March 1982, Vol. 34, No. 1, pp. 39-47.

Giles Dimock:
      Reconciliation: Rite and Life

The sacrament of penance reminds us that Christian life entails ongoing conversion which, reaching the roots of our individual selves, reconciles us to God in community.

Father Dimock, O.P., is professor of religious studies at Providence College, Providence, Rhode island.

MANY of us remember the Saturday rituals of American Catholicism in the fifties. In many households these rituals included Saturday afternoon or evening confessions and the Saturday night bath. Each, on different levels, got one "all scrubbed up" for Sunday morning Mass. We can remember examining our consciences in a dimly lit church, waiting our turn in line to enter the curtained confessional. Once inside, in the darkness, we could hear the muffled voices from the other side, though we could not distinguish the words. Finally the panel slid back and we could see dimly the profile of the priest who began with a blessing. We did likewise: "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned . . . ." After reciting our list of sins and the number of times we had committed them, we would listen to the priest's advice, receive our penance, and hear the Latin absolution over our own act of contrition. Usually the penance was done in the church, perhaps at the Communion rail in front of the tabernacle, before we left the church.

Many people experienced help, solace, and growth through the sacrament of penance administered in this fashion; but some found it too automatic, while others told "horror stories" of being misunderstood, of irate clergy, or of fear and nervousness. J. F. Powers in his Last Catholic in America, describing the fifties Catholicism of the Midwest, movingly tells of a youngster's fear because he forgot something in confession. The boy is tormented by an imagined sudden death and dire consequences. Eventually he summons up enough courage to return to the confessional to have it all straightened out. The boy exults in his new freedom; he exuberantly rejoices in his having been forgiven and in his feeling clean all over. Later, in college, he tries confession again; but the priest does not understand. At the end of the book he says that he does not go to confession any more, but adds, in bittersweet nostalgia, that he will never feel so clean again!

The theology of the sacrament of penance, in the hands of someone like A.-M. Roguet or Walter Farrell, both intelligent Dominican followers of Saint Thomas Aquinas, put the emphasis on metanoia (contrition) and mercy, while still speaking of the confessor as judge. But the preoccupation of many theologians was purely juridical. One found terms such as tribunal, judgment, sanction, reparation, punishment, retribution in treatments of the sacrament of penance. Many moralists seemed preoccupied with weighing sufficient "matter" for the sacrament, or with delving into the intricacies of casuistry to assess guilt in different moral cases. Fortunately, many priests relied more on their pastoral instincts than on the fine points of manuals of moral theology. The spirituality that developed around the sacrament of penance focused on sin, expiation, and reparation -- all of which are valid concepts rooted in Scripture and tradition. But the emphasis on these was so heavy that it kept people from focusing on restoration to God's friendship and the positive effects of God's grace. Some people seemed more concerned about seeing how far they could go before committing a mortal sin than about repentance and living the Christian life more fully.

Clearly, the rite of this sacrament had to be reformed, as the Constitution on the Liturgy of Vatican Council II declared.(1) The concilium of liturgists appointed to the task of revising the liturgy, however, did not get to the sacrament of penance until the very last. Consequently, more time was available to study the complex history of the sacrament, think about enriching the formularies to manifest its ecclesial nature, and integrate individual confession of sin into a broader vision of sin, reconciliation, and the church. The revised Rite of Penance was finally promulgated on the First Sunday of Advent, December 2, 1973.


The new rite is designed to bring about an entirely different experience of the sacrament of penance than those experiences described above. The explanatory introduction which accompanies the directives for performing the rite situates the sacrament in the whole mystery of redemption -- or reconciliation, seemingly a more positive term. Contemporary usage of the term reconciliation suggests "bringing into sympathy and harmony," or "restoring friendship." The new rite decidedly has this emphasis. Theologically, God is the one who reconciles men and women to himself even though they have become enemies of God by sin; Christ's death on the cross is the means by which this reconciliation is accomplished (cf. Rom. 5:7-11). Christ "makes peace" through his blood shed on the cross and so reconciles estranged and sinful men and women (Col. 1:20-22), making of them "a new creature" (2 Cor. 5:17). Reconciled to God, a person is reconciled to fellow human beings, as Christ, "who is our peace," reconciles both Jew and Greek to one another, so that they are now at peace with one another in one body (Eph. 2:14-17). Since the Christian community has experienced reconciliation, it must perform a ministry of reconciliation to others, as is clear from 2 Corinthians: "All of this has been done by God who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation. I mean that God in Christ was reconciling the world to himself, not counting men's transgressions against them and that he has entrusted the message of reconciliation to us" (5:18-19).

Against this background the introductory explanation of the rite of penance is written. A rich scriptural treatment begins with Jesus' preaching metanoia, or repentance, as necessary for entrance into the Kingdom (Mark 1:15). Emphasis is placed on the accepting attitude of Jesus towards sinners, on his death for our sins, and on his rising for our justification. The "power of the keys" is seen in the paschal context of the giving of the Spirit for the forgiveness of sins (John 20:22-23). Evocative biblical imagery is utilized to show God's mercy and reaches poetic heights in this passage:

In the sacrament of penance the Father receives the repentant son who comes back to him, Christ places the lost sheep on his shoulders and brings it back to the sheepfold, and the Holy Spirit sanctifies this temple of God again, or lives more fully within it. This is finally expressed in a renewed and more fervent sharing of the Lord's table, and there is great joy at the banquet of God's Church over the son who has returned from afar.(2)
This paragraph not only captures the spirit of the new rite of reconciliation but sets the tone for reconciliation as a major thread running through the whole of the Christian life.


The old rite of penance was highly individualistic (as was former spirituality), with all the emphasis on the priest and the penitent, each in their cubicles of the confessional. The new rite, whether celebrated communally or individually, draws attention to the fact that reconciliation is with and through the church. The practice of public penance in the early church, as Bernhard Poschmann has shown in his monumental work Penance and the Anointing of the Sick, clearly mirrored the understanding that to sin against God was to hurt one's brothers and sisters in the body of Christ. Deadly sin, therefore, "excommunicated" one from the Christian community until penance was done. The penances, though often severe, were not vindictive but remedial, helping penitents to embrace a new way of life, while the rest of the community prayed for them.(3)

This intercession was perceived as necessary since the early Christians saw themselves as one in having been reconciled to the Father through Christ by the gift of faith and baptism. Should anyone lose his or her solidarity, or communion, with the body of Christ, with the saints, through serious sin, then the whole community felt bound to join the penitents, making up in their bodies what was lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, the church (cf. Col. 1:24). The ecclesial dimension of reconciliation is rooted in our solidarity, not only in the good done to build up the church (cf. Eph 4:12-14), but also in the fact that our sin tears down the church, has social dimensions, is most often against our neighbor.(4) We are not surprised, consequently, that the Lord's forgiveness, or reconciliation to the Father through him, comes through the community, through the church, with the priest less the judge than the icon of the forgiving Christ and reconciling ecclesial body, as the words of the new formula of absolution bear out. No community, or ecclesial, reconciliation, of course, can make up for my refusal to be reconciled, my stubborn resistance to letting go of past resentments, my harboring hostility. Only when the Spirit works in my heart, can the process of metanoia begin which culminates in the healing and reconciliation of the sacrament of penance celebrated by the priest in the name of and with the church.

I once had a remarkable experience of a healthy and profound Christian attitude towards the sacrament of reconciliation in both its individual and ecclesial dimensions. Shortly after my ordination, I was asked to celebrate Mass once a week at Trinity, an extellent Catholic, women's college in Washington. One of the students, whom I came to know rather well, was a Russian Orthodox girl who had received permission from Cardinal O'Boyle to reteive Communion at Trinity because of the distance of her church and the closeness of her faith to that of the Catholic church. Despite the permission, however, Tanya hardly ever went to Communion. When I asked her why, she said that each time before she went to Communion, she prayed to see how she might have offended anyone and then asked pardon of her parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends before going to confession to ask God's pardon from the priest. Then she felt ready to receive the Eucharist. I hastened to assure her that all of this was not necessary each time, but I wondered .... Did she not understand better than I what the Lord's words in Matthew's Gospel mean: "If you are going to offer your gift at the altar and find you have something against your brother, first go and be reconciled to your brother and then offer your gift at the altar" (Matt. 5:23)? This young woman embodied the Christian response of ongoing conversion and reconciliation in both its ecclesial and individual dimensions.

To speak of the individual dimension of the sacrament of penance means that we must be ever open to the Lord, laying bare the unconverted, unreconciled, wounded, even rather ugly and selfish side of our lives to him and his healing forgiveness, which are given through the church. To discover where we are in our Christian life, it is necessary periodically to examine ourselves prayerfully, to see how we are responding to the gospel. Though the sacrament of penance is given primarily for reconciliation from more serious sins, nonetheless "frequent and careful celebration of this sacrament is also very useful as a remedy for venial sins."(5) The forgiving grace of the Lord helps us to draw away from habits of sin; and the penance is often remedial, helping specifically to overcome a particular vice. Indeed, the new rite recommends that "the satisfaction should be suited to the personal condition of each penitent so that each one may restore the order which he disturbed and through the corresponding remedy be cured of the sickness from which he suffered."(6)

Some readers may be surprised to see the term satisfaction, for it suggests the old approach to the sacrament. Yet it remains true that, since sin disrupts the order of God's plan for us, for our growth in God's life, the balance must be restored, the image of God in us must be refurbished; this restoration is the function of "penance" or "satisfaction." We should be open to accepting a penance understood in this fashion, for we need medicine for our wounded nature, which, if not healed in one area, will often slip into further selfishness in other areas of life.

The communal celebration of the sacrament of penance is appropriate during Lent, also during Advent, and as an appropriate community response in preparation for a great feast. What could be a more fitting way to prepare for the great feasts of the church than by repentance with one's community? For all of us, however, the rite for individual confession at a more leisurely pace in a less austere setting can be an extremely important means of growth and healing, worth utilizing between less frequent communal celebrations. There is no question of individual versus communal experiences of the sacrament of reconciliation, or of which is better. Both sin and reconciliation have both individual as well as community dimensions. At times one form of the sacrament speaks more deeply to a person than the other form. Both forms are needed because they manifest two essential aspects of the sacrament, which are included in some way in each celebration of the sacrament, no matter how private or communal. True, the ecclesial sign and value are less evident in individual confession, but at times that may be what is needed spiritually; and the celebrant is always the representative of the church as well as the Lord. Sometimes one needs to go more deeply, spend more time in spiritual counseling, examining not only the sinful symptoms but the deeper causes of sins -- what were once called the capital sins. Many charismatics are rediscovering individual celebration of penance as a real in-depth experience of healing and deliverance, as well as of reconciliation.


All reconciliation, of course, as indeed all the sacraments, leads to the celebration of the great sacrament, the Eucharist, in which Christ is "the Victim whose death has reconciled us" to the Father,(7) in order that we may "be brought together in unity by the Holy Spirit."(8) We have noted the tradition of the church according to which Christians, alienated by serious sin from the Lord and his body, the church, were "excommunicated" until they had done penance. That reconciliation is necessary before the Eucharist is clear in the Didache: "Break bread and give thanks, having first confessed your sins so that your sacrifice may be pure."(9) Yet we find the fathers of the church affirming that Christ's body given for us and his blood shed for us "for the forgiveness of sins" mean that the Eucharist itself is a sacrament of reconciliation. Echoes of this patristic tradition are found in St. Thomas's theology where he sees the Eucharist as forgiving light sin.(10) This reconciling aspect of the Eucharist is seen in the rites of the new order of Mass itself: the opening penitential rite, the Our Father ("forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us"), and the kiss of peace (not merely a sign of friendship but a symbolic action inspired by Matthew 5:23, cited earlier in this article). The rites in the Mass bear witness to the power of reconciliation flowing from the paschal mystery here made present. If today the sacrament of penance is not as much in demand as previously for forgiveness of venial sins, it could be that this teaching of the Fathers and St. Thomas about the Eucharist as reconciliatory is filtering down to the people. A.-M. Roguet argues from this background that the penitential rite (in place of the old prayers at the foot of the altar) is forgiving of light sin.(11) Some people have suggested that this penitential rite become communal absolution for all sin, but such a suggestion betrays a very jaundiced judgment on the average Mass congregation in terms of their moral lives; it also fails to recognize that conversion of heart for serious sin requires more than priestly absolutions traced in the air over people who may be in need of counseling as well as possible confrontation.


Finally, we should note that reconciliation need not always be confined to the sacramental order strictly speaking, whether we are speaking of the sacraments of penance or of the Eucharist. Reconciliation can be experienced in other ways. Our guide here is again St. Thomas. He sees forgiveness of venial sins given when one is moved fervently to God.(12) Some of the occasions when we are moved to the fervor of charity are signs of reconciliation; for example, recitation of the Lord's Prayer, or going out of our way to help someone who has offended us. Other occasions are, broadly speaking, sacramental; for example, participating in a rite of blessing with holy water, as during the penitential rite of the Mass. Tradition does not confine all reconciliation explicitly to the sacrament of penance alone, although this has always been the case for very serious sins.

The new rite of penance is extremely important, not so much because we have a new ritual in the church (one that some liturgists feel has far too many options to be practical), but because it embodies a more positive Christian attitude towards reconciliation in both its individual and communitarian aspects. We have rediscovered the biblical and patristic emphasis to offset the more recent heavily juridical one. As we have seen, the rite itself contains many implications for the spiritual as well as the sacramental life of Christians. If the spirit of the rite is grasped by pastors and people, its use, we may sincerely expect, will bear fruit in the lives of loving and reconciled Christians.

  1. No. 72, in Austin Flannery, ed., Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents (Northport, N.Y.: Costello Publishing Co., 1976), p. 22.
  2. The Rite of Penance, no. 6, c, in The Rites of the Catholic Church (New York: Pueblo Publishing Co., 1976), p. 346.
  3. Bernhard Poschmann, Penance and Anointing of the Sick (New York: Herder and Herder, 1968), pp. 75-116.
  4. Cf. The Rite of Penance, no. 5 in The Rites, p. 344; and Pope Paul VI, Apostolic Consti tution on the Revision of Indulgences, no. 6, in Flannery, Vatican Council II, pp. 67-69.
  5. The Rite of Penance, no. 7, b, in The Rites, p. 347.
  6. Ibid., no. 6, c, in The Rites, p. 346.
  7. Eucharistic Prayer III.
  8. Eucharistic Prayer II.
  9. Didache, 14, quoted in Lucien Deiss, Springtime of the Liturgy (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1979), p. 77.
  10. Summa theologiae, III, ques. 79, art. 4.
  11. The New Mass (New York: Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1970), p. 40.
  12. Summa theologiae, III, ques. 84, arts. 2 and 3; ques. 87, art. 3.