Reconciliation, a Sacrament of Healing

by Sue Widemark

MS» Okay, riddle me this, Sue...why do you Roman Catholics go to penance for your sins? Isn't Penance a "work"?

No it isn't. Penance is a prayer that we say to help us to not sin anymore and also to tell God that we are sorry. It's like our part of the Sacrament because God always requires a small act of Faith when He gives us Sacramental Grace. Reconciliation (or as it used to be called, confession) is a sacrament in which Jesus, through the priest, forgives us our sins.

In the case of small everyday sins, we don't have to seek Reconciliation - we can ask for forgiveness and should do so (the daily 'examination of conscience' is one spiritual exercise for this.) However, as shall be shown later, Reconciliation as a healing sacrament, is helpful, even for small sins because any sin hurts the soul since 'sin is death' and also, a rip in the Fabric of God's Perfect Plan, Divine Providence.

However, in the case of very serious sins, the church feels a more formal action (other than just asking for forgiveness on our own) is required. First of all, with a very serious sin (like abortion), the church warns the individual that the sin they have committed is SO serious that they need to take a formal action to insure that have taken the necessary steps to plead forgiveness from God. The church wants to tell the person that if they continue in their present path without taking a very formal action, their future in Heaven may be in danger because our future in Heaven requires us to say "Yes" to God but when we have committed a very serious sin, we have, in effect, turned away from God's Salvation. Serious (formerly called 'mortal') sins include our willful termination of human life such as abortion.

In order to protect its members, when an individual has committed a very serious life threatening sin, the church takes an action called 'ExCommunication'. This is simply the church telling the individual that the sins s/he has committed may be in effect, saying "NO" to God's offer of salvation and thus be endangering his/her future in Heaven. And that until the individual take formal steps to insure he or she has asked forgiveness, the person cannot partake in the Sacraments of the church (other than Reconciliation). This is the way the church warns us for our own protection. It is like the church formally saying that we are no longer in a 'state of grace' (Heaven-bound) and may be seriously endangering ourselves. The church is telling us additionally that since we have said "NO" to God in such a serious manner, we may be aligned with evil and in such a state, we cannot, according to the Bible, receive the Sacraments without serious repercussions.

Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. (1Cor:11:27)
Asking forgiveness from God, according to the Bible, requires three steps.

First, we must be truly sorry for our sins and want forgiveness from God. Truly sorry means that if in the same situation again, (say if we had an unplanned pregnancy), we are determined to NOT commit the same sin. i.e. if we are saying that we didn't think there was any other choice etc, we are not TRULY sorry. Not in the Heavenly sense. Because we are still saying that our will is more important than Divine Providence.

Second, we are required, according to the Bible, to seek forgiveness of our fellow church members, because we have sinned against them also. A sin hurts many - not just the sinner. For example, what if an outsider sees a Catholic girl have an abortion - wouldn't that outsider tend to think badly of the individual's church as well as the individual? Even if the outsider were 'pro choice', she or he might say "Well, look at the hypocritical Catholic church - they say they are pro-life but then I know a Catholic who has just had an abortion!" Haven't you heard such things many times? I know I have!

Third, we are asked to 'make restitution' for our sins to our fellow Christian brothers and sisters.

Each step in the forgiveness process is not as easy as it looks. It is hard to judge in ourselves if we are TRULY sorry for our sins, truly sorry as to not want to commit the sin again. And since there are 9 billion Catholics in the world, even narrowly thinking that our sin only hurt our Catholic brothers and sisters (and this is not true - our sin has hurt all Christians!), how do we fulfill what is asked of us in the Bible and go to each one and ask their forgiveness. And finally, how do we make restitution to each of those we have sinned against? For example, if we have had an abortion, we have sinned terribly against our unborn baby, perhaps endangering his or her future in Heaven (the church does not know what God does in this instance because God is merciful, but according to the Bible, an unbaptized individual cannot go to Heaven). How do we 'make it up' to our unborn child for our wanton murder and termination of his or her life?

Reconciliation was not invented by the church fathers as some have said. It was actually invented by Jesus when in John, Jesus told the disciples:
And when he had said this, he breathed on [them], and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost: Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; [and] whose soever [sins] ye retain, they are retained. (John 20:22,23)

This gave His Apostles (and those ordained by them and their successors) the power to forgive sins on behalf of God.

It's not that other Christians do not feel this power. Haven't ministers like Billy Graham told an assembly of people (after they said they were sorry for their sins, a part of the so-called 'sinner's prayer') that they were forgiven their sins? Surely they are drawing on this Bible passage for an assurance of that ability.

In the early church, sinners confessed their sins publically and in some churches (other than the Catholic) they still do.

What the Catholic church invented, to be more sensitive to the feelings of people was AURICULAR confession i.e. the so called Private Confession. (It was so embarrassing to stand up in front of the congregation and confess that many early church members proceeded in their sins, denying themselves the Sacraments, until they were on their deathbed!), The church invented this way of following what Jesus told us in the Bible in order to let people know that this was not meant to be an embarrassing thing but a healing sacrament, that it was something we should all partake of, from time to time and not wait because we feel so embarrassed. In the earlier versions of private confession, the priest only heard the voice of the person but did not even know who was confessing sins to him.

These days, face to face confession is the usual way things are done and again, even in that kind of confession, albeit, private, people are STILL very embarrassed to come often like they did when confession was in the old confessional box where the priest could not see the confessor.

So why did Jesus want this formal forgiveness of sins to take place. The following are some possible reasons and as you shall see, it is a wonderful and healing thing for us that things are done this way. And even if we are not in 'serious sin', we might consider partaking of this healing Sacrament anyway because ANY sin is injurious to our souls and threatens our closeness with God (not withstanding that small sins tend to lead to -not-so-small- sins).


1. Helps us to forgive ourselves by having a human being confirm that God has, indeed, forgiven us. We don't usually hear the voice of God. But after we have told the priest that we are truly sorry, he has been empowered to tell us (with the authority of Jesus) that our sins HAVE been forgiven. Often in confession, God inspires the priest to give us a private message which really sooths our sin-hurt heart! Try it and you will see.

2. Helps us to forgive ourselves by Jesus giving us special grace through the Sacrament. Jesus is the one really conferring the Sacrament of Reconciliation and He touches us in a special way which helps us to accept ourselves and forgive ourselves of the sin which is weighing our hearts down. In the case of a serious sin, this Grace is something we basically can not do without. Without this special Grace, we might do as Judas did and despair of our sin. You can see this happening in many women who have aborted, who are grieving about it years after. If they would only go to Jesus and accept His Divine Help. Another reason why the church 'requires' us to go to Reconciliation after we have committed a serious sin. For our own good and our own healing. The church is there to HELP us!

Sometimes in Reconciliation now, the priest will lay his hands on our hand to let us know about that Special Grace Jesus is giving us in the Sacrament.

Some say the Catholic church is a church which inspires guilt in people. But in reality, the guilt comes from our own conscience. It is the church which helps us to SHED our guilt by reminding us that if we ask for forgiveness, we are truly forgiven in the Blood of the Lamb. Often though, we need much Divine Help to quiet our guilt inside. Reconciliation gives us this help we need!

3. We are told to make amends to those we sin against but a Catholic has sinned against his/her church too (people can judge our church by our actions). The priest forgives us as an official representative of the Catholic church on the behalf of the millions of Catholics 'out there' since we cannot go to each individual and ask forgiveness. In the case of an abortion, where we CANNOT make restitution to the party most hurt, our unborn child, the priest forgives us on the BEHALF of our unborn child by the authority given him by Jesus. What mother's aching heart will not be comforted by this Sweet Touch of Jesus!

4. Special Sacramental grace is given us to help us to avoid sinning again. This is very important. We might be so determined to not sin again but then something comes up and we might be tempted to fall into sin again. Remember the Bible says:

"Watch and pray that you might not enter into temptation: The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak!" (Matt 26:41)

The Sacrament of Reconciliation insures that we receive a special Grace to help us to avoid committing the sin again.

5. It's psychologically beneficial to be able to discuss our sins in a formal atmosphere of love and forgiveness. There is quite a case to be made that often our guilt causes serious psychological problems and that being able to shed our guilt may help us to stay more psychologically well than someone not able to do this. Shedding our guilt often takes help from God as it is too immense for us to handle alone, especially guilt from serious sins against humanity like abortion.

How are we forgiven in Reconciliation? Through Our Lord's Supreme Sacrifice on the Cross. Through the Blood of the Lamb, our souls are made clean and white again just like they were after Baptism. This means we have formally again told God "YES" that we DO want to go to Heaven! This does not mean that we will not suffer 'temporal punishment' for our sins. Scripture tells us:
Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift. Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing. (Matt 6:23-26)

Temporal punishment is God allowing us to feel PARTIALLY, how our sin has hurt others - the repercussions of our sinful act. (we would not be able to continue living if He allowed us to feel it all). We feel God allows this, not to be cruel to us but simply to help us remember that a sin is a terrible thing. As we are human, born in Original Sin, don't you find it easy to forget how terrible a thing a sin is? I know I forget this all too often!

This forgiveness and healing is all ours, just for the asking. Why not consider feeling Jesus' touch of healing and forgiveness? Consider going to Reconciliation soon. You will be glad you did!

Sue Widemark