A Reflection on the Sacrament of Reconciliation


For several years, the Diocese of Bridgeport has sponsored Reconciliation Monday.[1]  Held at the beginning of Holy Week, various parishes throughout the entire diocese offer additional time for confessions.  Thousands of confessions have been heard during these hours as many take advantage of the increased availability and confessors for one last sacramental preparation before the Triduum begins on Thursday.  Those who take advantage of the opportunity may avail themselves of the sacrament weekly or monthly already.  For some it is a chance for an annual observance.  For others, and not a small group, it is the first time celebrating the sacrament in several years or a decade or even several decades.  To the priest sitting in the places as the instrument of grace and mediator between the mercy of the Lord Jesus Christ and one of his brothers or sisters, one of the tremendous joys in his ministry is when a person, after a prolonged absence from the sacrament, returns.  The increased opportunity and promotion of the sacrament on the natural level, combined with the supernatural impetus of grace, leads many to rediscover the beauty and power of the sacrament of reconciliation, yet reconciliation is offered throughout the entire year.  The purpose of this reflection on the sacrament is two-fold.  The first motivation is to teach and reflect upon the sacrament, approaching some of its basic elements as a means to help the faithful to understand it more.  The second motivation is inspiration, to inspire those who have been away for some time to return and those who have received the grace and mercy in the sacrament more recently to consider more frequent confession.  In order to accomplish these goals and carry out the reflection, we will focus upon the most powerful words in the celebration of the sacrament: the prayer of absolution.

God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.[2]

God the Father of mercies

The prayer of absolution begins by stating how any of this is possible: mercy.  “God the Father of mercies.”  The sacrament of reconciliation exists because it is offered as a gift.  Mercy is never a given, but is always a gift.  We can reflect upon personal experiences to help us appreciate the gratuity of God’s mercy.  Perhaps we have been in situations when someone wronged us severely or in a minor way and we wished to hold on to the grudge, the hurt and the wrong.  It was not something that we wished to set aside, forget or forgive.  Hopefully we made the choice to forgive in the end, but the period of consideration and deliberation about whether or not to forgive shows us that it is not to be assumed or guaranteed. It is the same with our God who promises His mercy and love, each and every time, even if offered as part of the promise.  It is a gift to us no matter where we are with our faith.  To understand the sheer gift of re-creation that is present in the sacrament of reconciliation by God’s grace, we can recall how the act of creation is another example, the primary example, of the mercy of God.

God lacks nothing. Before the creation of anything, when there was nothing, not anything at all, God was and was perfect in Himself.  Father, Son and Spirit, the eternal relations that exist within the divine nature, were perfect, satisfied and needed nothing else.  Out of the nothing, for God exists beyond the something of time and place, God created in complete freedom, without any compulsion or need placed upon Him.  God created us not out of loneliness or something that was missing and was looking for it to be filled.  God created freely, out of love, to have other beings share in the goodness of existence, life and love.  The act of creation, beginning with the universe and culminating generally with human beings and specifically with each and every one of us, is an act of God’s mercy, a free choice that did not need to happen and yet here we are.  The merciful God who creates is the same God who wants us to share in the goodness of a life in union with Him as the Trinity, who recreates over and over again in the sacrament of reconciliation.  We are not entitled to forgiveness.  It is not to be taken lightly.  The aforementioned approach or attitude can be another sin, that of presumption, by which we choose to sin or to continue sinning because we have the opportunity of forgiveness in the sacrament and will pursue reconciliation at a later point.  To recognize that our existence is itself already not necessary and a mercy and gift from our God, entitlement can be combatted with gratitude for the fact that we were freely loved into existence and freely offered the opportunity to be recreated in the sacrament over and over again.

Through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself

Every celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation is possible and has effect because of the Paschal Mystery, which is solemnly celebrated and presented to the Church during the Sacred Triduum of Holy Thursday through Easter Sunday.  At every normal offering of the Mass, the Lamb of God (Agnus Dei) is chanted or recited.  “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.”  The Lord Jesus is the Lamb of God who was prefigured by the lambs offered in Exodus.  God instructed Moses for each Hebrew family to slaughter a lamb that will be consumed as a meal during the Passover and that the blood from that same lamb should be painted across the doorway to spare the deaths of the firstborn males in the homes.  The blood of the lamb will save God’s people from death.

In the New Testament, John the Baptist sees the Lord Jesus and declares, “Behold the Lamb of God!”[3]  The true lamb, anticipated in Exodus, has the power to save not simply from a natural death, but can save all those who are anointed by his blood from eternal death.  Sin, whether the lesser venial sin or more serious mortal sin, respectively, either distances one from God or breaks the relationship and communion of the person with God.  It is a choice against that which is good and the source of all goodness found in our God.  As sin separates, in order to overcome that separation one who is in communion must save and retrieve.  We find this in the God-Man, Jesus Christ.

All of humanity was separated from God by the initial sinful choice of Adam and Eve.  Since that time, man continued to affirm again and again that separation with each subsequent sin and found himself in a seemingly hopeless situation for he was unable by his own power and ability to undo the separation and overcome his weakness.  Our merciful God once again freely choose to share life with us and renew our weary nature.  By the Incarnation, the Son of God joins himself to our nature and thus to all human beings in some way and accomplishes what we could only dream to happen: to bridge the infinite chasm that was created by sin, for as the Son and in perfect communion as God with the Father and Spirit, he possessed the ability to return man to communion.  In a marvelous manner, though, he does not simply restore but recreates and renews such that our human nature is changed, granted the capacity to receive the divine life (i.e. grace) and thus not only exist in a new union with God but also possess a new ability to combat and overcome our sinful shortcomings.  The Resurrection of Easter Sunday that follows the Cross of Good Friday is the renewal of life and human nature that follows from the defeat of sin by his triumphant death.   Thus, the sacrament of reconciliation does not disappear in the Easter Season, but rather remains present and can be celebrated every single day for it is the acceptance and appropriation over and over again of the Cross and empty tomb.  When our Risen Lord appears to his disciples, he sheds light upon that which he proclaimed before his death and what was present in the Old Testament.  Forgiveness of sin does not disappear after Easter for it was precisely to save humanity from its sin that our Lord died.  “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”[4]

And sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins

On the evening of his Resurrection, the Lord Jesus appeared to the Apostles gathered in the upper room and said, “’Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.  Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.’”[5]  Fifty days after Easter at Pentecost, the promised Spirit descended upon those gathered in the Upper Room and changed them.  A new force, strength, wisdom and impulse was given that impelled the disciples to go out.  The Spirit changed their lives, causing them to go out just as our Lord commanded them to do, even in the face of opposition and the unknown.  The same Spirit that serves as a new force in the lives of believers helps the Christian to embrace our Lord’s teachings and mission by helping to unite or reunite the disciple to the Lord through the forgiveness of sin.  The Spirit overcomes the separation and division brought about by sin not by overlooking it or pretending that it did not happen, rather the Spirit overcomes the negative consequences of sin by the act of mercy that forgives sin when asked and thus reestablishes communion or deepens the already existent communion with the Lord.  The disciple, having found the power of love in God’s forgiveness of sins, brings the experience and message to others so that they may be freed from the tyranny and oppression brought about by sin, especially if they fail to realize the impact upon their lives.

Through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace

Forgiveness is accomplished by the Lord.  In the Scriptures, the Lord Jesus presents himself as divine by his activity of forgiving sins.  It was speaking in the name of God, who alone can forgive, that aggravated the authorities and led to claims of blasphemy.  The Lord’s will to forgive and capacity to forgive was entrusted to the Church.  “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”[6]  The Apostles accepted this gift to the Church, carried it out and passed it on faithfully.  It is through the ministry of the Church today that the gift of forgiveness of sin is accomplished ordinarily for the disciple of Jesus Christ.  Can the Lord forgive outside of the sacrament?  Absolutely, for grace is not restricted to the sacraments, rather it is promised to be offered in their faithful celebration, but what guarantee is found to the personal, private request that is made?  Likewise, how does one know for sure that his or her sins were forgiven?  In contrast, the Church has understood her privileged place as the guardian of the sacraments and guarantor of the full transmission of the divine life that is grace and in the celebration of the sacrament, the words of the priest clearly state the reality accomplished: “I absolve you from your sins.”

And I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

These are the essential words of the minister that make or break the sacrament.  The gift of forgiveness is given with these words and, without them, the sacrament does not take place.  The source and one active in the act of forgiveness is invoked and stated clearly.  It is the Blessed Trinity with the names of Father, Son and Spirit called upon to accomplish the task of reconciliation.  The work is brought about through the priest.  He is the means and instrument.  Without these words, the sacrament would be invalid, meaning that it was not celebrated.  Each sacrament has certain conditions to protect its integrity and ensure that the minimum of what is essential to the sacrament is present.  For example, the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist requires the necessary matter or material of bread and wine that was made according to certain norms and the words spoken by a priest during the Mass “This is my body” and “This is the chalice of my blood.”  While the words of absolution are necessary from the perspective of the minister, the Christian coming to receive the grace of the sacrament has certain expectations that must be met in order for the sacrament to be what it is and accomplish its purpose for existing.  In order to achieve the fullness of the sacrament, the penitent should prepare adequately and must not hold back any mortal sins and possesses contrition and a desire to stop sinning.

Adequate preparation means that the penitent has taken time to reflect upon what he or she brings to the sacrament.  All mortal sins committed since the last confession must be confessed and any venial sins may be confessed, although for the sake of completion and to help achieve along with the supernatural forgiveness healing on a natural level, it is good to bring all that one can to the confession.  If there was anything forgotten in a previous confession and remembered after the fact, it is also good to mention those forgotten sins in the current confession.  An Examination of Conscience is a tool or aid to assist the penitent to make a thorough confession.  There are many that are available, for example, “A Guide to Confession” put out by the Knights of Columbus that includes some information, a how-to of the sacrament and the examination ( Taking the Ten Commandments and Precepts of the Church, this examination, like many others, offers questions for the person to ask and consider.  Upon completion of a review of the questions and some time considering their answers, one is ready to confess.

The need to prepare is for the betterment of the penitent.  To be as complete as possible allows for the Christian to acknowledge all the areas in his or her life, both those that need attention and growth through forgiveness in the sacrament and those that do not because the Lord has been at work there already.  Preparation is not intended to bring down the penitent but rather to liberate and uplift, both through the forgiveness that is accomplished in the sacrament and the affirmation of areas of growth already accomplished in the ongoing transformation being accomplished by the Spirit in his or her life.  In order to shed light in all areas of one’s life, as stated above, it is necessary to confess all mortal sins.  As mortal sin is the choice to carry out a significant wrong (grave matter, as proposed by the Ten Commandments) while knowing that it is wrong and still making the choice to do the wrong anyway, the restoration of union that is brought about in the sacrament requires the choice and act of the will that specifies the wrong and asks for it to be forgiven.  If one deliberately withholds a mortal sin, the sacrament will not be valid for it is as if one has gone to a doctor, only revealed part of his or her medical condition and expected a full recovery.  Not only is it better naturally and psychologically to admit, present and leave behind whatever sin is causing such shame, supernaturally is necessary for forgiveness following the logic that the Lord allows us the free choice in favor of Him or toward some lesser good.  The confession of all mortal sins is the free choice that requests forgiveness and healing and presents the ill to the Divine Physician.

The other necessary component for the penitent is contrition and a detachment from sin.  Perfect contrition is the recognition of the offense caused by one’s sin, a sorrow for it and a desire to be reconciled.  Not all or not at all times is perfect contrition present, but at least some form of contrition, even an imperfect contrition that seeks out the sacrament for fear of eternal separation from God that can occur if one were to die in the state of separation while on earth, is sufficient.  Either way, some form of contrition is necessary, just as a desire to not sin must be present, which makes sense.  It is disingenuous to apologize for something, ask for forgiveness and yet intend and plan to achieve a known sin in the near future.  We are going to fall short and sin again because of our weakness.  In fact, the more often that we celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation, the more likely we will realize more occasions of faltering in our lives and opportunities that require the divine aid of the sacrament.  I cannot apologize for a future wrong that I intend to do and be genuine, thus I cannot be forgiven if the attachment to sin persists in the sacrament.  As will be prayed in some form during the act of contrition, one must possess a resolve and intention not to sin again.


At the beginning of the holy season of Lent, the Church hears the echoes from the prophet Joel proclaimed on Ash Wednesday.  “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; Rend your heart, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God.  For gracious and merciful is he, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment.”[7]  The context of the original words of the prophet were delivered amidst a locust infestation that harmed the crop.  The people failed to see that the harm done was a work of the Lord in order to provide the impetus for the people to choose Him in the midst of their lives and to live for Him.  The prophet’s mantle falls upon Joel in order to teach, motivate and assist the people to embrace their noble call as sons and daughters of God.  They need to move from the lesser things and instead choose God, and in this choice for Him, they will find their fulfillment and happiness.  It is not too late for them to convert and return with their whole hearts and being.  This call to repentance and ongoing conversion, while emphasized and spoken more clearly in the season of preparation that is Lent, is not reserved solely for that time, but is a treasure of the Church for all times.  For those who recently returned to the sacrament after a prolonged absence of many years or those who seek an annual fulfillment in Lent or those who go but are not sure when and why exactly or anyone, now is just as good a time as any to return to Him and receive the inexhaustible life that Holy Mother Church continues to provide in the sacraments, especially through the sacrament of reconciliation.  The Church carries out this work in fidelity to the mission given to her by her Head and Lord who showed to the Apostles gathered together in the Upper Room on that first Easter Sunday that his wounds which were consequences of sin held no power over him or anyone, for he conquered and today desires to encounter us and conquer sin over and over again in our hearts, minds and souls through the sacrament of Reconciliation.

Father Michael Novajosky

[1] Several names are used interchangeably by many to describe the same sacrament: Reconciliation, Penance, Confession.  Each of the names highlights a different aspect of the sacrament.  The penitent confesses his or her sins as part of the sacrament’s celebration.  Penance is prescribed and to be accomplished by the penitent in order to make amends for the sins and in gratitude for the gift of forgiveness.  A valid celebration of the sacrament results in the reconciliation between God and His creation.  The different names may be used in the course of this reflection but are describing the same sacrament.

[2] The prayer of absolution is different according to the older ritual.  While this reflection will focus upon the newer version, the older one is included here for reference and since it is still used by members of the clergy and lay faithful in the diocese even today.  The English translation of the official Latin prayer: May our Lord Jesus Christ absolve thee; and by His very authority do I absolve thee from every bond of excommunication, suspension and interdict, in so far as lies within my power and thou hast need of it.  Furthermore, I absolve thee from thy sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, (+) and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[3] John 1:29

[4] Luke 24:46-47

[5] John 20:22-23

[6] Ibid.

[7] Joel 2:12-13