The Sacrament of Reconciliation… Hmmm, just what do these ‘big’ words actually mean? Let’s take this time to unpack their meaning.
First, “sacrament”. Do you love somebody – parents, spouse, children, and friends? Now, how do these persons experience your loving affection and commitment towards them? Well, perhaps, you tell them that you love them, you hug them, you spend time with them, you help them with homework and you share a meal together. In this case, the gift of your love for these persons does not simply remain in your heart but it is outwardly expressed in very concrete and palpable ways. In simple terms, we can understand the word ‘sacrament’ as the concrete and palpable ways by which your love is actually and really expressed.
In John 3:16, God expresses His love for the world, for us: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” You see – God’s love for us is not something that God keeps to Himself. In Jesus Christ, the love of God for all humanity finds its most concrete and palpable expression. Here, we can say that Jesus Christ is the sacrament of the love of God.
In his public ministry, Jesus used very concrete and palpable ways to make known to people the love that God has for them: he cured their diseases, he fed them, he taught them about God the Father, and, of course, Jesus allowed them to experience God’s love and mercy by calling them to repentance and forgiving their sins. And Jesus, because he is God, is able to forgive sins (see Mark 2:1-12).
Moreover, Jesus shared and entrusted to the Apostles his special ministry of making known and experienced God’s love and mercy (see John 20:22-23; also Matthew 16:16-19). That the Church continues to celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation even today is our way of acknowledging the real gift of God’s love and mercy for us, and of remaining true to this great responsibility that Jesus gave us.
Now, “reconciliation.” Remember baptism? In that sacrament, we were invited by God to share in His divine life – to be called His sons and daughters. In the same sacrament, we acknowledged such a generous invitation by accepting God to be our Father. In baptism, we begin to live as members of God’s family. As sons and daughters of God, we are called to become like God, holy (Leviticus 11:45) and perfect (Matthew 5:48).
To be holy and perfect is a tall invitation but by God’s grace, it is possible to be holy and perfect – the reason why we recognize countless saints in the church. There are times, however, when we give in to temptation and end up committing sin – which is an offense against God because sin disrupts our relationship with God (Rite of Penance). But God’s love and mercy is for the sinner (Luke 5:32). God unceasingly calls us, not to condemn but to save, through
repentance – to humbly and honestly recognize our sins and failures;
contrition – to be really sorry for hurting God and others because of our sins,
penance – to concretely show in our thoughts, words and actions our ‘yes’ to God and our ‘no’ to evil. In this sacrament, we receive
absolution – our sins are forgiven by God through Jesus in the ministry of the priest, and therefore, we are once more reconciled with God and one another, the Church.
Before I studied and prepared for the priesthood, I myself did not frequently receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Back then, I merely found myself burdened by my repetitive confession of the same sins. I was wondering if God was really forgiving me. But in the seminary, as we were encouraged to receive the Sacrament at least once a month, I experienced a radical transformation!
As I brought my sins to my confessor, I also encountered God’s love and mercy. And the more I brought my sins to the confessional, all the more that God allowed me to experience His love and mercy. I would even say that God overwhelmed me with His love and mercy. And this very experience of God’s love and mercy enabled me to develop a real hatred for sin (contrition), to the point of being sick to my stomach on account of my sins. That God kept welcoming me, a penitent sinner, with His love and mercy provided me with so much encouragement that I began to deliberately choose to live the goodness of God in my life.
Through the sacrament, God was allowing me to experience His love and mercy so that I may really learn how to be loving and merciful. The grace of the sacrament has not only allowed for my sins to be forgiven (absolution in the confessional) but has also been at work in the gradual transformation of my life (my way of living outside the confessional).
Preparing to Receive the Sacrament
When I prepare to receive the sacrament, I now ask myself, “How am I holier this time than the last time I celebrated the sacrament?” By asking this simple question, I become attentive as to how I live my life as one loved and forgiven by God. So instead of just being burdened by sin (which is the natural effect of sin), I am also and more attuned to the God who is only too willing to continually set me free from such burden (the evil one may tempt us to forget this bigger reality).
Now that I hear confessions, I find that penitents respond positively when I challenge them to also ask the same question to themselves. Frequently, I hear a tone of joy as I hear them say, “Father, I am getting better!” or “Father, I feel holier than the last time I was here!” In this sense, the sacrament is truly a celebration because God sets us free from sin and eternal death. In our journey to God, making the sacrament of reconciliation an integral part of our life is truly a stepping-stone to holiness and perfection. Through this wonderful sacrament of divine love and mercy, “God called us out of darkness into His wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9).
To have some concrete help in the examination of our conscience, I invite you to visit the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ website. On the website are examinations of conscience that are specifically tailored
(i) for married persons
(ii) for single people
(iii) for young adults
(iv) for children
(v) in light of Catholic social teachings
May God, who enlightens every heart, help you to know your sins and help you to trust in His mercy. (Rite of Penance)