It is fairly easy to identify where Christ instituted the Sacraments using the Scripture and Tradition that we have today. However, simply knowing where the story begins is of little value to understand how it is important for us today. Any attempt to realize the temporal and eternal value of Reconciliation, or any sacrament, without a fuller knowledge of the realities that surround it is like trying to assemble furniture without an instruction manual. It might be possible to do, but it will be unnecessarily difficult. The scholar, Ralph P. Martin, notes that there is “no satisfying answer” in such an endeavor, and that doing so only tells us what we already know about Jesus Christ.
But it is still helpful for us to identify the post-Paschal foundation of Reconciliation. We find it in the words recorded in John 20:23 where Jesus breathes on the disciples with the Holy Spirit and says: “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” It is worth noting that the word used for breath is the same as that used in Genesis and Ezekiel when God breathed life at the first creation and the new eschatological creation. Also, the words “forgiven” and “retained” are in the past tense, which usually represents that God is acting through His Church.
In the centuries that followed the understanding and practice of Reconciliation developed. In the sixteenth century, at the Council of Trent, it was stated that “The Church has always understood – and has in fact defined – that Jesus Christ here conferred on the Apostles authority to forgive sins, a power which is exercised in the sacrament of Penance. “The Lord then especially instituted the sacrament of Penance when, after being risen from the dead, he breathed upon his disciples and said: “Receive the Holy Spirit…” The consensus of all the Father has always acknowledged that by this action so sublime and words so clear the power of forgiving and retaining sins was given to the Apostles and their lawful successors for reconciling the faithful who have fallen after Baptism (De Paenitentia, 1).
We also see many instances of pre-Paschal foundations for Reconciliation. The chief amongst these is certainly the passage of the prodigal son from Luke. The sacrament of Penance is the most sublime expression of God’s love and mercy towards men, described so vividly in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. The Lord always awaits us, with his arms wide open, waiting for us to repent – and then he will forgive us and restore us to the dignity of his sons.
Stratford Caldecott, in his work, The Seven Sacraments, notes that in John “the Lord’s word, a well of living waters, takes over from the healing waters of Jerusalem. The paralysis the man suffers from symbolizes the state of impotence to which we are reduced by sin (Caldecott 61).
Reconciliation is also prefigured shortly before Christ’s death, when he utters the words “Father, forgive them, for they known not what they do (Luke 23:34). According to Adrienne von Speyr “This first of the Lord’s words contain his whole life’s purpose. He hangs on the Cross in order to achieve for sinners their forgiveness before God.” Jesus has lived among men, “He knows that they cannot be held fully responsible, and the conclusion he draws is this: he will bear the responsibility himself” (Speyr, The Cross).
After Christ’s resurrection, it is only through the cross that we can be forgiven. In the mirror of the Cross, the sinner sees what they have become. They are no longer ignorant; they know what they do. At the same time, they see how much the Son has done for them, and this moves them to respond with a love that reunites their wills with his. In the act of becoming aware of what they were doing, they cease to do it. This process – the unveiling of sin, recognizing self, and loving God – lies at the heart of the sacrament of Reconciliation (Caldecott, 63).
On December 8 of last year, the universal Church began celebrating a Year of Mercy. In preparation for this time, Pope Francis gave much instruction on the importance of Reconciliation in our day. At a general audience in 2014, he stated “First, the fact that the forgiveness of our sins is not something we can give ourselves. I cannot say: I forgive my sins. Forgiveness is asked for, is asked of another, and in Confession we ask for forgiveness from Jesus. Forgiveness is not the fruit of our own efforts but rather a gift, it is a gift of the Holy Spirit who fills us with the wellspring of mercy and of grace that flows unceasingly from the open heart of the Crucified and Risen Christ. Secondly, it reminds us that we can truly be at peace only if we allow ourselves to be reconciled, in the Lord Jesus, with the Father and with the brethren. And we have all felt this in our hearts, when we have gone to confession with a soul weighed down and with a little sadness; and when we receive Jesus’ forgiveness we feel at peace, with that peace of soul which is so beautiful, and which only Jesus can give, only Him” (Feb. 19 2014).
He also stated in an earlier audience that “God forgives every man in his sovereign mercy, but he himself willed that those who belong to Christ and to the Church receive forgiveness by means of the ministers of the community. Through the apostolic ministry the mercy of God reaches me, my faults are forgiven and joy is bestowed on me. In this way Jesus calls us to live out reconciliation in the ecclesial, the community, dimension as well. And this is very beautiful. The Church, who is holy and at the same time in need of penitence, accompanies us on the journey of conversion throughout our life. The Church is not mistress of the power of the keys, but a servant of the ministry of mercy and rejoices every time she can offer this divine gift (Nov. 20, 2013).
In her diary, Sister Faustina recorded that we must “Pray for souls that they be not afraid to approach the tribunal of God’s mercy” (975). To help quell this fear, Vinny Flynn offers us Seven Secrets of Confession. As he notes in the forward of his book, the secrets are not really hidden information, but rather they are things we might not think about. The seven secrets are:
- Sin doesn’t change God.
- It’s not just about forgiveness.
- Your sin is different from my sin.
- Confession is not really private.
- You’ve got mail.
- New wines need new skins.
- You have to let go of your chains.
Like all of the sacraments, Reconciliation is a gift to us from God. A gift given not because we merited it, but because God wants us to be eternally happy with him in Heaven. In his work, Life of Christ, Bishop Sheen states that Only God can forgive sins; but God in the form of man forgave the sins of Magdalen, of the penitent thief, of the dishonest tax collector, and of others.” From the day of his resurrection, Christ gave that power to forgive to others. “To be on humble on one’s knees confessing to one to whom Christ gave the power to forgive (rather than prostrate on a couch to hear guilt explained away) – that was one of the greatest joys given to the burden soul of man” (Sheen, Life of Christ, 421).
In my closing, I would like to share something written by Stratford Caldecott just two months before died. He said “The Cross seems impossible, incredible. It seems foolish, crazy. But we must join fully, deeply, truly. And we must start as soon as possible.” (http://www.theimaginativeconservative.org/2014/05/search-secret-life-death.html).