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					      Christ Jesus some two thousand years ago came into this world to
bring redemption for our sins. He did this through his death and
resurrection, or what we refer to as the pascal mystery. We still
encounter the saving presence of the Lord in the sacraments and in the
Word. In each and every sacrament we come face to face with "the grace of
God our Savior" (Titus 2:11). It is this redemption of sins aspect of
the sacraments that I will be examine. In the past couple of century we
have focused are attention primarily on the Sacrament of Penance as the
means to obtain forgiveness of sins after Baptism. We have come to focus
on it so much that it has come to be, for most Catholics, understood as
the only sacrament though which forgiveness of sins is obtained. This
belief as we will see is an incorrect understanding because we encounter
the saving presence of the Lord in other sacraments and ways not only in
the Sacrament of Penance. However the Sacrament of Penance is always to
be understood as the primary sacrament for forgiveness of mortal sins
after Baptism.
      To better understand how this can be let us first look at the
general background of the development of the Sacrament of Penance. The
Sacrament of Penance has it's roots even as far back as the day of
resurrection when Christ breathed out the spirit on the disciples and
said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone's sins,
they are forgiven; if you retain anyone's sins, they are retained.' (John
20:22-23). In Paul's second letter to the Corinthians we see Paul
developing this teaching of Christ, when he says 'All this is from God,
who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of
reconciliation; that is, God was in Christ reconciling the world to
himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us
the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, God
making his appeal through us. We beseech reconciled to God. For
our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might
become the righteousness of God' ( 2 Cor. 5:18-21). These two passages
would seem to be part of the sacrament's biblical foundation. The
sacrament itself would seem to have come about as a result of the early
Church's struggle to recognize that Baptism may forgive sin but it didn't
end the struggle against sin. People fell into sin even after Baptism, so
in order to bring these fallen members back into the Christian community
the Sacrament of Penance was established.
      In the second and up to the sixth century A.D. a Christian could
only receive the Sacrament of Penance once after Baptism. The penitent
would have to first confess before his or her bishop. The penitent would
then be required to participate in the "order of penitents" of the early
Church. This required the penitent to wear special clothes, and the
penitent would have to go to a special place with other penitents when
worshipping with the community. The community would pray for those in the
"order of penitents" during the worship serves, and the bishop would lay
his hands on the penitents. But this laying on of hands did not take on
the character of absolution until it was done during the worship serves
on Thursday of Holy Week. The penitents were not allowed to receive
Eucharist because the penitents were excommunicated, excluded from
Communion. After a period of probation, prescribed by the bishop, the
penitent would be absolved of the sins the individual committed. The
bishop would do this by laying his hands on the penitent. The typical
time for this reconciliation to take place was on Thursday of Holy Week
before the Baptisms took place. The reason it was done at this time was
because the early Church believed that both Baptism and Penance were both
sacraments that brought about forgiveness of sins and that they should be
prepared for at the same time. It was just this type of thinking that
also led the early Church to the belief that the sacrament could only be
received once. This time of preparation, for the Sacrament of
Reconciliation, has come to be what we refer to now as the liturgical
season of Lent. This belief that the sacrament could only be received
once and due to the strict penance received for sins it became customary
among Christians of these earlier centuries to wait to receive the
Sacrament of Reconciliation until just before death. The early Church
only saw public confession necessary if you had committed the sins of
murder, apostasy, or adultery. Sense confession was only necessary in the
case of these three serious sins, which were serious acts against the
Christian community, and do to its connections with Baptism on Thursday
of Holy Week it was viewed as a part of public worship. It was considered
part of public worship up to the end of the sixth century A.D. and the
beginning of the seventh century A.D. at which time a transition took
place in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
      Due to the severity of the penance imposed on people for sins
committed, and the belief in being only allowed to receive the Sacrament
of Reconciliation once. People avoided the public canonical penance till
the end of their lives. This caused a decline in the public penance to
the point of almost total extinction towards the end of the sixth century
A.D. Another transition was taking place in the Sacrament of Baptism
about this same time that also raised question of concern in regards to
the Sacrament of Reconciliation. During the fifth and sixth centuries
A.D. there was a larger number of adult converts accepted into the
Christian community that lacked proper instruction and catechizes. This
occurred do to the fact that it was customary to join the religion that
the leader of a society was part of, so if the leader of the society was
Christian all those who followed that individual would become Christian.
This resulted in a large numbers of adult Baptisms. But at the end of
the sixth century A.D. and beginning of the seventh century A.D. the
Church's baptismal policy changed. The Church started to emphasize infant
Baptism rather them adult Baptism. This change in emphasis to infant
baptism and the decline in the number of people participating in the
public canonical penance presented some new pastoral problems that needed
to be addressed. First, how could the Church maintain its high moral
standards, and at the same time, present to those members of the Church
that fell into sin the ability to be reconciled based on a more realistic
program? Second, it was one thing to require those Baptized as adult to
do public penance. But it would be a whole deferent thing to ask those
Baptized as infants and young children, who had to still live and
struggle through all the stages of growth prior to adulthood, to do the
same public penance and only be allowed to do it once.
       To address these issues a new form of penance emerged in the
seventh century A.D., which is often referred to as "private" or "tariff"
penance by scholars. It was referred to as "tariff" penance because a
priest would assign penance to individuals who confessed their sins in
private from a collection of handbooks called a Penitential Books.
Penitential Books were handbooks that listed sins and customary penances,
which was usually some period of fasting, that were given by other
priests for the particular sin listed. This new form of private or tariff
penance was deferent from the earlier, and still practiced, form of
public canonical penance. It was different in that the whole rite was
done in privately and by a priest rather then the bishop. Private penance
could also be received as many times as one felt the need for it. These
three new characteristic of privacy, priest as presider, and the ability
to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation more then once addressed the
pastoral issues that had emerged at the end of the sixth century A.D.
This made the new rite popular among the Christian community.
      It seems to be a consensus among scholars that tariff penance has
its origins in the British Isles, most scholars would say primarily in
Ireland. They also belief that monk-missionaries are responsible for
tariff penance making its way on to the European continent between the
years 543 A.D. and 615 A.D. After it had arrived on the European
continent, the tariff penance the monks had brought was modified because
some of the penances given in the Penitential Books appeared to be to
harsh. This need to reduce the harshness of the penance gave birth to a
system called "commutation." Commutation is a system by which the
harshness of the penance given for a sin was reduced or commuted. Several
types of this commutation system emerged, but it was easy for the unjust
priest to manipulate this system to benefit themselves. In some cases the
penitent would be forced to give an offering to the priest for the
purpose of celebrating Mass for the penitent's forgiveness, but some
priests found this to be more of a profitable enterprise rather then that
of an acceptable penance. There were other abuses of the commutation
system, but all such abuses were condemned by the Church. It eventually
became the norm of the Church that the fasting that was imposed by the
Penitential Books was to be replaced by prayers. Another form of penance
that was replaced by prayers was that of public penance. The public
canonical penance emphasized the public nature of sin, and the penance
given for sins was of a public nature. The penitent would be required to
do such things as visit and take care of the poor, sick, and imprisoned.
Private penance on the other hand accepted the penitent's confession as
satisfactory for forgiveness of sins with the stipulation that the
penitent do the prayers given as penance. This emphasis on prayer rather
then fasting and public penance made private penance even more popular
among Christians.
      Private penance eventually won out over all the other forms of
reconciliation in the Western Church. The Church began to recognize this
and in 1215 the Fourth Lateran Council made it a requirement that all
Catholics at "the age of discretion" must confess their serious sins to a
priest once a year and attained the Eucharistic liturgy and receive the
Eucharist during the Easter season. We can see that private penance, due
to its popularity and from this mandate made by the Fourth Lateran
Council, by the thirteenth century had all but replaced the other forms
of reconciliation found in the earlier centuries of Christianity. The
Catholic Church also during the Reformation of the sixteenth century
defended private penance against reformers who believed that private
penance was not necessary for the forgiveness of sins. The Council of
Trent, in 1551, stated that 'private confession was absolutely necessary
for mortal sins, which had to be confessed to a qualified priest
according to number, type, and special circumstance. Trent also made it
clear that the Sacrament of Penance was necessary for the salvation of
persons who sinned seriously after Baptism.' The standards set by the
Fourth Lateran Council and the Council of Trent have been restated time
and again by official Church documents up to the present day.
      Reconciliation was never meant to be solely attached only to the
Sacrament of Penance. We find forgiveness anytime we encounter the saving
presence of the Lord in other sacraments and ways not only in the
Sacrament of Penance. One way of showing the truth of this statement is
to look at the role that Lord's Prayer plays in different liturgical
rites. St. Augustine shows that he holds this point of view himself when
he says "The remission of sin takes place not solely in the sacred
ablution of Baptism, but in the daily recitation of the Lord's Prayer.
In it you have, as it were, your daily baptism." Most scholars believe
that during the first six centuries of Christianity daily faults and sins
were believed to be forgiven by the devotional practices and prayer, most
importantly the Our Father. Because the only sins that called for public
canonical penance were those of murder, apostasy, or adultery. The Lord's
Prayer was an important part of worship in the early Church, and still is
today. It was so important that the candidates for Baptism had to recite
the prayer before they received Baptism. The Our Father was also recited
by the priest or bishop in public penance for the sake of all, and the
one to be annoited also had to recite it before the annoiting took place.
The early Church, I dare say, believed that all the sacraments were
sacraments of reconciliation, of which the Lord's Prayer was the "perfect
verbal expression."
      The Liturgy of the Hours is also a source of reconciliation because
it ends with the Our Father. St. Benedict himself emphasizes, in his
Rule, that at morning and evening prayer the Lord's Prayer is to be said
aloud so all the monks may here the phrase "forgive us as we forgive."
He emphasized this so that there might be perfect reconciliation between
the monks each evening and morning.
      The Our Father is also found in the Liturgy of the Eucharist which
is the ultimate expression of reconciliation in itself because it is the
ultimate expression of the pascal mystery. The Lord's Prayer has always
held a climatic role in the Eucharist. It has always been the
introduction to communion in the Eucharistic Liturgy. One reason given
for it being the introduction to communion was the petition "forgive us
as we forgive." St.Augustine says the reason we pray the Lord's Prayer
at this point is so that "after these words 'forgive us as we forgive' we
may approach the alter confidently and literally 'with washed faces."
What St. Augustine meant by this is that the Our Father makes it possible
for Christians to receive the Eucharist because they had in a spiritual
sense "washed their faces" of sin.
      The Liturgy of the Eucharist is itself another expression of
reconciliation The place in the Eucharistic Liturgy that forgiveness is
most apparent is in the preparation to receive communion. The preparation
consists of the Our Father, the prayer that follows, "Deliver us, O Lord
from every evil...," then the prayer for peace, "Lord Jesus Christ, you
said to your apostles, I leave you peace...," and finally the private
prayers said by the priest. This small group of prayers combined with the
acclamation "Lamb of God" is in itself a penitential rite. This
penitential rite emphasizes the forgiveness offered to all in the
Eucharist. If we take a closer look at these prayers, we can see how they
emphasize the power of forgiveness found in the Body and Blood of Christ.
Lets take for an example one of the private prayers recited by the priest
just before communion is distributed to the faithful, " Lord Jesus
Christ, Son of the living God, by the will of the father and the work of
the Holy Spirit, your death brought life to the world. By your holy Body
and Blood free me from all my sins and from every evil....." This private
prayer of the priest is putting emphasize on the fact that it is the Body
and Blood of Christ Jesus that frees us from our sins. It would seem then
that by receiving the body and blood of Christ we are also receiving
      We can see by looking at Church history that the Sacrament of
Penance was primarily for the forgiveness of mortal sins. We can also
easily see how forgiveness is offered to us in other sacraments and ways,
such as in prayers like the Our Father. Based on these two facts, and
many not mentioned, I would have to say that it is incorrect to say that
after Baptism we can only obtain forgiveness of sins through the
Sacrament of Reconciliation. Because we can see how this other sacraments
and ways enable us to encounter the saving presence of the Lord. We
should always understand the Sacrament of Penance as the primary
sacrament for forgiveness of mortal sins after Baptism. Because history
shows us that these sins are sins that damage more then just the one
sinning and demand a form of reconciliation that reconciles the sinner
with the whole Body of Christ, the Church. It would seem to me sense the
early Church did not see all sins as needing the Sacrament of Penance
there is no reason not to belief that venial sins are forgiven in other
sacraments and rituals. We even have proof that saints such as St.
Benedict and St. Augustine held that we could find forgiveness in other
ways then just that of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.


Dudley, Martin: Confession and Absolution: 1990, The Liturgical Press
(243.4, D848).

Hamelin, Leonce: Reconciliation in the Church: 1980, The Liturgical Press
(243.4, H213).

Jeep, Elizabeth: The Rite of Penance: Commentaries Volume Two,
Implementing the Rite: 1976, The Liturgical Conference (243.4, L782r

Keifer, Ralph: The Rite of Penance: Commentaries Volume One,
Understanding the Document: 1975, The Liturgical Conference (243.4, L782r

Longley, Alfred: Healing and Forgiveness, A New Penitential: 1976, World
Library Publications Inc. (243.4, L856)

Mitchell, Nathan, OSB: The Rite of Penance: Commentaries Volume Three,
Background and Directions: 1978, The Liturgical Conference (243.4, L782r