Article 110 – Catechism of the Catholic Church Series
Paragraphs 1420-1433 Jesus’s titles are many throughout the New Testament. One highlighted in this section of the Catechism is Jesus as “physician.” Specifically, Jesus is referred to as the “physician of our souls and bodies,” who forgave the sins of the paralytic and restored him to bodily health (ccc 1421). The Catechism explains that Jesus “willed that his Church continue, in the power of the Holy Spirit, his work of healing and salvation “…This is the purpose of the two sacraments of healing which includes: “the sacrament of Penance and the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick” (ccc 1421).
Our focus is the Sacrament of Penance, whereby we obtain pardon from God “for the offense committed against him” (ccc 1422). The Catechism teaches that those receiving this sacrament are also “reconciled with the Church which they have wounded by their sins” (ccc 1422).
The official name of this first sacrament of healing is the Sacrament of Penance. Why? Because, the Catechism tells us, “it consecrates the Christian sinner’s personal and ecclesial steps of conversion, penance, and satisfaction” (ccc 1422).
Other names or titles given to the Sacrament of Penance include the following four identified in the Catechism: 1. Sacrament of Conversion: “because it makes sacramentally present Jesus’ call to conversion, the first step in returning to the Father from whom one has strayed by sin” (ccc 1423).
2. Sacrament of Confession: “since the disclosure or confession of sins to a priest is an essential element of this sacrament. In a profound sense it is also a “confession” – acknowledgment and praise — of the holiness of God and of his mercy toward sinfulman” (ccc 1424). 3. Sacrament of Forgiveness: since by the priest’s sacramental absolution God grants the penitent “pardon and peace” (ccc 1424). 4. Sacrament of Reconciliation: “because it imparts to the sinner the love of God who reconciles” (ccc 1424).
One question often surfaces: Why is it necessary for us to receive the Sacrament of Penance when we already received the Sacrament of Baptism, which absolves all our sins? The answer is that Christ understood human nature very well and realized that around every corner there existed the temptation to turn away from the goodness of God by falling into sin. The Catechism puts it this way: “…the new life received in Christian initiation has not abolished the frailty and weakness of human nature, nor the inclination to sin that tradition calls concupiscence, which remains in the baptized…[as they] struggle [to live]…the Christian life. This is the struggle of conversion directed toward holiness and eternal life to which the Lord never ceases to call us” (ccc 1426). Conversion of life continues for the baptized. Although the Sacrament of Baptism is the principal sacrament whereby one “renounces evil and gains salvation” (ccc 1427), this sacrament is renewed each time we receive the Sacrament of Penance. As such, we receive the forgiveness of our sins and the gift of new life when we make a sincere examination of conscience, go to confes sion and receive absolution. The path of conversion is not just a human endeavor. It is the movement of a “contrite heart,” drawn and moved by grace to respond to the merciful love of God wholoved us first (ccc 1428). The work of conversion is first of all an interior act that involves the movement of the heart toward God. Interior conversion of heart, or interior repentance, is “a radical reorientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away from evil, with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed” (ccc 1431). This conversation of heart also entails “the desire and resolution to change one’s life, with hope in God’s mercy and trust in the help of his grace” (ccc 1431). Borrowing from Saint Augustine, I prefer to call this a “holy desire”, because the goal includes growing in greater holi- ness and love of God. Again, conversion of heart is not only a necessary step, but the first step necessary “in returning to the Father from whom one has strayed by sin” (ccc 1423). For all who take their baptisms seriously, nothing should stand in the way of the “work of the grace of God who makes our hearts return to him” (ccc 1432). With the prophet Jeremiah, to whom the authorship of the Book of Lamentations is traditionally ascribed, we pray: “Restore us to thyself, O Lord, that we may be restored” ( Lam 5:21).
How best can we seek and fi nd the conversion of heart that will restore us to that place we enjoyed immediately following our baptism? By looking upon him whom our sins have pierced and receiving his absolution through the post-baptismal Sacrament of Penance he lovingly gave us.
The Sacrament of Penance is one of the most beautiful, yet perhaps misunderstood sacraments of the Church. Given to us by Christ himself, this sacrament of healing is the first sacrament Jesus gave us after His Resurrection. Recall the words of the Risen Christ to the apostles: “Jesus said to them again, ‘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, ‘Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained’” ( Jn 20:19-23).
Without this sacrament, we have no assurance that the sins we commit after baptism are forgiven. We’d be outside God’s grace with no easy way to return to full communion with the Church. The Sacrament of Penance is the ordinary way to have our post-Baptismal sins forgiven. As Saint Ambrose put it: The Church “possesses both water and tears: the water of baptism, the tears of penance.”