Having looked at the rite of penance and how it is the confessed sins themselves that make the words of absolution spoken over the “penitent” (that is, the person making the confession) by the priest effective, we are already shown key details about both the minister and recipient of this sacrament – which we explore more fully here.
In the Code of Canon Law, canon 965 gives plain indication of the minister: it is to be “a priest alone.” That only priests have this power implies that such power to absolve is given to them in virtue of their ordination. Further clarity on the minister is given in canon 966, which states that the minister must have the “faculty” to exercise this ministry. The word “faculty” is used to speak of the granting of jurisdiction to ministers for carrying out the ministries which are within their power. While bishops always can give absolution anywhere (with rare exceptions), parish priests receive this faculty from their local bishop to do so first of all where they are assigned – though priests can also usually exercise this faculty everywhere insofar as the local bishop has given them this faculty in a continuous way. Confusing though this may be, consider that the power of
binding and loosing that Jesus gave to the apostles was to reside in them and in their proper successors: the bishops. Priests also have this power in virtue of ordination as co-workers with the bishop – with bishops granting priests authority/jurisdiction to exercise this power. Furthermore, pastors of parishes, by nature of their being a “pastor,” (which is a juridical title) have the faculty within their own parish/es. In practice, parish priests can give absolution whenever one asks to go to confession, even if not in their home territory, so long as they have not been restricted in this ministry by their bishop or legitimate superior. What would be a possible restriction? Reasons such as having inadequate knowledge of moral theology or if a particular priest is deemed to have questionable character may lead a bishop to restrict or not grant the faculty. Overall, and especially for our simple question here of “who is the minister?” it remains of primary note that only the validly ordained priest is able to administer absolution – and this power is given to him in his ordination.
As for the recipient (referred to as the “penitent”), canons 987-989 provide details that are simple and complete: The penitent is to be “a member of the Christian faithful (aka, a baptized person), who being aware of one’s own sins committed rejects these sins and firmly proposes to amend their life to turn back to God. In going to confession (and thus quoting canon 988), this person is to confess “in kind and number all grave sins committed after baptism and not yet remitted directly through the keys of the Church nor acknowledged in individual confession.” Finally, each member of the faithful (after reaching the age of discretion – appx. age 7) is to confess his/her grave sins at least once a year.
In future installments, topics such as examining one’s own conscience and the important question of “how” to make a good confession will be treated more thoroughly. For now, it is noteworthy in considering the recipient of this sacrament that there are three key elements to be carried out by the penitent so as to rightly be absolved by the priest. They are first to express “contrition,” or sorrow over the sins committed with an intent to not sin again (called a “firm purpose of amendment”). Second, they are to confess their grave sins fully in kind and number. Finally, they are to complete the given penance (referred to as making “satisfaction”). Each of these will be more fully treated in upcoming installments.
For further reading: In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the paragraphs 1450-1467 contain teaching on both the penitent and the minister of the sacrament.