God’s Gift of Forgiveness

Chapter 9 from What Happened to Sin, by Seán Fagan. S.M.

The Columba Press, 2008.

Whatever about the therapy required to deal with neurotic guilt, there is a sure-fire remedy available for real guilt and sin, namely repentance, atonement and forgiveness. On the level of human relationships there is a sense of new life and fresh start when an apology has been accepted and the broken strands of love brought together again. But when the forgiveness comes through the sacramental action of the Church, backed by the authority and power of Jesus himself, it can bring a peace not of this world. Christians through the centuries have experienced sacramental confession as a real safety-valve for their accumulated burden of guilt, and received the words of absolution as a healing balm for mind and heart. But, like so many other elements in the life of the Church, our experience of God’s forgiveness in the sacrament of penance had its own historical development through the centuries. Christ empowered his Church to forgive sins in his name, but it took over a thousand years for the sacrament to develop into the form in which we know it today. Most people would be surprised to hear that St. Augustine never went to confession, and that for centuries the saintly bishops of Gaul preached that one should do penance, but go to confession only on one’s deathbed.

It would be a mistake to imagine that we have nothing to learn from the past, or to think that developments in the Church have always been for the best because they were directly under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In fact, history is there to show that Christ’s promise of being with his Church until the end of time is no guarantee against its making mistakes. The Church is not only a community of sinners needing constant reform and continual conversion, but a human family subject to the ordinary laws of human growth. This growth has its share of groping and stumbling, experimenting and learning. It brings into the future not only its successes, but also the traces of some of its less happy experiences and even its mistakes and failures. Thus, our present understanding and practice of the sacrament of penance is not all that it could be and we have no idea of what the future may bring. The new rites of celebration are an attempt to improve it, but they will have little effect unless the faithful (including bishops and priests) have a proper understanding of sin, repentance, conversion, reconciliation, penance and the sacramental celebration of God’s forgiveness. Such an understanding, of course, will be coloured by our notion of God, of the Church and of sacraments in general.

Problems

Too many people still have a taboo notion of morality and a magical idea of the sacraments. The impression is still abroad that only in confession are sins really forgiven; an act of perfect contrition is supposed to achieve the same result, but one needs to be almost a saint to make one, in which case it would not be needed in the first place. Some confessors are still preaching the ‘gas-station’ concept of grace: one can never get enough of a good thing, and frequent confession keeps one continually ‘topped up’. Few people see any intimate connection between the sacrament of penance and the penitential elements of prayer, fasting and almsgiving involved in conversion. Many use the sacrament simply as a ‘guilt-shedding process’ with little real experience of reconciliation or spiritual growth. Some confess the same ‘laundry list’ each time and yet are dissatisfied because it does not enable them to cope with all the sinfulness they are conscious of. The present practice of private confession cannot deal with communal responsibility for the sinful structures of society or a sinful climate of opinion. Others are so concerned about law and measurement that their confession leaves large areas of morality untouched because there are no specific laws covering them, or they are not easily measured. Since the Humanae Vitae debate, many people who feel free in conscience to practice contraception nevertheless feel guilty about not mentioning it in confession. Those who do confess it ‘shop around’ for a sympathetic priest, and they feel the variety of views and attitudes confusing. They wonder about the priest’s precise role as confessor.

Many people think of sin simply as an offence against God, and see the priest as his representative, so that the Church as community is almost totally bypassed both in the confession and in the absolution. Present practice can foster an individualistic piety. Besides, the idea of penance as reconciliation is obscured by equating obligatory and devotional confession, since it is difficult to speak of real reconciliation with the Church in the case of minor daily sins. Although the Council of Trent’s demand for integral confession of sins according to number and kind referred only to mortal sins, children were trained to think of it as applying to all sins, so that many adults still engage in a frantic search for everything they can possibly think of, and their almost neurotic preoccupation with self sometimes blots out all awareness of the tremendous gift that is God’s forgiveness. Likewise, too much emphasis on the priest’s role as judge can give the impression of a criminal court where every last ounce of guilt must be accurately measured and ultimately paid for.

Forgotten truths

Even before we look to the new rites, there are some ‘forgotten truths’ about the sacrament of reconciliation that we need to be reminded of: the theological nature of sin; a more nuanced presentation of the distinction between sins, including the dropping of the over-simplified ‘mortal-venial’ division; the importance of the ‘time’ or ‘process’ element in both sin and reconciliation, so that confession is simply the ‘sacramental moment’ in a whole process of repentance; the fact that there are various forms of penance (ordinary, everyday ones and liturgical ones, sacramental and non-sacramental); that the obligation of private confession applies only to those who are conscious of sin which is subjectively serious; that confession of necessity and confession of devotion ought to be clearly distinguished; and that grace and spiritual benefit are not increased in mathematical proportion to the frequency of confession. Church authorities at present voice concern about the dramatic fall in the numbers going to regular confession. A knowledge of history can be a sobering experience. For centuries Catholics had such reverence for the Blessed Sacrament that they rarely went to Communion, so the Council of Trent obliged them to receive at least once a year. When at the beginning of the last century Pope Pius X encouraged frequent Communion, people felt that they needed confession before receiving it, so this brought in the custom of frequent (weekly or monthly) confession. That practice is barely a century old.

Can we prove that when thousands queued in churches every Saturday (within living memory) to confess impure thoughts or distractions at prayer they were closer to God than in today’s world when it is a major problem for people to find quality time for their families while they struggle with problems of mortgages, health and education? But we need to go to a deeper level, to notice the contrast between the handful who still go to confession and the high percentage (up to 80%) who go to Communion although many of them practice contraception. Another problem for God’s holy people who are the Church is the inadequacy of official teaching on divorce. Those who fail in their marriage (and they may soon be 50%) and do not qualify for a Church annulment are condemned to celibacy for the rest of their lives, and if God does not give them this special gift and grace they are denied the Eucharist, leaving them with all the burdens and obligations of being Catholic but without this divine food for which they long to nourish their faith. Theologians for centuries have taught that the Eucharist brings forgiveness of sin, healing for the wounded, but Church law has made it a reward for good behaviour. Confessors concerned about this ministry should ask if reviving literally what was the Church’s practice for less than 5% of its history would contribute to the health of God’s holy people who are the Church. Even if we did succeed in bringing back the weekly queues, where would we find the priests to absolve them? We would begin to experience what hundreds of thousands of our fellow-Catholics in Latin America have been enduring for centuries. If these points are properly understood, a reduction in the numbers approaching the sacrament or less frequency of individual confession need not cause alarm.

Ordinary means of penance

In speaking of God’s forgiveness, the impression should not be created that the sacrament of penance is the on1y means or indeed the only safe or sure way of receiving it. People need to be told of the importance and efficacy of the ordinary, everyday means of reconciliation. We saw that sin weakens or destroys our relationship with God, alienates us from our brothers and sisters, and disrupts the inner harmony of our lives. Penance is not just paying a fine for wrongdoing, accepting punishment inflicted by a vengeful God. Rather, it is a reversal of the sinful process that turned us from God and neighbor and left us divided within ourselves. We are reconciled to God by prayer, particularly the Our Father. If we can say this prayer with our whole being, really mean every word of it and try to live the attitude it reflects, then we are once more children of God. Our reconciliation with each other can be brought about by restitution where necessary, and by almsgiving, not merely the giving of money, but of our time, talent, energy, sympathy, in a word, by our giving of ourselves. We can be healed within ourselves from our weakness and self-indulgence through fasting and self-denial. Traditionally, these three: prayer, fasting and almsgiving, are the main forms of penance.

The New Testament gives special emphasis to mutual pardon as a necessary condition for divine forgiveness, and later tradition singled out the Our Father and Holy Communion as means of reconciliation. Daily work can have a penitential value. The penalty mentioned in the Genesis account of sin: ‘You will have to work hard and sweat to make the soil produce anything’ (3:19) could be seen not simply as a result of sin, its punishment, but also as a means of reconciliation. Our daily work can associate us with God’s own creativity in improving the world, enable us to cooperate with others and give us a sense of fulfilment and inner peace. The whole Christian life should be a spiritual sacrifice offered for sin. It is a pity that these ordinary, everyday means of pardon have been so neglected in the last few centuries, as though confession were the only way. Without minimizing the value or usefulness of confessions of devotion (where no sin is involved), we need to realize that God’s grace and pardon come to us through the events of daily life. These ordinary means of pardon are always available, and they can be a safeguard against the formalism of mere good intentions and the too easy ‘three Hail Marys’ so often handed out for sacramental penance.

Penance and confession

If sin is a process brought about by, and given expression in, concrete actions, the same is true of repentance; it is a process involving time. Like the lost son in Christ’s parable, the sinner ‘comes to his senses’, realizes his tragic situation and repents. At the first genuine turning towards God, the heavenly Father reaches out in forgiveness, and the wandering son is once more at home. On God’s part, the act of forgiveness is instantaneous and pure gift, not an earned reward. But on the sinner’s part, this return to God’s friendship is only the beginning of a process. It will take time to repair the harm done to others and to let conversion have its full effect on mind, will and emotions. This is the area of asceticism, of prayer, almsgiving and penance. In the case of more serious sins, sinners must be so disposed that they are willing, at an appropriate time, to confess these sins to a priest. To refuse to be confronted with the incidents which broke our relationship with God calls into question the sincerity of our repentance

The reason for confession as part of the process of reconciliation is that sin is never a purely private affair. Even our most secret sins affect our brothers and sisters in the community, and when we sin grievously we cut ourselves off not only from Christ, but from his mystical body, the community of his followers. For repentance to be genuine, therefore, it must be not merely a turning back to God, but a firm desire to be reconciled with the community. Private confession to the person offended may reconcile us to that particular person, and where possible this ought to be done. But reconciliation with the Church as such can only be effected through bishop or priest empowered to act on behalf of the community. It is this official reconciliation with the community which has been singled out by the Church as the sacramental moment in the process of repentance and forgiveness. This is the sacrament. In this encounter between priest and penitent the mystery and gift of God’s forgiveness reaches a focal point of special intensity and meaning. Reconciliation with the community is the outward sign of reconciliation with God, and the absolution given by the priest is the concrete expression of God’s forgiveness.

It is in this wider context of penance, the penitential process and community, that we should consider the sacrament. Keeping this background in mind may provide a safeguard against slot-machine absolutions and a magical approach to confession. To take some of the emphasis off the listing of sins may help people towards a more Christian notion of the God of infinite love, especially those people who continually confess doubtful sins or incidents from their ‘past life’. One gets the impression that they confess these ‘just in case’ God might have something on them, fearing that God might present them at judgment day with a list of sins they had somehow committed without being aware of it. They use confession almost to insure themselves against God. Many of these attitudes owe their origin to distorted notions or exaggerated emphases on different aspects of the sacrament in the course of its history.

New Testament

It would be naive to imagine that the sacrament as we know it came directly from Christ himself. In its modern form it is nowhere to be found in the New Testament, but penance and the forgiveness of sins are at the very centre of the preaching of Jesus. He began his ministry with the call to ‘repent and believe the Gospel’ and he took leave of his disciples with the command that ‘in his name the message about repentance and the forgiveness of sins must be preached to all nations’ (Lk 24:47). Jesus himself forgave sins (Mk 2:2-12; Lk 7:36-50), and he expressly entrusted to his Church disciplinary power over believers who fall into sin (Mt 18:15-17). After a fruitless private monition or before two witnesses, sinners are to be denounced to the Church, and, if they will not accept correction they are to be treated as heathens and publicans, i.e. to be excommunicated. In Jn 20:22-23, Jesus told his disciples: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive people’s sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.’

Penance plays an important part in the epistles of Paul, and he makes clear that the Church’s decisions with regard to a sinner have supra-temporal consequences. James and John speak of the universality of sin and of its power, but they both emphasize that divine forgiveness is universal, that even the gravest sinner can count on forgiveness. The only exception is the ‘sin against the Holy Spirit,’ which would seem to be the sin of final impenitence, total rejection of God, the radical closing in on self that makes the sinner incapable of responding to grace.

Early centuries

In the first few centuries it was left to the bishop in each area to determine the way in which the Gospel principles of forgiveness would be implemented. Gradually set forms of administration took shape. A sinner could go to a spiritual counsellor to confess secret grave sins, and the counsellor would decide whether the sins were grave enough to warrant public penance, but he did not give absolution. This came only after the penance was completed, and was a solemn reconciliation, usually on Holy Thursday. The public penances became quite harsh, including fasting and sexual abstinence, lasting for years, sometimes for life. The severity of these penances, especially the prohibition of the use of marriage for so many years, resulted in the postponement of penance for as long as possible, and a stage was reached when the Church actually forbade the admission of young people to penance lest they be unable to continue it. More and more it became simply a preparation for death. The Church became a victim of its own rigidity, so that for centuries no sacraments at all were available for the long years of a person’s life when sins were most frequent.

So fixed was this attitude that a council of bishops at Toledo in 589 condemned repeated confession as an abuse. But the practice was already fairly widespread, coming from the Celtic Churches, and by the seventh century frequent confession was common. In Ireland, penance was private, consisting in confession, the acceptance of the penance prescribed by the priest, and finally reconciliation. Many penitents did not return for reconciliation, so gradually the practice developed of granting absolution at the time of confession and the penance was done afterwards. This eventually became the common practice of the Church.

To help confessors in the administration of the sacrament, the Irish Church invented the so-called penitential books, which listed the penances for various types of sins, graded according to severity, hence called tariff penances. Prayer, fasting, abstinence from marital intercourse, pilgrimage or exile were all imposed. Some were for life, others for years, from thirty down to one. For lighter sins: forty days down to one day. Seven days fasting was the penalty for drunkenness, one day for immoderate eating. A long penance could be exchanged for a shorter one of greater intensity. This kind of substitution was often necessary because several lifetimes would not be sufficient to carry out the accumulated burden of penance in some cases.

Of course these penances must be judged against the general harshness of life in those centuries. The penitential books stressed the need for contrition and conversion, and in spite of the emphasis on penitential works, the ecclesiastical and sacramental aspect of penance was quite clear. The obligation of annual confession was laid down by the 4th Lateran Council in 1215, which also imposed the strictest secrecy on the confessor. The Council of Trent added the obligation of integrity, that is, that all mortal sins be confessed in detail according to number and kind. In 1576 St. Charles Borromeo decreed that every Church was to have a confessional box, a step which completed the privatisation of the sacrament.

Confession and Communion

Until the beginning of the twentieth century the vast majority of people rarely received Holy Communion. In 506 the Council of Agdes imposed the obligation of Communion three times a year (Christmas, Easter and Pentecost), but in 1215 the universal law for the Church decreed simply ‘at least at Easter’. There were two traditions with regard to the need for confession. According to one, the Eucharist itself included forgiveness, hence the penitential rite at the beginning of the celebration (general confession of sinfulness and a form of absolution), but after the 4th Lateran Council more and more theologians insisted on private confession of grave sins as a requirement for the reception of Communion.

Inevitably, confession came to be seen as preparation for Communion, so that when Pius X in 1905 recommended frequent and even daily Communion, the practice of weekly or monthly confession quickly followed. This is the pattern most of today’s Catholics are familiar with. But the pattern has dramatically broken up in the last few years. Some of the reasons for dissatisfaction with the recent tradition have already been mentioned. We need to ask: what can be learned from the history of the sacrament, even in the brief outline we have just glimpsed? For one thing, it might relativise some of the elements we have tended to look on as absolutes, and at least it can shake us out of the rigidity that so often stifles development.

Various forms

The sacrament took many forms down through the centuries, and some of them continued side by side for years. Jesus spent much of his time with sinners and outcasts and had harsh words for the self-righteous religious establishment. He forgave sin and empowered the community of his followers to do the same, but he did not spell out the ways in which it was to be done. The Church, responding to people’s need for forgiveness, created new forms of penance as they were needed to meet the needs and understanding of a particular age. In the first two centuries the Church consisted of small, closely-knit communities centered on the weekly Eucharist. Christians confessed to one another, admonished one another, forgave each other. For serious sin, a brother or sister would be excluded, put out of the community by excommunication, but the community continued to pray for them until they could return. The community felt responsible for the sinner. When it was feared that reconciliation was becoming too easy and Christians might grow lax, the practice of public penance was introduced. This served its purpose for a while, but then hardened to the point where pardon was not available until immediately before death.

The good sense of the community gradually moved away from this extreme practice and developed private penance and more frequent confession. For the convenience of the faithful, the order of penance and absolution was inverted so that forgiveness was granted before the penance was carried out. But with the loss of community awareness, the role of the confessor increased; he was spiritual father, teacher, physician and judge. He was seen as God’s representative, and sin was more and more considered simply as a personal breaking of God’s law. Private and frequent confession did wonders for the spiritual life of the faithful, and people travelled miles to avail of holy confessors like the Curé of Ars, but the practice also encouraged an individualistic piety. The detailed listing of sins and the minute examination of degrees of guilt often gave rise to scruples, and on the other hand it totally ignored the social dimension of sin.

New rites

The 1974 legislation on the sacrament of reconciliation allows for four types of celebration: 1) individual confession and absolution, which was the common tradition, 2) individual confession and absolution, but fitted in between communal preparation and thanksgiving, 3) communal penitential services to promote a spirit of repentance, but which do not forgive serious sin, and 4) general confession of sinfulness, followed by general absolution, but with the obligation to confess privately at a later date. This last form is restricted to quite exceptional circumstances, which, in the opinion of many bishops, are not likely to arise outside of some missionary countries.

These new rites are an attempt to recapture some of the best insights of the past. The sacrament is described as reconciliation rather than just confession. Some prominence is given to sacred Scripture, emphasizing its healing power as well as the fact that it calls us to judgment and repentance. Communal celebrations allow for a homily and also enable the community to acknowledge responsibility for the general sinfulness of society. They bring home the fact that we are a community of sinners needing God’s healing and pardon. However, many theologians cannot see why actual forgiveness is still restricted to private individual confession except on occasions so rare as to make them not worth counting. They maintain that sins are indeed forgiven in the third form of celebration, without private confession and individual absolution. This is not necessarily ‘cheap grace’, because most people who have had this experience also use and appreciate private confession when they feel they need it, and for many who had not been to confession for years it was the step that helped them to return. The second form, combining communal and individual, is clumsy and impractical except for well-organized, small groups with no shortage of confessors. Many feel that it has an element of ‘magic’ about it.

The new rites are an attempt to revitalize the sacrament, but the restrictive way in which they are interpreted means that they may make it just a little more meaningful, and then only for the devout. They are not going to work wonders. They will make little difference to the large numbers who have real difficulty with traditional confession practice. One wonders if the words of Jesus about leaving the ninety-nine and going after the one lost sheep have any application in this context. Perhaps the new legislation is simply a holding operation, a slow, tiny step in the direction of a better understanding of the sacrament, which will evolve further when Church leaders are ready. But much more needs to be done to help people towards not only an understanding, but an actual experience of the mystery and gift of God’s forgiveness. Surely an essential element in development is to listen to the actual experience of penitents, and most of them find general confession and general absolution the most meaningful as a spiritual exercise to which they are willing to give time, whereas the one-by-one ‘quickie’ feels more like an artificial exercise merely to satisfy canon law.

Need for balance

It would be a pity to encourage one form of penance at the expense of the others, or to see the sacrament in isolation from the whole process of reconciliation. Both communal and private celebrations of the sacrament are necessary and should complement each other. We need to trust people a little more, and the only way to trust them is to actually trust them. St. Paul tel1s us to examine ourselves (I Cor 11:28). Much more could be left to the personal responsibility of individuals with regard to self-examination and self-discipline. They could decide which forms are more appropriate for them at any given time. On the other hand, the faithful have a right to expect guidance and help from the Church. The two need to be kept in balance.

It is understandable that authorities in the Church should feel the weight of their responsibility before God for the spiritual welfare of those entrusted to their care. They also feel responsible for sacred Scripture, the sacraments and for the things of God in general, which they must safeguard. But occasionally they give the impression that they are defending God, in which case it needs to be asked whether it is really God or a particular unhealthy notion of God that is being defended.

History shows how often the Church tied itself into a straight-jacket of immobility with too much legislation, how laws intended to bring people closer to God actually kept them at a distance from him. Jesus pointed out that the Sabbath was made for people and not vice versa. In the same way, theologians constantly remind us that the sacraments are for the faithful, not the other way round. But it is not clear how far this is accepted in practice.

Forgiveness God’s gift

Reference has already been made to the ‘forgotten truths’ about penance that need to be recalled. Perhaps the greatest and most forgotten truth of all is that God’s forgiveness is sheer gift, unearned, unmerited. In our concern to see that God is not mocked or even slighted, we may have lost our perspective. Though we speak of the gift of his forgiveness, most people feel that they must earn it, be worthy of it, that it comes only after they have done their penance, paid their fine. But this is not the impression we get from Jesus. Both in his own ministry of forgiveness and in his preaching he makes it clear that the initiative comes from God, that forgiveness is the gift of his love, and that the works of penance are the result of it, not the condition for its granting. This is particularly evident in his words to Simon the Pharisee about the sinful woman: ‘I tell you, the great love she has shown proves that her many sins have been forgiven’ (Lk 7:47). She was not forgiven because of her great love, but her love was the effect of forgiveness. In the many descriptions of Jesus telling people that their sins were forgiven, not a single one suggests that he asked for a list before granting his forgiveness.

The parable of the lost son (Lk 14:11-32) is the classical sermon on God’s mercy, but how many people appreciate it fully? The younger son is the average sinner, independent, wanting to go his own way, to cut loose from home and community. When ‘at last he came to his senses,’ he decided to return to his father with the confession: ‘I have sinned against God and against you.’ But the original motive for his change of heart was selfish enough: the contrast between the comfort of home and his own sad situation. The father did not wait for him to prove his worthiness. He did not give him a trial period as slave, then hired worker, before accepting him again as his son. He had never ceased loving him. His love respected the young man’s decision to leave home and trusted him with the money. Without even listening to the son’s confession or lecturing him on his behaviour, the father received him with open arms and celebrated his return. In our own experience of the loneliness and alienation of sin, our motives for repentance may be quite mixed. But God takes care of that. His love is always there, freely offered as gift. No matter how often we turn away from it, he never withdraws it. We have only to reach out. When we experience his forgiveness, we understand all the more our sinfulness, and we respond by trying to live as his children. Works of penance and atonement naturally follow.

God’s prodigal love

Not a few in our Christian community fit more easily into the role of the elder brother, annoyed at the possibility that sinners get off so lightly. But the father has forgiveness and healing for this kind of sin too. The parable is often called the story of the ‘prodigal son’, but the central figure is really the father illustrating the absolute prodigality of God’s love, poured out spontaneously and without measure. In a sense, the words spoken to the elder son are addressed to each one of us, in spite of our sins: ‘All I have is yours’. God’s love is not conditional on our being worthy of it. Unlike some parents, he does not say: ‘I will love you if you behave properly.’ His attitude is rather: ‘If you accept my love, you will not want to sin.’ This beautiful parable can be very consoling when we look for forgiveness, but even when we are just struggling with the loneliness and routine of everyday living we can be spiritually lifted up in hearing those comforting words of the prodigal father: ‘All I have is yours’, his strength, his goodness, his abiding presence of comfort and love, and of course his endless forgiveness.

At this point, however, it is important to warn against trivialising sin and God’s forgiveness. One can become almost sentimental picturing a grand-father God who overlooks our misdemeanors and loves us out of our badness into his own wonderful goodness. Sin is more than mere personal wrongdoing for which we can ask pardon and try to make amends. There is a deep mystery of evil in sin which is rooted in our human condition. Our human nature has dark forces and mysterious powers within itself which are not simply the effects of social deprivation, of mental or physical disorder, but are rather stirred up and released by these. We are all sinners in the very depths of our being, and so we all need healing. There is so much we do not understand about the mystery of evil, and sin is essentially evil. Forgiveness on this level is more costly than we can appreciate. God, in Jesus, entered fully into our human family and took upon himself our burden of sin. He ‘became sin’ for our sakes. His very presence provoked and brought out the evil in people, to be soaked up and neutralized in his silent, suffering body as he went to the cross and accepted the criminal’s death. A modern symbol of Jesus on the cross is the lightening conductor on tall buildings. When an electric storm is raging in the atmosphere with all its lethal danger, it is attracted to the tallest metal lightening conductor and shoots into the earth where it is neutralized and rendered harmless. Jesus on the cross could have protested his innocence, rebuked his enemies, but his silence soaked up and neutralized all that evil. This is the cost of our healing. There is a deep awareness of the mystery of sin behind the Church’s joyful song at the Easter vigil: ‘O happy fault which gained for us so great a Redeemer.’

Message of salvation

The first preaching of the apostles was that in Jesus, God had reconciled all people to himself, that in him we have the forgiveness of sin. This is salvation and liberation present in the Church as a here and now reality, the first-fruits of the resurrection of Jesus, the beginning of new life in the Spirit

People need to bear this message of salvation, but more important still, they need to experience it. The real test of the efficacy of any of the various forms of the sacrament of reconciliation is that it brings about real reconciliation and healing. In the ministry of Jesus forgiveness and healing went hand in hand. In a certain sense, should we not ask: where is the healing that will prove that the Church has the power to forgive sins? (Mt 9:5). If the Church is to be a light to the world, it must be a credible witness to the love of God incarnate in Christ. It must give a continual example of mutual pardon, of fraternal love. If the Church is truly Catholic, it must be a home where all the members feel at home, a fellowship which overcomes the barriers and divisions of sin and selfishness. If the Church is the sacrament of Christ, it must be the visible sign of his forgiving love. Not a sign pointing elsewhere. but an open invitation to a community in which people are healed and made whole, reconciled to each other, made friends with each other, and with God. We are familiar with the various theological definitions of the Church, and especially the central one emphasized by the Vatican Council as the People of God. But the most telling image of our Church is that of the great big tree in which all the birds of the air can find shelter, the weak and wounded finding protection and healing and the strong and healthy at the top, singing out God’s praises.

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