God Himself. “By virtue of their sacred office, as witnesses and representatives of this sacramental nature,” (John Paul II 83) priests act as ministers of forgiveness.
In 1551, Julius III, the Sovereign Pontiff, called for The Council of Trent and wrote The Fourteenth Session which contains Canon Laws regarding the Sacrament of Penance. One specific law in this session, known as Canon VI, addresses the act of confessing sins to a priest. According to this law, individuals who deny the significance of sacramental confession or argue that it is unnecessary for salvation will be subjected to anathema. Essentially, they will be excommunicated from the church. Confessing exclusively to a priest has been a long-standing tradition within the church and is believed to adhere to Christ’s command rather than being a human creation.
The sacrament of Reconciliation has various spiritual effects. It allows individuals to reconcile with God and restore grace. It also grants forgiveness for the eternal consequences of mortal sins and pardons the temporary penalties caused by sin. Reconciliation brings peace, tranquility of conscience, and spiritual comfort to people. Moreover, it strengthens spiritual resilience and fosters reconciliation within the Church community.
Reconciliation, a significant sacrament not to be taken lightly, is a gift from God with two aspects: freedom from sin and connection with God’s grace. It establishes a close friendship between us and God, as individuals make a personal commitment to start anew with Him.
During this sacrament, sinners come before God’s merciful judgment, anticipating the judgment they will face in death. Though it has different parts, it is through the priest that individuals are connected to the power of God and receive forgiveness in His name.
Faith plays a crucial role in this sacrament. Pope John Paul II affirmed that “Only faith can give us certainty that at that moment every sin is forgiven and blotted out by the mysterious intervention of the Savior” (John Paul II 82).
John Paul II wrote the Reconciliatio et Paenitentia: Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on Reconciliation and Penance, which was published in Boston by St. Paul’s Books and Media on 2 December 1984.
Julius III, in the fourteenth session, discussed the most holy sacraments of Penance and Extreme Unction on 25 November 1551.
Ratinger, Joseph Cardinal Catechism of the Catholic Church New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1946.