Theology of the Sacrament of Reconciliation

The Sacrament of Reconciliation only makes sense within the context of conversion from sin and a turn to God.  Even the apostles struggled to live as disciples of Jesus.  For example, Peter wept bitterly over his triple denial of Christ but received the grace of conversion and expressed it with a threefold confession of love for Jesus (cf. Lk 22:54-62; Jn 21:15-19). Paul was converted from persecuting Christians to becoming one of the greatest disciples of Christ who ever lived (cf. Acts 9:1-31). These moments of conversion were only the beginning of their lifelong commitment to living in fidelity to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

In the history of the Church, the Sacrament of Reconciliation has been celebrated in different ways. Beneath the changes, there have always been two essentials: the acts of the penitent and the acts of Christ through the ministry of the Church. Both go hand in hand. Conversion must involve a change of heart as well as a change of actions. Neither is possible without God's grace.

The Sacrament of Penance takes three forms. Pope Paul VI's eloquent explanation of each rite is provided below.

  1. The Rite for the Reconciliation of Individual Penitents—"The first [form] is the reconciliation of an individual . . . with a new emphasis on the demand for personal dispositions and on the relationship to the word of God. . . . This form of reconciliation is the accustomed one, but enriched by a greater awareness, seriousness, listening, and so to speak, by a new outpouring of divine love and our own inexpressible joy in the knowledge of being restored to divine life. . . ."
  2. The Rite for the Reconciliation of Several Penitents—"The second way of reconciliation is that of a communal preparation followed by individual confession and absolution. It combines the two values of being a community act and a personal act. It is a preferable form of reconciliation for our people when it is possible but it usually presupposes the presence of many ministers of the sacrament and this is not always easy."
  3. The Rite for the Reconciliation of Several Penitents with General Absolution—"Then there is the third way, a collective form of reconciliation with a single, general absolution. This form, however, is by way of exception, of necessity, in cases sanctioned by the bishops, and with the continuing obligation of individual [confession] of grave sins, that is, mortal sins, at a later time."

If you'd like to read more about the Sacrament of Reconciliation, go to the USCCB (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops webiste:

http://nccbuscc.org/liturgy/penance.shtml

This Catholic Update article may also be helpful:

http://www.americancatholic.org/newsletters/cu/ac0386.asp