June 15, 2010
Sacrament of Reconciliation and the Eucharist
The Eucharistic sacrifice is the source and summit of Christian life (Lumen Gentium 11). As the source, all sacramental graces flow from the primordial sacrament which is Jesus Christ, and all sacraments are intimately tied to the celebration of the Eucharist. As the mystical Body of Christ, it is the whole community which celebrates the liturgy (CCC 1140). When we sin, we damage our relationship with God. When we freely consent to commit a grave sin with full knowledge of its sinful nature, we sever our relationship with God and no longer have access to these sacramental graces. But God, in His infinite mercy, has given us a way to restore our relationship with Him: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness,” (1 John 1:9 Revised Standard Version).
I think it is important to take a moment and reflect upon to whom we are supposed to confess our sins. When appearing to the apostles after the Resurrection, Jesus tells them, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained,” (John 20:23). The Church has understood this to mean that we should confess our sins to the priests, who share in the authority passed down from the apostles for the binding and loosing of sins. The Catechism tells us more about this special duty of the presbyters and bishops:
The ordained ministry or ministerial priesthood is at the service of the baptismal priesthood. The ordained priesthood guarantees that it is really Christ who acts in the sacraments through the Holy Spirit for the Church. The saving mission entrusted by the Father to his incarnate Son was committed to the apostles and through them to their successors: they receive the Spirit of Jesus to act in his name and in his person. The ordained minister is the sacramental bond that ties the liturgical action to what the apostles said and did and, through them, to the words and actions of Christ, the source and foundation of the sacraments, (CCC 1120).
What it is saying is that through the ministry and particular charism of the ordained priesthood, our liturgy has efficacy by the power of the Holy Spirit to unite us with the graces freely offered to us by our Father, to enable us to grow in holiness so that one day we may enter into the divine life of the Trinity.
The priesthood is a wonderful vehicle for understanding the mystery of how the Sacrament of Reconciliation relates to the celebration of the Eucharist, perhaps especially in the analogy of the Good Shepherd. Jesus uses this analogy to instruct the disciples,
“I am the door of the sheep…, if any one enters by me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture…. I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again,” (John 10:8-17).
Here, He is talking about sacrifice, access to the divine life, and the gathering of people as duties specific to the shepherd. Already, we can see an interweaving of the sacraments of reconciliation and Eucharist. In the laying down of His life, our Shepherd, by His action on the cross, has made it so that our sins could be forgiven. It is precisely this sacrifice that we experience in the confessional when our sins are forgiven, and it is precisely this sacrifice to which we are made contemporary at Mass. In the confessional, we are reconciled with God and restore our relationship with Him as adopted sons and daughters, as sheep passing through the door of the Lord into the life of the Trinity. By partaking of the Eucharist, we are taking the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of the Lord into ourselves and uniting ourselves with all the sheep in all of the folds into the one flock, the one Body of Christ. “I know my own and my own know me…,” can be seen as a dialogue between the two sacraments. In confession, we pour out our innermost selves to the priest standing in personae Christi – we let God know us. In the liturgy of the Word, the Lord speaks to us – He tells us of Himself. It is true that God is all-knowing and doesn’t need our verbalization to know us in all respects, but there is a stronger bond of love formed when self-truth is proclaimed willingly, when we make ourselves humble and vulnerable.
The shepherd views feeding the sheep, protecting the sheep and seeking after lost sheep as all aspects of what it means to be a shepherd. He seeks after the lost, brings them back into the fold and feeds and cares for them. In an analogous way, the priest reaches out to the people, reconciles them back to God in the sacrament of penance and feeds them at the celebration of the Eucharist. Just as sheep left alone will scatter, so too do we, especially if we absent ourselves from the sacraments, tend to drift away from the Lord and into sin. We are in constant need of conversion and a restoration of our relationship with God after we have sinned, and a strengthening in Him and in one another as affected in the Eucharist. “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects,” (James 5:16).
The two sacraments of the Eucharist and Penance are very closely connected. Because the Eucharist makes present the redeeming sacrifice of the Cross, perpetuating it sacramentally, it naturally gives rise to a continuous need for conversion, for a personal response to the appeal made by Saint Paul to the Christians of Corinth: “We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:20). If a Christian’s conscience is burdened by serious sin, then the path of penance through the sacrament of Reconciliation becomes necessary for full participation in the Eucharistic Sacrifice, (McCarthy, 2003, p.67).
All of our lives should be devoted to continual conversion as we strive towards greater unity with God and each other. We do this in many ways as we “share in the sufferings of Christ, [endure our] own difficulties, carry out works of mercy and charity, and adopt ever more fully the outlook of the Gospel message,” (ROP 2). We acknowledge the fact of our continued need for conversion especially during the Act of Penitence in the Introductory Rite, where we confess that we are sinners, and ask pardon of God and of our neighbors (ROP 4). In this statement, we recognize the fact that our sins are not private, but that “one person’s sin harms the rest even as one person’s goodness enriches them,” (ROP 5). “Basing itself on scripture and tradition, [Vatican II] teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church,” (Lumen Gentium 14). All of the faithful comprise the Body of Christ, but this is most evident during Mass when “the priest stands at the chair and, together with the whole gathering, makes the Sign of the Cross. Then he signifies the presence of the Lord to the community gathered there by means of the Greeting. By this Greeting and the people’s response, the mystery of the Church gathered together is made manifest,” (GIRM 50). Because this gathering of the faithful as Church is a sacrament of unity and because we most fully enter into that unity of the Body of Christ when we feed from the one loaf, it is most important that “…if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift,” because there can be no division within the Body of Christ (Matthew 5:23-24).
Because we cannot have division within the Body of Christ, whether between ourselves and God or between ourselves and our brother, we have a particular responsibility to equip all the faithful with the tools that they need for continual conversion. It is our responsibility as Church to ensure that the faithful are properly catechized in our faith. This is primarily the responsibility of parents as the primary educators of their children, but cannot be neglected by any member of the Church as we all work to further understand the mysteries contained within the Deposit of Faith and grow in holiness. As stated in Lumen Gentium previously, “the Church is necessary for salvation,” (14). Because of this, we are called to proclaim the Gospel to all we come across, bringing people into the community of the Church, for the salvation of all mankind. Evangelization is a requirement and a priority for Christians. Further, we have a duty to properly form our consciences so that we can live holy lives and avoid sin wherever possible. Reflecting upon an Examination of Conscience, usually done prior to the celebration of the Sacrament of Penance, can be a useful tool to help us see where we have fallen short of God’s ideal, but we should approach life being constantly aware that we are to be a light to others. Our faith is not something which happens once a week at Mass, but rather at all times in all places. Because our sins are not personal but affect our community, perhaps it is most fitting that we do celebrate the Sacrament of Penance at times in community, so as to highlight to the faithful this aspect of unity.
Since the Sacrament of Penance and the Sacrament of the Eucharist are so closely linked, it is helpful to have the liturgies be available in chronological proximity, so that one may be reconciled to God and then feed on Him and be welcomed back into the unity of the Body of Christ. For this reason, and also to highlight the connection between the sacraments, many parishes have adopted the practice of having scheduled times for Reconciliation on Saturday, to prepare the faithful for the Sunday liturgy. Some parishes have set aside time prior to every Mass for the celebration of Reconciliation; and most parishes/dioceses plan for communal penance services with individual confession and absolution, particularly in the seasons of Advent and Lent.
Elements of the Sacrament of Penance can be seen in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, beginning with the Act of Penitence which can contain the Confiteor and Kyrie Eleison. “This rite concludes with the priest’s absolution, which, however, lacks the efficacy of the Sacrament of Penance,” (ROP 51). While it does lack the efficacy of the sacrament, it serves to remind us of our sinful nature, to draw our hearts to conversion and to foster a sense of connection and unity within the congregation. In the Presentation of the Gifts, we offer our entire selves back to God, in response to His sacrifice which has freed us from the bonds of sin. “The priest then washes his hands at the side of the altar, a rite that is an expression of his desire for interior purification,” (GIRM 76). While not a prayer that the lay faithful say with the priest, it is an appropriate time for each person to ask God for his own interior purification prior to receiving the Eucharist. “In the Lord’s Prayer a petition is made for daily food, which for Christians means preeminently the Eucharistic bread, and also for purification from sin, so that what is holy may, in fact, be given to those who are holy,” (GIRM 81). The Rite of Peace which follows not only asks for the Lord’s peace to be given to us, but also allows for us to exchange our peace with our neighbors – in a way an “I forgive you” to the “I’m sorry” of the Confiteor – and a recognition of our unity, prior to the reception of the Eucharist, which is the penultimate symbol of our unity. Just after the fractioning, the faithful along with the priest pray, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed,” again calling to mind our sinful nature and continual need for humility, conversion and reconciliation, yet prayed in hope and knowledge of the Lord’s mercy, (Bouley, 1992, p. 292; GIRM 84). “As often as the sacrifice of the cross by which ‘Christ our Pasch is sacrificed’ (1 Cor 5:7) is celebrated on the altar, the work of our redemption is carried out,” (Lumen Gentium 3).
Similarly, elements of the Sacrament of the Eucharist can be seen in the Sacrament of Penance, beginning with the greeting of the penitent by the priest and the Sign of the Cross. This is then followed by the reading of the Word of God. Through the ordained ministry of the priest and by the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ is the one who hears our confession and forgives us of our sins. The Sacrament of Penance reconciles us back into the life of the Church and makes us ready to participate in the worship of the Church. In order to be properly disposed to receive the Eucharist, the rite calls first for the penitent to have a genuine sense of contrition, “which is ‘heartfelt sorrow and aversion for the sin committed along with the intention of sinning no more.’,” (ROP 6). In light of this sincere conversion of heart, the penitent will confess his sins to the priest after undergoing a thorough examination of conscience. “Confession requires on the penitent’s part the will to open the heart to the minister of God and on the minister’s part a spiritual judgment by which, acting in the person of Christ, he pronounces his decision of forgiveness or retention of sins in accord with the power of the keys,” (ROP 6). This interchange between the penitent and the priest is essential, because this is not a work of the penitent or a work of the priest, but rather an encounter with the living God. “True conversion is completed by expiation for the sins committed, by amendment of life, and also by rectifying injuries done,” (ROP 6). The penances given during Reconciliation should work to fix any relationships, with God and with neighbor, which have been damaged by the sin and should help the penitent to grow in holiness. It is most appropriate that the penance would be related to the sin committed and, if possible, be an action rooted in the corresponding virtue to that sin. Just as Christ manifests as the Blessed Sacrament so as to join with us physically, He also through the laying on of hands encounters us in the Sacrament of Penance, precisely at the time He tells the penitent, through the words of the priest, of his absolution of their sins (ROP 6). Because this event of our reconciliation is made possible because of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, the celebration of the sacrament is also a celebration of the Paschal mystery, (Martinez, 2003, p. 197). We are given access to the same mystery which is re-presented to us at every Mass. With individual Reconciliation, there is, perhaps, more of a realization of the fact that God was crucified for you, by name. At Mass, the nuance is more towards the realization that God came for all. There is not a dichotomy between the two ideas, rather both are appropriate to the understanding of Christ’s Passion.
In conclusion, the two sacraments of Penance and Eucharist are intimately linked. They flow into and through each other as the Sacrament of Penance re-establishes a right relationship with the people and God and prepares them for the reception of the Eucharist; while the Sacrament of the Eucharist points people to their eschatological end and reminds them of the continual conversion necessary to reach this end and enter into the divine life of the Trinity. Tying them both together is the presbyter, standing in the place of the Good Shepherd, as
Christ places the lost sheep on his shoulders and brings them back to the sheepfold, and the Holy Spirit resanctifies those who are the temple of God or dwells more fully in them. The expression of all this is the sharing in the Lord’s table, begun again or made more ardent; such a return of children from afar brings great rejoicing at the banquet of God’s Church, (ROP 6).
Bouley, A. Ed. (1992). Catholic Rites Today: Abridged Texts for Students. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press.
Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), 1994. New York, NY: Doubleday.
Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium. Vatican II, November 21, 1964.
General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), 1975.
McCarthy, B. (2003). The Eucharist. Goleta, CA: Queenship Publishing.
Rite of Penance (ROP), 1973.