In this month of February, we will be turning our attention to many people’s least favorite sacrament: the Sacrament of Penance. This sacrament is also known as Reconciliation or Confession. Each title for this sacrament emphasizes a different aspect of the sacrament itself. However, in the official books, the sacrament is called “Penance.” I describe Penance as many people’s least favorite because of the hesitation and anxiety that can accompany the confession of one’s sins to Jesus through the priest. Sin is a dark and shameful thing, but it is good to bring it to the light so that Jesus can heal it. While challenging at times, this sacrament is a part of Jesus’ plan for his Church which we can see in the Scriptures.
We believe that Jesus began the Sacrament of Penance on the evening of Easter Sunday. Here is the passage found in John 20:19-23.
On the evening of that first day of the week, when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 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 to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”
Isn’t it amazing that the sacrament of Penance is a gift that Jesus gave to his Church on Easter Sunday? This was not an accident. Jesus solemnly declares to his disciples that when they forgive sins, they are truly forgiven. This was the first encounter that Jesus had with his disciples after his Resurrection. While I’m sure they were bewildered at seeing Jesus alive (they had already heard from Mary Magdalene that Jesus was alive, and Peter and John had seen the empty tomb), there must have been some shame and fear in their hearts too. The last time they saw Jesus alive was when he was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, and while he hung dying on the cross, only John was by his side. In Jesus’ moment of need, his friends had given in to fear and abandoned him. However, Jesus brought forgiveness on Easter Sunday, not only for his closest friends, but for the entire Church!
There are a few other references to Penance in the Bible, though not as explicit as the first reference. In the letter of James, he wrote, “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16). Jesus also gave authority to the Apostles when he said, “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (Matthew 18:18). Confessing our sins is a normal part of the Christian life. Our Christian tradition understands this to mean that we confess our sins to an ordained priest. While we are always fighting against temptation and sin, God has mercifully given us a way to be reconciled to him even when we sin after baptism.
The Gospel passage from John 20 quoted above is the gospel reading proclaimed at Mass on Divine Mercy Sunday, one week after Easter Sunday. The sacrament of Penance is one of the main ways that Jesus’ mercy is communicated to his Church, and it is part of Jesus’ plan for our salvation.