By Father Christopher R. Seibt
Editor’s note: During the Holy Year of Mercy, Father Christopher R. Seibt will explore various aspects of the jubilee in a series of Sun columns. This is the fourth column in the series.
Recently, I walked into a faith formation class and overheard a young girl, who appeared to have misbehaved, say to her teacher, “I know I am being bad, but I don’t mean to be.” Who of us has not said or at least felt the same way? Because of the effects of original sin we know intellectually that we should do good and avoid evil, but in reality we struggle and often find ourselves doing evil and avoiding good. We find ourselves in the same place as St. Paul who said, “I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want” (Rom 7:19).
The good news is that we have a God who is merciful. We know this because he himself has told us throughout the Scriptures. Moreover, there is a concrete place we can go to experience his mercy, namely, the Church. The question that remains for our reflection on the ways that we can encounter God’s mercy is, “How?” The primary answer to this question is: through the sacraments.
Pope St. Leo the Great said, “what was visible in our Savior has passed over into his mysteries” (Sermo. 74, 2: PL 54, 398). In other words, everything that Christ did to reconcile us to God — his suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension — has passed over to the sacraments. So, the sacraments are how we encounter God’s mercy, particularly the Sacraments of Baptism, Eucharist, and Penance or Reconciliation.
Think of the joy that the Church experiences when a child or an adult is baptized. This joy comes from the fact that baptism opens up the door for us to a whole new way of life, a life in Christ, a life that is blessed and lasts forever. Baptism inserts us into this new way of life by washing away all sins — original sin and personal sins — as well as punishment for sin (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1263). Yet, our human nature and its weakness remain and we continue to struggle with sin. However, when we fall into sin again, like the little girl who does not mean to be bad but is, we are not baptized again. Baptism only happens once because nothing, not even our worst sin, has the power to take away the gift of new life that God has given to us through this sacrament. Still, there are times when we need to be restored to the state of innocence that we experienced when we received this gift. The Sacraments of Eucharist and Reconciliation enable us to do so, to encounter God’s mercy over and over again.
Watching a child receive his or her first Communion is a special moment. It reminds us of how precious and essential the Eucharist is to our lives of faith. When we as a Church begin the celebration of the Eucharist we call to mind our sins and then the priest says, “May Almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us to everlasting life” (Roman Missal). This takes place in the reception of Holy Communion. The Catechism of the Catholic Church rightly teaches that, since the Eucharist unites us with Christ in the most powerful way available to us in this life, it must at the same time cleanse us from past sins and preserve us from future sins (CCC, 1393). Moreover, the Eucharist strengthens our charity, wipes away venial sin, and gives us the grace we need to avoid future mortal sins (CCC, 1394-1395). It does not, however, forgive mortal sins. Such sins place us outside of the communion of the Church and receiving the Eucharist strengthens the communion of which we are already a part. Mortal sins, along with venial sins, are forgiven in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Part of the reason that our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has called for this Jubilee of Mercy is not simply to encourage us to practice the works of mercy. He is also strongly encouraging us to “place the Sacrament of Reconciliation at the center once more in such a way that it will enable [us] to touch the grandeur of God’s mercy with [our] own hands” (Misericordiae Vultus, 17). Penance or Reconciliation is the sacrament of mercy. Why? Because throughout his public ministry, Jesus invited and welcomed sinners in order that they be reconciled and “go and sin no more” (Jn 8:11). So important was this ministry of reconciliation that on Easter night the Risen Christ imparted to his apostles the power to forgive sins (Cf. Jn 20:21-23). Bishops and priests continue this ministry of forgiveness today through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which is Trinitarian, Paschal, and ecclesial in nature.1
Going to confession is not always easy. We first have to examine our consciences and be truly sorry for our sins. Then comes the hardest part for most of us — we actually have to say our sins out loud to the priest because we know that he acts in the person of Christ and on behalf of the whole Church to absolve us. After doing so, we then go forth to perform the acts of penance and satisfaction that have been assigned to us to repair the certain damages that our sins have caused. Why go through all of this “trouble”?
Have you ever paid much attention to the words of absolution that the priest says? They beautifully express the fact that reconciliation is the work of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. They highlight the role of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection as that which accomplished the forgiveness of sins once and for all. They indicate that the effects of the saving work of Christ in his Paschal Mystery are asked for and experienced through the ministry of the Church. And they remind us that when we are reconciled to the Church and to God, he not only gives us his pardon, but also his peace, which in the biblical sense means his salvation (Rite of Penance, 19).
Let us then end our last reflection on encountering God’s mercy with the powerful words that we hear whenever we approach the sacrament of mercy to be reconciled and restored to the gift of new life that we received at our baptism: “God the Father of Mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (RP).
1 Cf. The Sacrament of Mercy, published by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization as one of the pastoral resources for living this Jubilee of Mercy.
Father Christopher R. Seibt is parochial vicar of the Church of Ss. John and Andrew in Binghamton.