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Sacraments: Penance

Sunday, May 13, 2012

“Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’” (John 20:21-23).

After his resurrection, Jesus shares his authority to forgive sins with his apostles, authority given by the Father. The Church inherits this authority, as the Apostles instructed their successors to continue this ministry of forgiveness. But, since Baptism washes away sin, gives us a share in Christ’s passion, and incorporates one into the Body of Christ, why do we need a Sacrament of Penance? Surely Christ’s death suffices for the forgiveness of sins once and for all.

The problem in connecting the Crucifixion “only” to one Sacrament, such as Baptism or the sacrifice of the Eucharist, is that one loses sight of the reality that the Paschal Mystery merits the grace flowing through all the Sacraments. The Church does not invent the Sacrament of Penance as a way of dealing with the inconvenient reality of post-baptismal sin. Rather, God, knowing the weakness of man’s condition provides the Sacrament of Penance as a means of reconciliation and sign of hope for the baptized.

While Christ’s death freed us from the bondage of sin, the bruises of those shackles still ache. And the pleasurable memory of false happiness brought on by sin still tempts us. When we celebrate the Sacrament of Penance, we seek the support of the priest both as a representative of Christ who forgives sins and as a representative of the community we have harmed by our sins.

As said above, a common criticism of Penance is that Jesus’s death atoned for our sins once and for all. Our sins can no longer control us, and there is no need to confess one’s sins to anyone so long as we profess faith in Christ as our Saviour. While this is an optimistic claim, this argument has certain flaws that Scripture corrects.

St James teaches, “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective” (5:16). James surely believes in the power of Christ’s death as atonement for our sins. He also believes, as we do, that Christ’s death destroyed sin and death once and for all. Yet, he still encourages us to seek healing for our sins.

This healing comes through the saving ministry Christ commanded his Church to continue through the gift and working of the Holy Spirit. In seeing the work of God in the Sacrament of Penance, one should look at the formula for absolution. The prayer clearly explains who is responsible for the forgiveness of sins:

God the Fatherof mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolveyou from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Anyone claiming that the penitent seeks forgiveness from the priest as any other man and not from God, or that the Church invented Penance as some form of moral leverage over sinners, should study the prayer closely. As the formula explains:

God the Father:
1. reconciled the world through the death and resurrection of his Son [note completed form in the verb “reconciled,” which holds true for the original Latin text reconciliavit].
2. sent the Holy Spirit for the forgiveness of sins [note that God sent the Spirit for the forgiveness of sins even after he reconciled the world to himself through Christ’s passion].

The Priest:
1. asks God to give pardon and peace through the ministry of the Church [note the priest asking God (i.e., praying for the penitent)…not the priest claiming to grant pardon through himself].
2. absolves sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit [note the only thing the priest does is absolve (i.e., state a declaration of freedom from sin)...and he does so by invocation of God].

The Church does not impose the Sacrament of Penance as a means of punishment or to embarrass sinners. Rather, the Church celebrates this gift of God that imparts Sanctifying Grace, which in the case of this Sacrament opens our intellect to seeing the true nature of sin and strengthens our will against falling into the practice of sin.

Augustine OP


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