I was baptized when I was a baby but not raised as a Catholic. My parents were young when they had me, and I was a sick child with a variety of different needs. Overall, my parents were more concerned with diapers and doctor visits than getting me catechized. I do not hold this against them. They chose life, and for that I am grateful. Above all, my spiritual life began with the gift of Baptism.
How did this non-catechized Catholic, then, find his home in the Church? Simple: the Sacrament of Confession. In October of 2004, the Holy Spirit nudged me into weekly Mass attendance. As I was learning about the Mass, I began to receive other catechetical lessons from people at the Catholic Campus ministry on my college campus. One evening the group hosted a local priest named Fr. Alexander Sample (now Archbishop of the Diocese of Portland, Oregon) who gave us a talk on Confession.
Prior to that, I was aware of this sacrament and had witnessed others going to it, but I had never received it. Fr. Sample’s words that evening struck my heart, revealing to me that I could be healed. In the following weeks I made plans to go to Confession, but it was not until two big guys and a pushy woman took me to the Cathedral of the Marquette Diocese, which was on the other side of town, that I was finally able to make my First Confession. After receiving the sacrament, I felt something in the depths of my gut that I had never known before: peace, and a freedom that helped me to sense the beauty of the very air I was breathing.
For the first time in my life I was able to taste the utter sweetness of the Spirit’s fruits through the Sacrament of Penance, and since that moment I have received the sacrament regularly (twice a month). I also discovered my vocation to the priesthood through this sacrament and now, as a priest, I continue to share the healing and merciful love of the Lord in the way it was given to me many years ago. As a priest, as minister of mercy, I am beginning to appreciate the utter beauty of the sign of absolution spoken over the penitent within the celebration of the sacrament.
“God, the Father of Mercies…”
In the introduction to the Rite of Penance absolution is called a sign. Signs always point to something else; they give direction for a journey. A sign coveys, guides, and does something for the person who receives it. Consequently, in the context of confession, the penitent is given a sacramental sign of absolution by which God conveys His pardon to a sinner who manifests his changed heart to the Church’s ordained minister.
The beginning of this sign of absolution is God’s mercy. After the penitent makes his contrition known, God’s mercy envelops him; the first words of the sign are “God, the Father of Mercies….” Like the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son, God the Father runs toward us with mercy to bring each of us back into Himself through the Church. In the sacrament, it is as if He is bending over us like a loving Father. This movement of God is made known in a physical way by the priest raising his hand in absolution over the penitent. This is why mercy is seen as a reward. Within the Sacrament of Confession, we not only know, but also, see the embrace between a converted heart and our Father’s mercy.
“Through the death and resurrection of His Son…”
Our merciful Father shows and gives us His mercy through His Word and Son, Jesus Christ. Through pride, our first parents Adam and Eve lost the ability to walk with God in the Garden of Eden. Parents cannot give what they do not possess, and so sin entered the world. The human heart turned away from God and in on itself. Salvation history is a long story of humanity’s fall into sin and reconciliation with the Father. In this history we can begin to grasp the Person and work of Christ. It was by His obedience to the Father that Christ embraced death on the Cross, and by love for God’s creation He rose from the dead. In His Paschal Mystery we see Christ opening His heart to the world. His open heart made it possible once again for the heart of each person to be turned back to and open to God.
The open heart is the place in which humanity once again walks with the Father, as if we had returned to Eden and walked with Him in the Garden. Christ’s open heart is the gate through which absolution flows. The sign of absolution expresses the insight of St. Paul: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us …” (2 Corinthians 5:18-19). Reconciliation is fundamentally the reestablishment of a relationship, not merely the relationship between man and God, but the relationship between a community and God, formed in, by, and through Christ. Paul uses the first person plural pronouns “we” and “us” to speak of this community. God extends the message of Christ’s reconciliation through this community into and throughout the world, as St. Teresa of Avila notes when she says, “Christ has no hands but yours now.” Christ and the gift of salvation through His act of reconciliation is now enfleshed in the Church, His body, in order that He may be known to all the world.
“He sent the Holy Spirit for the forgiveness of sins…”
Christ’s saving and reconciling mercy is given through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the love of God that came to rest upon the humanity of Christ at His baptism making each act of Christ a Spirit-filled act. Reconciliation, then, comes by Christ, in the Father, through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit’s role in reconciliation is made manifest by Christ in the Upper Room after His Resurrection: Christ breathes on the disciples imparting to them the Holy Spirit. Through Christ’s forgiveness, their hearts are open to receive His gift of the Spirit, the love of God, through whom they are appointed to continue the work of reconciling men to God and to one other through the forgiveness of their sins. The Holy Spirit breaks the chains of sin that bind hearts that are broken, an image invoked by the word Christ used to convey that forgiveness: “absolution” (John 20:23). Breaking free of the chains of sin is a constant reminder of the power of the Holy Spirit.
“Through the ministry of the Church…”
Throughout this whole sign of absolution, we see the Trinitarian movement – Father, Son, and Spirit – within the act of reconciliation. But God’s community also has a role and place within reconciliation. In John’s Gospel and in Paul’s 2nd Letter to the Corinthians, we see the communitarian aspect of reconciliation, namely that God chose to make His reconciliation known within the Church, the Body of Christ. When Christ encountered His disciples in the Upper Room, He handed on this Sacrament of Reconciliation to them to be continued within the life of the Church. Thus, every time someone receives forgiveness through the Sacrament of Confession, the Church is acting through her ministers. Likewise, the Church manifests and proclaims her faith in Christ through the celebration of the sacrament while also giving Him thanks for the gift of freedom He gained for the members of His body. By the sacramental action and grace of Confession, the separated brother or sister is brought back into Christ’s Body, just as the father of the Prodigal Son brought his wayward son back into his household. Through reconciliation, penitents are received in love, making it possible for the gift of God’s pardon to be known in their hearts. By this forgiveness the fruit of peace may once again take hold of their hearts. It is my experience that even though the sacrament begins with tears, it ends with joy (Psalm 126:6).
“And I absolve you of your sins…”
Within the words “I absolve you,” Christ’s act of reconciliation in the Upper Room is fully manifested, for through His priests, He makes His saving voice and heart known to the penitent. The priest is not his own. He has been ordained to care for the Body of Christ. That is why during his ordination the will of the people of God must be made known through a positive sign of affirmation. The people must acknowledge that this man is acceptable to them. This usually takes place through the seminary rector or religious superior speaking for the people. A priest is called by God and affirmed by the people so that he may be about the work of Christ within the Church.
When he speaks the words, “I absolve you,” the penitent is released from his sins, and the gift of freedom to live as a child of God within the Church is restored. No longer is the penitent walking alone in the world; he is now brought back into the flock regaining his place within the Body of Christ. In the light of the Church’s role in the work of reconciliation, the Sacrament of Confession can never be seen in an individualistic way. Why? Because the sacrament also brings about a wholeness between the sinner and the community that longed for his return. The fullness of our Christian discipleship can only be understood, realized, and lived out to its fullness through the Body of Christ, the Church. It is within the Church that the tension which exists in the world between the “I” and the “we” is resolved. Hence, where there was once tension there is now peace, a peace that is founded in and nourished by the love of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The Trinitarian formula
As the sign of absolution brings the penitent into the saving presence of the Persons of the Trinity – by Whom reconciliation is possible – the sign ends with the invocation of the Trinity. Just as the three divine Persons were invoked over each Catholic at Baptism, so the Trinity is invoked again for reconciliation allowing the person to once again regain his place as a member of the Church. Through absolution, the penitent regains his seat at the Lord’s table. As the Church is sustained by her bridegroom Jesus, and guided by His Spirit of love, the person begins once again to “taste and see the good things of the Lord” (Psalm 34:8). The joy they are offered through Christ’s presence on the altar is never solely a personal joy, but that of the Church, for the Church rejoices at each celebration of her bridegroom. The Trinitarian reconciliation that is offered to each person by the Church brings about the blessed beauty and reality that Christ longed for here on earth: “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11). Through God’s message and act of reconciliation, our sins do not have the last word, for through Christ, our God of love now has the last word.
The soul that walks in love neither rests nor grows tired. ~ St. John of the Cross