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Reconciliation: The Lost Sacrament Print E-mail
By David G. Bonagura, Jr.   
Monday, 22 February 2010

Last summer, as distant church bells tolled at 12:00 p.m., I heard a group of ladies recall stopping to pray the Angelus as Catholic grammar school students. One said she could not remember the prayer’s words. Another replied that she could barely remember the words of the Act of Contrition. The first rejoined, “But we don’t need to know the Act of Contrition anymore. No one goes to confession these days.”

She was right about that last point: compared to the number of people at Sunday Mass, penitents at Saturday confession today are very sparse indeed. But the comment conveys something more profound: the Act of Contrition now seems irrelevant because so many Catholics have lost a sense of sin. If there is no sin, then the sacrament of reconciliation – also called penance or confession – that was given by Christ to forgive sins and to reconcile the sinner with God – to say nothing of Christ’s Cross – all seem curious oddities.

On this page, Brad Miner has described the contemporary loss of the sense of sin, just as, in a different way, Pope John Paul II did twenty-five years ago. According to John Paul, a “sense of sin” is “an acute perception of the seeds of death contained in sin” that the Christian mind has developed from man’s closeness to God and immersion in the Gospel. In the pope’s analogy, a sense of sin is the thermometer of man’s moral conscience. Today the thermometer does not register the presence of sin because sin has been clouded over by social sciences that blame unjust social structures for our ills. Lingering guilt pangs should be treated in therapy. The tide of secularism and sexual license have also contributed to consigning sin to the dusty recesses of the Church’s past, so that in today’s dictatorship of relativism the only sin one can commit is to call someone else’s act a sin.

In this atmosphere, how are Catholics to understand the sacrament of reconciliation? The triumph of the therapeutic has not diminished suffering in the world and in individual lives. Individuals still make deliberately wrong choices that inflict pain and harm on themselves and others. Catholics call these choices sins because they transgress God’s order. To sin is to choose our way over God’s. Our sins cause the kind of pain and suffering that, as Miner wrote, affirm we need more than treatment: we need salvation. That is, we need something from outside of ourselves to save us, to lift us up, and grant us true and certain peace. Enter Jesus Christ and the sacrament of reconciliation.

Since Vatican II, the Church has called this sacrament “reconciliation” to emphasize its role in restoring one’s relationship with God. Sin, depending on its gravity (venial or mortal), damages or even destroys one’s relationship with God. Through the ministry of the Church (“Whose sins you shall forgive. . .”), Christ Himself established this sacrament whereby one receives forgiveness and is restored to harmony with God. The sacrament requires three acts by the penitent (the one seeking forgiveness): first, contrition (genuine sorrow for sins committed and the resolution to sin no more; this is the fruit of examining one’s conscience); second, confession of sins to a priest; and third, penance (prayers or works done to make reparation for the confessed sins). The priest, acting in the name of Christ Himself, imparts absolution, by which confessed sins are pardoned forever.

It is often asked why Catholics must confess their sins to a priest rather than directly to God. The answer lies in the very nature of sacraments themselves: sacraments are visible human signs of God transmitting invisible grace to man. When penitents confess their sins to a priest, through the words of absolution – the “visible” sign – they know without doubt that God has forgiven their sins. Even if penitents still feel some remorse or guilt, their souls have been washed clean in the Precious Blood of Christ that was poured out on the Cross. (What was the Crucifixion about if not to redeem us from sin?) They have the Church’s guarantee that this is so. Those who confess their sins “directly to God” receive no such assurance. Just as God the Father sacrificed His Son to make us visibly certain of His love for us, Christ has established the sacrament of reconciliation to make us visibly certain of His forgiveness of our sins.

It is common today to consign serious sins – and therefore the sacrament of reconciliation – to murderers and bank robbers. There’s no need, it seems, for a “good person” to go to confession. St. Thomas Aquinas and countless other saints assert the opposite. Reconciliation is a sacramental step toward living a holy life, and as a result we should seek it often. Because by examining our consciences and confessing regularly, we see where we must improve on the long road of Christian charity. The sacrament of reconciliation, in addition to forgiving sins, also imparts spiritual strength to grow in virtue and witness for the faith.

As we know, the Devil’s greatest trick was convincing the world he does not exist. Satan has done himself one better in short-circuiting our belief in sin. Recovering a sense of sin is vital for full appreciation of Jesus’ love for us, and His mission of reconciling us with God – which we relive each time we approach the sacrament of reconciliation.


David G. Bonagura, Jr. is associate editor of The University Bookman. This is the seventh column in a series on the sacraments of the Church

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Comments (15)Add Comment
In awe of this sacrement
written by David W. Rusch, February 23, 2010
Several years ago I began a journey in the faith that was forged for me by this sacrement. There is no other way that I know of that could lift me to the height of joy and peace that I experienced. I tell you that reconcillation saved my life. Let it save yours also.
written by John, February 23, 2010
Excellent article. I think the Church--at least in America--is to blame. In my diocese, the average parish offers the sacrament only once a week for a half hour duration. How are Catholics supposed to take this seriously if they aren't given much access to the sacrament?
Who is to Blame?
written by William H. Phelan, February 23, 2010
Pius XII cited the loss of the sense of sin in 1946. The drop off in confessional practice began when John XXIII called for the "Birth Control Commission" in the 1960s. Penitents were told to "follow their own consciences", Mortal sins , contraception was one, which could cause eternal damnation, became "grave matter" with indefinite results. We were told , we have to believe in Hell, but we do not have to believe anyone is there. The Church is a discredited witness sitting in the dock.
New book
written by Fr. Paul J. Keller, O.P., February 23, 2010
Excellent point on the the age of the therapeutic as not having resolved the real issue: sin. I have a book coming out in May on the sacraments of healing. It deals with issues from A to Z on Penance and Anointing of the Sick; it addresses the issues you raise in this article and so much more.
written by Dennis Bartlett, February 23, 2010
Half the grace of this sacrament is its availability. No light in the confessional, obviously nobody will go. Saturday afternoon only? Why not before or after Mass every day? What priest is there that is unavailble for such for a quarter hour a day? Word gets around and penitents will show. Our parish recently instituted confessions on Wednesday morning. It took awhile, but now there are plenty of "clients" each Wednesday. Keep that light on. People will find their way back.
What is Sin?
written by Willie, February 23, 2010
Well, this is a piece that should be inserted in every Church bulletin. How did we get so many holy people receiving Communion since Vatican II? It's certainly not because the confession lines got longer. It is certainly not because there is less sin. It is noteworthy also that only 30% of Catholics believe in the Real Presence.
written by Joseph, February 23, 2010
I've not been to confession in years but still consider myself Catholic. I live in a rural area where priests are not readily available. I confess my sins daily "directly to God," but the author asserts there is no "assurance" that this is as effective in cleansing one of sin. Yet there are many Bible passages, including many of the Psalms, are prayers for forgiveness. There is One Mediator between Man and God. Ask and you shall receive...Grace abounds if we ask.
Priests and sin
written by Kevin in Texas, February 23, 2010
Excellent points, Mr. Bonagura. From my own anecdotal. experiences, as an orthodox Catholic who has lived in 7 different dioceses across the U.S. and even in Spain, it seems to me that many middle-aged and older priests themselves don't hold fast to clear Church teachings on sin, and among those, most also show this lack of faith in the way they administer Confession. Rushed confessions, hackneyed and trite penances, no time to speak with, question and advise penitents, etc. By their fruits...
Midnight light
written by Chris, February 23, 2010
There are many things I love about my parish, but confession is high on the list. We had a visiting priest from India a couple of years ago who was with us for a year. In his farewell sermon, he noted the many things he had learned and experiences he had with us. One of the most notable he said was that, in our parish, you could turn on the light in the confessional at midnight and have a line within ten minutes. The life of our parish revolves around reception of the sacraments and it shows
Confession and Communion
written by Thibaud, February 23, 2010
As the Catechism says (§1324) : "The Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life. The other sacraments are bound up with the Eucharist and are oriented toward it". One of the role (the most important, I dare say) of Confession is to free us of mortal sin (which is not limited to murder and theft) so that we may receive the Holy Eucharist in adequate condition. I noticed that the priests in my parish (in Paris, France) tended to emphasize this point lately during the homily.
Confession by Appt.
written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., February 23, 2010
Recently a priest told me falsely that the Sacrament of Penance is based soley on one verse from James: Confess your sins to another. Then I noticed the sign on his chaple bulletin board: "confessions by appointment." Welcome to the world of Vatican III! (Yes III) Now, Dear Joseph, please ask yourself why Our Savior gave us the Sacrament. Yes, I know that some reply that Penance is human rather than Divine in origin. They are called Protestants.
Saying it aloud
written by Jo Ann, February 24, 2010
As a Catholic who recently reconciled with her Church, I can attest that by confessing my sin out loud to our parish priest, I know I received absolution in a way that my private prayers failed to accomplish. I realized that until I had the courage to confess, I wasn't sufficiently penitent. Contrite yes, but with the Sacrament came finally, resolution.
Salvation vReconciliation
written by Brandon, February 25, 2010
I found this an informative post. I have grown up in protestant churches, with little emphasis on formal sacraments such as Reconciliation. I'm curious though, you mention salvation here. My interpretation is that you're saying Salvation is an initial and permanent act, and reconciliation is intended to maintain a strong relationship with our Savior, but not necessarily Salvation itself. Is this a correct thought? Thanks!
written by Kevin in Texas, February 25, 2010
Hi Brandon--No; briefly, Catholics believe that Christ died for our sins and offered salvation for all who profess belief in Him and live rightly, receive the Sacraments, etc. If one dies in a state of sin (i.e., has a mortal sin that is unconfessed to a priest), then one may not be saved. God is merciful, but He has given us the Sacraments as direct, efficacious means of giving us saving grace, so we need to receive them. Sin pushes us away from God/Christ, but Confession restores us via grace.
Agreement in toto
written by thesteppingstones, March 07, 2010
Your presentation of this subject is very well written. You address a singularly difficult topic and deal with it rationally and succinctly. I particularly liked your handling of the loss of the belief in sin. This loss then would obviate the necessity to go to Confession. Keep up the good work.

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