The sacrament of Reconciliation is one of the sacraments of healing and restoration. It celebrates the endlessly forgiving mercy of God and the change of heart of all those who turn back to God after sin. It celebrates too all the efforts at reconciliation inspired by God’s grace in which we are engaged throughout our lives with family, friends, and others.
The sacrament with many names
The sacrament of Reconciliation, also known as ‘Confession’ and ‘Penance’, is one of the sacraments of the Church which specifically continues Jesus’ ministry of healing and forgiveness of sin.
- It celebrates the endlessly forgiving mercy of God
- It brings about the reconciliation with God which it signifies.
- It celebrates the change of heart of all those who turn back to God after sin.
On our part the sacrament calls for repentance and conversion of heart, a turning away from sin and selfishness and a turning towards God and others.
This sacrament honours too, all the efforts at repentance and reconciliation, inspired by God’s grace, in which we are engaged throughout our lives with family, friends, and all those we encounter in the course of our lives. It is these aspects of reconciliation we will look at first.
Reconciliation and Life
The word ‘reconciliation’ itself means the drawing together of what is apart, fractured or unhealed. Almost everywhere we look, we see profound need for reconciliation:
- within families,
- within neighbourhoods,
- among nations,
- between racial and religious groups,
- within the self,
- with nature
- with God.
Hence this sacrament, and the hope, wholeness and peace it mediates has the capacity to be deeply relevant to each human being and to the world.
Reconciliation within the family
The most common scenario in which the need for reconciliation is experienced is within families. An Irish article looks at the basic ingredients of Family Reconciliation and steps that can be taken towards healing conflict within a family.
Reconciliation after being deeply wronged
Family forgiveness and reconciliation is one thing, forgiveness of crime and atrocity another. Journey towards Forgiveness is a site based on the stories of seven people who have chosen the journey to forgiveness in response to great wrongs they have suffered. Many articles and stories on this site explore both the meaning of human guilt and how forgiveness can change hearts. A page on another site explores the psychological value of forgiveness.
A broader canvas for Reconciliation
These stories and experiences suggest that human reconciliation can have an impact well beyond the individual. Articles by Archbishop Tutu, Mary Bryant on East Timor, Maria Harris on Jubilee Forgiveness, Nyunggai Warren Mundine on Aboriginal Reconciliation and a long article by Carlo Vallos talk about many different contexts global, social and national in which reconciliation is either taking place or is desperately needed.
- Tell a story, from your own family experience, of reconciliation. What had happened? How did you feel? What had to happen before friendship was restored? Who took the initiative in bringing about reconciliation?
- Look at the list of categories listed under the heading Reconciliation and Life. In each category list some of the issues that need reconciliation and brainstorm some possible solutions.
- Prepare mimes, collages or a PowerPoint presentation expressing aspects of
- hostility and anger
- hurt and brokenness
- forgiveness and reconciliation
- unity and harmony
- Produce a sound track that conveys these four aspects of human experience.
- Discuss the root cause of disharmony, broken relationships, envy, anger and bitterness? Why are these so universal?
- Why is forgiveness important?
- Debate the question ‘Is reconciliation the most important task of Christianity?’
- Listen to and discuss a song that has reconciliation as its theme.
- Do human beings need structures and rituals to bring about reconciliation? Using examples from your experience or of your own observation of how society works explain why or why not.
In God’s Story
The Old Testament
The book of Genesis tells the story of the creation of the world and of man and woman. Created in God’s image they are blessed, sent forth to be fruitful and fill the earth. Hence Genesis explains the origins of the world and of human beings in the loving creativity of a good God.
Further on in Genesis, the account of ‘the Fall’ (Genesis 3) offers an explanation as to why we do not always experience the world as an idyllic garden, why evil exists, why relationships are often characterised by disharmony and how it is that we are alienated and distanced from the God who made us ‘in his image and likeness’. The book of Genesis suggests that the human turning away from God results in the disruption of creation and is the origin of human sin and suffering and death.
The rest of the Jewish-Christian scripture is devoted to an account of God’s great desire for the reconciliation and rehabilitation of creation. Throughout history, especially through the covenants, leaders, laws and prophets of Israel, God offers guides and remedies for the rupture caused by sin and holds out to the human race the hope of reconciliation.
The New Testament
In the fullness of time it was God who in Jesus Christ finally accomplished this reconciliation. Jesus preached reconciliation, he practised it, he called people to it, he lived it and through the utterly faithful witness of his death and resurrection he brought it about. His obedience undid our disobedience. In Jesus, God absorbed human violence and sin and forgave it. Those who belong to the Body of Christ are called to do the same.
Jesus forgives and reconciles
Jesus began his public work with the proclamation of the Kingdom and a call to the repentance. A constant feature of his ministry was his extraordinary power to confront and deal with evil and among the signs he gave of the inauguration of the Kingdom of God were the healing of body and spirit of all who approached him.
Forgiveness and reconciliation – the key theme of the Gospels
All the gospels in their entirety are stories of the reconciliation of God and the world in and through Jesus. The whole point of the gospels is to show that “All (reconciliation) is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of handing on this rconciliation’ (2 Cor 5:18).
Three beloved stories of reconciliation often called ‘the gospel within the gospel’ occur in Chapter 15 of Luke. An Irish site Sacred Space contains a meditation on the ‘prodigal son’ parable. An article on Forgiveness in Matthew looks at one of the key themes of the gospel of Matthew.
Jesus empowers his followers to forgive and reconcile
“Receive the Holy Spirit whose sins you shall forgive, they shall be forgiven, whose sins you shall retain they shall be retained” (John 20: 22-23) is one of the key texts influencing the church’s understanding and practice of the sacrament of reconciliation. Jesus confers upon Peter and the church which he will lead, his own authority to bind and loose. In Matthew 18:18 this same authority, given first to Peter, is given to the other apostles and hence to their successors. Catholics also consider texts like Mark 2:1-12 and Matthew 16:18-19 to be among the scriptural grounds for the sacrament.
For further reading
Senior students and teachers would profit by an article Heart of Darkness in Abu Ghraib by Australia priest Brian Johnstone CsSR which takes as its starting point a reflection on the behaviour of the soldiers towards detainees in the Abu Ghraib prison and goes on to explore the nature of evil and its origins. It includes a brief reflection on the significance of Genesis 3 for an understanding of sin.
Another accessible article on the significance of the mysteries of the Incarnation and Redemption which are at the heart of reconciliation is Why did God want to become human? by Kenneth Overburg SJ while James Alison wrestles with the question of why Jesus had to die to save us in An Atonement Update – even the brief abstract of this article is helpful. The article itself is well worth careful reading.
- What do the creation stories in Genesis tell us about human origins and the origin of sin?
- Would you say that humans are essentially good or evil? Explain why.
- How would you use the Fall story to help explain sin to
- a 9 year old
- a group of parents at a sacrament information night
- a Year 9 RE class
- Compose the letter of thanks that the paralysed man may have sent to Jesus and/or prepare the report on Jesus’ actions and words presented by witnesses to a meeting of the Pharisees of the town.
- Choose an incident in the life of Jesus where he exercises his ministry of healing and reconciliation. Describe the impact on each of the characters in the story.
- Prepare an echo mime of one of the stories of reconciliation in Luke 15. What situations might Jesus have chosen to tell stories about to make his teaching clear in the twentyfirst century.
- Look at three depictions of Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son and explain which aspect of the parable each explores.
- Make puppets to tell the story of Zacchaeus. In what ways is this story a story about you?
- An integrated primary school program might allow for a reading of CS Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in English/literacy. This story has a fine account of redemptive self-giving which would help primary students grasp the redemptive and reconciling aspect of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Various sites explore the parallels; Gradesaver is one of them.
- How does James Alison explain the reconciliation with God brought about by the death of Jesus. What new insights into redemption does this article offer you?
In the Church’s Story
New Testament Times
We can see in the scriptures vestiges of evidence of how the early church dealt with personal sin and with those who separated themselves from the community through sin. Some texts, for example, James 5:16point to mutual confession and the making of peace among community members. Other texts like Matthew 18:15-17 and 1 Cor 5:1-2 in the New Testament show that the early church excluded public sinners whose lives or actions gave scandal. Some of these repented and wished to return, so the Church needed to devise means so that they could be reconciled to the community. Thus the stage was set for the further development of ways of ritualising repentance and reconciliation.
How the early church responded to the need for a process and ritual of forgiveness and reconciliation is illustrated in a collection of quotations from various prayers, sermons and teaching of Early Church writers. In addition a brief overall history puts Reconciliation in its historical context noting the stages in its development from references gleaned from scripture, all the way through to Vatican II.
A brief non-academic site provides a sketch of the development of the sacrament down the centuries while a personal reminiscence by Patricia Hampl evokes the celebration of the sacrament in the 1950s and concludes with her account of a more recent experience of the sacrament as it is often celebrated now. American Catholic site contains a whole suite of articles, brief and to the point, exploring different aspects of the sacrament of Reconciliation.
- Prepare a table showing the different stages in the development of the celebration of the Sacrament of Penance/Reconciliation over the 2000 years of Christianity. Use the years 50, 350, 950, 1450, 1850 and 2000 as marker dates.
- It is the year 249; imagine you have denied Christ and your faith during the persecution of Christians ordered by the Roman Emperor Decius. Describe how you are reconciled to the Church after the persecution finishes.
- Imagine that it is the year 954 in the market town of York. You are envious of the thriving business of a fellow baker. Rumours, begun by you, eventually cause him to lose his good name and his bakery declines. You repent of this and other sins; describe how you go about being reconciled to the Church (and the baker) in your parish.
- Look carefully at Roger Van Der Weyden’s altarpiece depicting the Seven Sacraments (Click to enlarge it). What does his painting tell us about the celebration of the sacrament of Penance in 1445?
- Ask some older people (60+) about how Penance was celebrated when they were your age.
A group of short accessible articles on the American Catholic site introduce various aspects of the renewed rite of Reconciliation and issues around it. One offers a perspective on
- sin, another explores
- the experience of forgiveness and its effect on changing people. Another concentrates on exploring
- the mercy of God revealed in the ‘prodigal son’ parable while yet another looks at how reconciliation and the forgiveness of sin is accomplished in
- the liturgical life of the Church including Mass.
A well set out question and answer article from St James Cathedral Seattle gives a simple 4 page introduction to the sacrament while an article by Fr Giles Dimock on the reformed rite is not recent but useful nevertheless.
For further readingTwo longer essays, one by well known sacramental theologian Peter Fink SJ, the other by Fr Paul Soukup entitled Theological Understandings of Reconciliation provide a more sophisticated introduction to the sacrament. The former provides a good introduction to the reformulated rites of reconciliation while the latter is particularly helpful for an understanding of the development of the theology of the sacrament.
In an interesting reflection, Mary Bryant proposes the stages in the structure of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, beginning with saying sorry, as a pattern for a process of reconciliation in public life.
A book review of Fr David Coffey’s The Sacrament of Penance which incorporates a brief reflection on Pope John Paul’s letter on the sacrament of Penance Misericordia Deidistinguishes two difficulties that may have contributed to the great falling away from the practice of this sacrament in the past 30 years. He suggests, firstly, that some are disillusioned with the sacrament and hence unwilling to submit their conscience to the Church and secondly, that the greater Christian maturity that the reformed rite requires of penitents means that many are simply unsure of how to approach the sacrament.
Reflecting and Responding
- Write some clues for a reconciliation crossword using some of these words: reconciliation/confession/mercy/penance/contrition/conscience/absolution/forgiveness/sin/mercy/satisfaction/reparation/guilt/rejoicing/
- This sacrament has been known as Penance, Confession and Reconciliation what does each name for the sacrament tell us about its nature and purpose. Which name do you think best suits it?
- Explain to a non-catholic friend why it is that Catholics confess their sins to and seek God’s forgiveness through the ministry of a priest.
- Traditionally four aspects of the sacrament of Reconciliation have been emphasised:
contrition – regretting or being sorry for destructive thoughts, words or deeds;
confession – naming,admitting and acknowledging them;
absolution – being granted forgiveness;
satisfaction – repairing or making up for wrongdoing.
People have suggested that this process is a good way to effect reconciliation in situations beyond the Church. Explain why you agree or disagree?
- Try to relate the four movements of the sacrament to real life situations that need reconciliation.
- At a time when counselling and therapy are widely used by people and shows like Oprah encourage disclosure of all kinds of private problems and issues, why is it that people feel diffident about the self disclosure of confession in the sacrament of Reconciliation?
Online Resources for the Classroom
The Faith First site provides an introduction to the celebration of the Rite of Reconciliation. It contains photographs as well as text and has separate sections for teachers and catechists, parents and younger and older children. A particularly helpful part is the ‘Walk through the Rite’ section. It is an attractive and well set out site.
An extra value of a warmly expressed pastoral letter on the sacrament of Reconciliation is the provision of brief reflection/discussion points at the end of each section.
The common question Why do we go to a priest for Confession? is answered for young people on the Lifeteen site.
Three short perspectives on sacramental preparation evenings might help you plan such sessions since they focus on different expectations people have of these gatherings.
The diocese of Beaumont has an online introduction to the sacraments and Reconciliation in particular that contains review questions which could assist in formulating your own response to the sacrament or might be useful in assessing class learning.
Two sites more helpful for secondary students on forgiveness and reconciliation are The Path to Forgiveness and Reconciliation and the Text week site which provides in its topical index lists of films that deal with themes of forgiveness and reconciliation. Finally you might find an examination of conscience in kids’ language helpful.