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The Roman Catholic Sacrament of Reconciliation, Research Paper Example

Pages: 5

Words: 1307

Research Paper

Biblical Context and Significance

The tradition of the Roman Catholic reconciliation, or confession, dates back to the founding of the church itself. This is hardly surprising; the faith of Roman Catholicism is essentially founded on the ongoing relationship between God and man, with particular emphasis on the fallibility of the latter and his need to atone for sins which, as a mortal, he will inevitably commit. In the eyes of the church, always, we are guilty of sin and, as Christ took upon Himself our sins to appease God, we gain salvation through a perpetual and voiced contrition.

The absolute need for the expression of remorse and the absolution which the officiating priest, acting as an agent of God, may deliver, is repeatedly stressed throughout the Bible. Most emphatically comes this appeal: “We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made Him who no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5: 20-21). Passages found in both Old and New Testaments echo the injunction, serving to remind the Catholic that only through this avenue of repentance and forgiveness can unity with God be achieved.

The significance of the confession ritual is lies at the heart of Roman Catholicism, historically and today, and its import is perhaps best understood when referred to, as it frequently is in the Bible, as the ‘reconciliation’. The word itself more precisely indicates that relationship aspect between God and man, pointing to an almost transactional nature, rather than the potentially one-sided interpreted ‘confession’. Two parties must be present for a reconciliation of any kind to occur, whereas a confession, strictly speaking, carries with it no intrinsic element of response. A confession may be an isolated, static act; a reconciliation is a process.

Despite substantial variations historically made in the penances for sins the confession requires, variations often dependent upon locale, political turmoil, and spiritual crises of specific eras, the ultimate chain of events upholds the significance, as it does today. The penitent Catholic  receives absolution for his sins through the priest who, again, may not convey this forgiveness through his own authority, but only as an agent of the divine will: “He is not an individual resting on his unaided powers, but the creature of his church, the representative of a vast power which girdles the Christian world” (Paulist Fathers 377). Only by means of an active observance of this necessity on the part of the Catholic can he maintain his identity as a Catholic; the sins committed are a given, as humanity is incapable of not sinning, and forgiveness may come only through God’s grace as conveyed through the priest.

Meanings and Interpretations of Reconciliation

It is interesting to note how the language of the sacrament has changed in popular usage. The Bible, again, does not refrain from frequently referring to the rite as ‘reconciliation’; “For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to Him through the death of His Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through His life!” (Romans 5:10). Yet Catholic adherents have more ordinarily spoken of the rite as ‘confessing’, or, more archaically, ‘penance’. The reasons behind the altered phrasing can be traced to how Catholic worship was viewed over the ages.

Simply, the mentalities regarding worship were of an extreme nature in centuries past, particularly during the Dark Ages and Medieval eras. Regular church attendance was mandated by the government in most European, Christian nations, but the sacrament of confession was not a regular procedure. “It was common that serious sinners asked for absolution only at the time of death” (Dues 157). By the close of the 10th century, exhortations were coming from the churches that confession be made at least three times yearly. Given the enormous role the Catholic church played in the lives of the societies extant, this is still an extraordinarily minimal amount, and it can be inferred that the weightier term of ‘confession’ seemed therefore more appropriate.

Ultimately, there is a gravity and finality to ‘confession’ absent in ‘reconciliation’. The latter implies an anticipated coming-together; the word has within it the sense that a former alliance may be set right after a rupture, and has no dire tone to it. The word ‘confession’ holds no such promise. It is merely a burden being set down, and with no inherent meaning of consequence, save in the tone of seriousness.

Ironically, ‘penance’ as a term seems to strike the right note between ‘confession’ and ‘reconciliation’, yet is least employed today and seen as most antiquated. ‘Penance’, however, conveys the necessary duality of meaning implicit in the sacrament. The word clearly expresses that a wrongdoing is to be addressed, and it means moreover that an act of contrition will be required to atone for it.

Administering of the Sacrament

While it is largely unknown to many Catholics today, the rites of confession and absolution were for many centuries public affairs. The confessional booth did not exist, and the officiating priest would, in a very real sense, issue a “blanket” absolution to his parish in attendance. Largely abolished by the fifth century, proponents of public confession are nonetheless still active today: “…The entire community of Christians should also make public confession whenever it has failed God’s ordinances…” (Kidder 288).

Nonetheless, the vast majority of Catholics today know and prefer the private sacrament, wherein there is closed communication between priest and penitent. “Since all sin is an individual and personal act, it is most fitting that the confession of sins also be individual and personal” (Geisler 20). Commonly the penitent addresses the priest through a small screen in the confessional chamber and is not seen. Based upon the gravity of the sins confessed, the priest immediately determines what form the penance must take in order for these sins to be absolved in the eyes of God, and real reconciliation take place. Typically, this involves a combination of reflection and the recitation of prayers.

Perhaps the most significant aspect to the ritual of confession is the shared humanity of priest and penitent. In confessing sin to another mortal, the sinner implicitly acknowledges the entire foundation of the Catholic church and this man’s divinely ordained right to act as a representative of divine authority. Built into this as well is the humanizing component seemingly at odds with divine power; the penitent knows his confessor is human, but the church knows this as well, and the greater scope of the fallibility of all of us is tacitly acknowledged. Only another human, or sinner, can understand the weight of carrying sin, yet only a human who has devoted himself to Christ can be a proper conduit to salvation.

Conclusion

The sacrament of confession, or reconciliation, endures as a vital element of the faith because it speaks to the very core of Roman Catholicism. The basis of the church has always been the recognition of Christ’s great act of sacrifice, wherein He took upon Himself the sins so horrific to God, and cleansed us in the process. Individual reconciliation carries the tradition on. In confessing, the Catholic admits to the breaches in faith he has committed and seeks to gain the favor with God his penance will bring about. He is then, in the truest sense, ‘reconciled’, for God, as understood by the church, seeks only this admission of sin to grant absolution through the means of His priestly emissary.

Works Cited

Dues, G. Catholic Customs and Traditions: A Popular Guide. New London, CT: Twenty-Third Publications, 1992. Print.

Geisler, Rev. M.  Guidebook for Confessors. New York, NY: Scepter Publishers, Inc., 2010. Print.

Kidder, A. S.  Making Confession, Hearing Confession: A History of the Cure of Souls. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2010. Print.

Paulist Fathers. The Episcopalian Confessional. The Catholic World, A Monthly Magazine of General Literature and Science.  April – September, 1868, Vol. VII, p. 372-379. New York,  NY: The Catholic Publication Society.

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