A Note From Fr. Timothy
The Sacrament of Reconciliation
This Sunday (4/24) is Divine Mercy Sunday. This celebration was formally established for the Second Sunday of Easter, concluding the Easter Octave, by Pope St. John Paul II in the year 2000. Part of his goal in focusing on the Divine Mercy of Jesus on the Sunday after Easter is so that we might more closely connect God’s mercy with the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus died to forgive us our sins. He rose from the dead to bring us to new holiness of life in the Spirit. Receiving the sacrament of reconciliation on or near Divine Mercy Sunday helps us to experience this connection and all that God does for us.
To help us prepare our hearts and lives for the sacrament of reconciliation, it is good to reflect on the sacrament itself and what the Church teaches about it.
First, and perhaps most importantly, is that one of the Precepts of the Church is to go to confession at least once a year, which prepares us for the Eucharist and continues Baptism’s work of conversion and forgiveness (cf. CCC 2042). The precepts of the Church are positive laws [they instruct us to do something rather than forbid something] which set out the bare minimum every Catholic must do (unless prevented by some particular serious circumstance). If you have never heard of the precepts of the Church or would like a reminder, please open your Catechism of the Catholic Church beginning at number 2041 for the other precepts and why they are important.
Second, we should look at the minimum parts of the sacrament that must happen for it to be valid. If the sacrament is not valid, then its effects have not taken place – in this case, if the sacrament of penance is not valid the penitent is not actually absolved from their sins. And if they still have unconfessed mortal sins on their soul, they are still blocked from receiving the grace of God which can transform their lives. This is obviously a huge deal, and so we should all be aware of those necessary parts and make sure they are observed every time we go to confession.
“An individual, complete confession and the receiving of absolution constitute the sole, ordinary means for a member of the faithful who is conscious of serious sin to be reconciled with God and the Church” (The Rites I, Penance, 31). In the sacrament of confession, the penitent must individually confess to the priest all grave sins they can remember since their last confession. If someone were to omit mentioning any grave sin out of embarrassment, for example, that person cannot be validly absolved from their sins. The penitent must also have contrition [sorrow] for their sins and at least some intention to try to avoid committing those sins in the future.
The Code of Canon Law and The Rites make very clear that general absolution without individual confession should only be used in extreme cases, usually requiring permission from the bishop. Even then, in order for a general absolution to be valid, the faithful receiving must be properly disposed and have the resolution to individually confess each of their serious sins in the near future (cf. CIC, can. 962).
Finally, absolution must be received. The priest (and it must be a priest) must pray the prayer of absolution over the penitent, the most important lines of which are: I ABSOLVE YOU FROM YOUR SINS IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER AND OF THE SON AND OF THE HOLY SPIRIT. It is not necessary that you hear the priest say this or understand him (he could say it in another language), but those words must be said. If the priest were to change, add, or omit any words in the absolution, the sacrament would be invalid.
Make sure you are aware of these things when you go to confession – not to be obsessed with them, but to make sure that the effects of the sacrament are taking place and you might experience true forgiveness of sins, and praise God for the Divine Mercy he has shown us.
Fr. Timothy Gapinski