The Sacrament of Penance and Reconcilation — Part One

This past weekend I attended a totally fabulous talk on this sacrament by Fr. Joseph Weiss, S.J., formerly of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy and department of theology. I make no claims for originality as I transcribe my notes, which are a mixture of my own thoughts and his.

It always helps to call to mind what a sacrament really is before delving into a particular sacrament. As one who “came home to Rome” as an adult, I have a long history of thinking of sacrament as ritual–a specific event or thing. I learned in RCIA that I was barely scratching the surface. Some better definitions:

A sacrament is an expression of the relationship between the Church and Christ.


The sacraments are encounters with the person of the risen Christ.


A sacrament is a peak moment to grab onto and to help us assimilate what God is offering (although God is always offering, and our imperfect participation in the sacraments does not affect that in the least)

My best example is this: I always thought the sacrament of marriage was a wedding ceremony. You “do” the sacrament, and then you’re done with it. Au contraire, mon frere! The sacrament is the marriage itself. The marriage is the physical, concrete expression of the relationship between Christ and His Church. Thus the prayer during the ceremony:

Send therefore your blessing upon these your servants, that they may so love, honor, and cherish each other in faithfulness and patience, in wisdom and true godliness, that their home may be a haven of blessing and peace.

And now we approach the reason why the Church reserves her sacraments for her members. Because Christ is the sacrament of God —

Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. (John 14:9)

And the church is the sacrament of Christ:

[S]he is the sacrament of Christ’s action at work in her through the mission of the Holy Spirit (CCC, 1118)

The seven sacraments, including the sacrament that I really am going to get to eventually, exist for the members of the church so that they can be sacrament for the world. We receive the sacraments not only for our own benefit but so that by being transformed by our encounter with the risen Christ we can become transformers in the world.

When we receive the sacrament of Reconcilation (understood to mean confession, penance, and absolution) we then must live the sacrament in order to be reconcilers in the world.

This is why going to confession is so much more than getting a fine from God the traffic cop or even a theraputic chat with an understanding priest. No wonder so few Catholics are going to confession these days — if that’s all I got from confession, I could surely find that on my own or stumble on without it.

Instead, the sacrament of Reconciliation is an essential requirement for assimilating oneself into the Body of Christ more and more perfectly. To riff on Paul, it’s no use for me to be the best and most pious, self-aware foot I can be if at any time I am not functioning as part of the One Body.

End of Part I

Coming soon:
Penance and the Early Church

Published in: on March 27, 2007 at 1:54 pm  Leave a Comment  

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