Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
How to Celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation
What happened to confession? The lines
of penitents waiting to enter the confessional on Saturday afternoon
seem to have disappeared. Have Catholics simply stopped going to
confession? How does one celebrate the sacrament today?
When I was in grade school, each Saturday
evening my mom and dad took me to church and we went to confession.
I never questioned why we did this, it was simply something that
good Catholics did. Now, I would explain the practice by saying
that this was a way to assure that we would be in the state of sanctifying
grace in order to receive holy Communion at Mass the following day,
Sunday morning. Even for those of us without grave sin and who were
already in the state of graceand I certainly would place my
parents in that categorySaturday confession was a way to prepare
ourselves to be as holy as possible to receive the most holy Sacrament
of the Eucharist.
Today two things have changed: The Eucharist
itself is seen as a sacrament of forgiveness; and the Sacrament
of Reconciliation is not simply (or even primarily) a preparation
for holy Communion. It has its own meaning as a wonderful sign of
God's love and forgiveness.
THE MASS AND FORGIVENESS
When Mass was in Latin, I never really
noticed how frequently the prayers spoke of the forgiveness of sins.
Now, Sunday after Sunday, I (together with the whole Church) hear,
"May almighty God...forgive us our sins" (Penitential Rite); "You
take away the sin of the world: have mercy on us" (Glory to God);
"Though we are sinners, we trust in your mercy and love. Do not
consider what we truly deserve, but grant us your forgiveness" (Eucharistic
Prayer I); "Our Father...forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive
those who trespass against us" (Lord's Prayer); "This is the Lamb
of God who takes away the sins of the world....Lord, I am not worthy...but
only say the word and I shall be healed" (Invitation to Communion).
At each Eucharist we hear Christ's command:
"Take this, all of you, and drink from it: this is the cup of my
blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be
shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven." And in holy
Communion, I am in com-union (union-with) Christ and the Church.
As my sins distance me from Christ and the Church, holy Communion
draws me back into intimate union with Christ and his members. Meals,
especially ritual meals, have traditionally been times of forgiveness
and reconciliation. It is not surprising, then, that for many Catholics
the Sunday Eucharist has become the usual sacrament by which they
experience the forgiveness of their sins.
But are Catholics required to go to confession?
The current law of the Church states that a person who is conscious
of grave sin is not to receive the body of the Lord without previous
sacramental confession unless there is a grave reason and there
is no opportunity to confess (Canon 916).
Think, for example, of the parable of
the prodigal son. The boy who had cut himself off from the life
of the family was now to be readmitted to the daily family table.
He admitted his fault and asked forgiveness. Yet to restore the
son's place, a special celebration of reconciliation and homecoming
was needed. "Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us
celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has
come to life again; he was lost, and has been found" (Luke 15:23-24).
For those Catholics who have cut ourselves
off from God and the Church by serious (grave, mortal) sin and now
wish to return to God's table (many Catholics find this situation
rarely happens in their lives), the Church offers the Sacrament
of Reconciliation to celebrate their "homecoming." This is the only
time when Catholics are required to celebrate the sacrament. But
we celebrate Reconciliation not merely because we have to, but because
it is a sacramenta sign and celebration of God showing forth
his mercy "by reconciling the world to himself in Christ and by
making peace for all things on earth and in heaven by the blood
of Christ on the cross"as we read in the very first words
of the Rite of Penance.
RECONCILIATION: A CORPORATE RITUAL
The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation
is not merely a time for spiritual direction (as wholesome as that
is), or a time for seeking moral guidance (as necessary as that
may be at times). Reconciliation is primarily a sacramenta
corporate act of worship which builds up the Body of Christ. The
Church affirmed this understanding in the first document of Vatican
II, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy: "Liturgical services
are not private functions, but are celebrations belonging to the
Church" (#26), and "Whenever rites, according to their specific
nature, make provision for communal celebration involving the presence
and active participation of the faithful, it is to be stressed that
this way of celebrating them is to be preferred, as far as possible,
to a celebration that is individual and, so to speak, private" (#27).
That is why, in addition to a rite for
Reconciliation that is individual (one penitent and one priest)
the new rite offers communal rites for the celebration of the sacrament.
Many Catholics have moved from individual confession to these communal
celebrations. In parishes across the United States we can find large
numbers of Catholics participating in the communal Sacrament of
Reconciliation, especially before Easter and Christmas.
Communal celebrations show more clearly
that Reconciliation is a sacrament, a corporate act of worship.
When we celebrate together as a parish family, we are reminded of
the social nature of sinthat every sin, even the most private
and personal sin, has implications for the larger community. In
addition, when we celebrate Reconciliation with others, we are more
clearly reminded of our obligation to "forgive those who trespass
against us" even as we ask God to forgive us our trespasses.
Interpersonal forgiveness and reconciliation
are part of the hoped-for outcomes of this sacrament. Christianity
stresses the relation of the "horizontal" and the "vertical"interpersonal
forgiveness and divine forgiveness. "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"
SAME FOUR MOVEMENTS
But whether one celebrates Reconciliation communally
or individually, the corporate dimension of the sacrament remains.
In the individual rite, the priest represents the whole Church.
In either case, the sacrament has the same basic, ritual shapea
shape it receives from the Eucharist. The Eucharist is not only
one of seven, it is the model and source of all the sacramentsthey
take not only their meaning but also their shape from the Eucharist.
The external "shape" (outward sign) of the Eucharist is that of
Think of a typical Thanksgiving dinner. There are
four movements: 1) we come together; 2) we tell our stories and
review what has happened since we were last together; 3) we move
to the table and eat; 4) then we take our leave and go our separate
ways. These are the four movements of the Eucharist: 1) gathering;
2) storytelling (the Liturgy of the Word); 3) meal sharing (bringing
the bread and wine to the altar, the Eucharistic Prayer and the
Communion Rite); and 4) commissioning (the dismissal, announcements,
etc.). The reformed rite for the Sacrament of Reconciliation has
this same fourfold structure.
1) We gather and come together as a worshiping
form the Body
2) We get in touch with the sacred story (as revealed in Scripture),
which has formed us as a people and
which leads us to reform
our lives and do penance.
3) We celebrate God's forgiveness for Reconciliation.
4) We turn to the world with our resolve to follow more closely
the way of the gospel, to amend
our lives, do penance and sin
The most important thing that happens in
the Sacrament of Reconciliation is what Jesus does. While the examination
of conscience, sorrow for sin, telling the sins to the priest and
acts of satisfaction are all important elements on our part, the
key to understanding the sacrament today is to focus on God's part.
The Sacrament celebrates God's gift of reconciliation and peace.
Next: The Future of the Papacy (by
William H. Shannon)