Central to the saving works of God is the truth that sin (beginning in the original sin of Adam) has put us against God. Consequently, the “debt of sin” needed to be repaid for us to be reconciled to God. Jesus Christ, in His offering of Himself as God made man is able to atone for (or pay) this debt of sin, reconciling sinful humanity to God. In baptism, the original sin is forgiven, reconciling us to God as His true children. After baptism, though we remain susceptible to “actual” sins that we commit by our own will, we are called to continuing repentance and conversion – that our relationship with God may led toward perfection in love of God and neighbor as self. As Christ has died that all sin may be forgiven, He likewise establishes a sacrament wherein actual sins are forgiven, reconciling us to both God and His Church. It is in the sacrament of penance that we partake of this gift of forgiveness.
Throughout the Gospels the forgiveness of sins is central to Jesus’ proclamation and works, including in His extending of the power to forgive sins to the Church. When carrying out physically healings, Jesus frequently referred to the forgiveness of sins and to the repentance of the one who received healing. To extend this power to forgive and call to conversion, in both Matthew 16:19 (speaking to Peter) and 18:18 (speaking to all of the apostles) Jesus gives the power to bind and loose: that what is bound by them on earth is bound in heaven, and what is loosed on earth is loosed in heaven – referring to the power to forgive sins, releasing the sinner from the burden of their sin. Similarly, in John 20:22-23, as Jesus risen from the dead appears to the apostles, he breathes the Holy Spirit upon them and directly says “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained,” explicitly entrusting this “ministry of reconciliation” to them.
This tasks of forgiveness of sins and reconciling of sinners with God by the Church are plainly established in the sacrament of penance – even if the appearance of this sacrament in our age (by going into the little “confessional” rooms seems nothing like Jesus’ own act of forgiving). However, the basic origins of this sacrament are clear: Jesus entrusts to the leaders of His Church the power to forgive in His name and that sinners may be released from sins and reconciled to God and the Church by these who have received this power. Initially it was in the apostles (and their immediate successors that we call “bishops”) that this power to forgive was exercised. In the early Church, those who sinned would carry out rigorous penances prior to seeking to be reconciled by their local bishop – and usually this only happened once in a person’s lifetime. Later (in the 7th century) the practice of private confession came to be, with less emphasis on the public and difficult penances, allowing for more frequent reception of forgiveness and reconciliation. Since that time, little has changed in the manner for conferring/receiving this sacrament.
While subsequent installments will treat the questions of what takes place in receiving the sacrament and why it is necessary to go to a priest (or bishop), within the context of the origins and history of the sacrament of penance, the sacrament of holy orders also noteworthy. As Jesus gave this power to forgive and reconcile to the apostles whom he ordained as priests of the New Covenant, this power to forgive is essential to who they are. In other words, ordained bishops and priests receive this power to forgive in virtue of their ordination – and as we will see, they sacrament is only effective through their giving of “absolution.” Accordingly, we will look next time at the ritual of this sacrament.
For further reading: In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the paragraphs 1420-1449 give an overview of the sacrament: including details of its origins and history.