This is the Sacrament that we all called “Confession.” It is sometimes referred to as the Sacrament of “Penance,” as well.
Remember that all Sacraments make Christ present to us – they each represent one of the seven ways that Christ is present to us – that’s why we say that “Christ instituted the Sacraments.”
In the case of Reconciliation, Christ is the one who forgives our sins. The Gospels recount the many times that Christ healed people, but before healing them he would often forgive their sins – this was one of the things the Pharisees challenged him with, “Only God can forgive sins.”
The Jewish people believed that physical suffering or misfortune was a result of sin. But we now know that is not the case. However, we know that sin exists. Remember when talking about Baptism, we talked about original sin? We said that when you’re baptised, you receive an indelible mark – a seal that’s permanent – and we are cleansed from original sin? So, if we are cleansed from original sin, then why do we continue sinning?
Let’s look at sin first.
I think the most basic way to understand sin is as anything that gets between me and God. But I don’t think it’s like “oh you sinned so you’re going to burn in hell forever.” I like to think of sin as “falling short,” or “missing the mark.” When I sin, I am falling short of who I am supposed to be. I am missing the mark from where I should be aiming. And because of that, I can’t be in full communion with God.
Perhaps this illustration will help: Imagine that you just bought a new robot that will clean your house (wishful thinking). You spent a lot of money on it – but you’re really excited about it. And you put it together and it’s perfect, it works great except for one thing: it won’t do the stairs – but it’s supposed to. Are you disappointed? Are you a bit upset? Does it “fall short” of your expectations for it?
It’s the same thing with sin. We are like that robot that “falls short” of what it’s supposed to do. Except that with us, God won’t send us back to the store simply because we fell short of his design for us. He wants us to keep trying and keep striving to hit the mark: keep striving for holiness.
There’s another thing we need to know about sin: we all sin – there’s no way around it. But not all sin is the same.
Original sin is due to the disobedience of Adam and Eve, which we contract, but do not commit. This is the sin that gets erased with Baptism. It’s different than “actual sin,” which is our own disobedience to God's will (which we do commit). So people may try to convince themselves that some sin is less serious than other- that mortal sin is serious and venial is not serious. All sin is serious!
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that venial sin is a sin that gets in the way of our relationship with God – it damages it. But mortal sin actually breaks our relationship with God (which is why mortal sin must be confessed to a priest).
Mortal sin is more grave, (“grave” is a word that means “threatening a seriously bad outcome or involving serious issues; critical.”) But just because a sin is grave doesn’t mean that it’s mortal. It would be nice and easy if there was a list of mortal sins. There isn’t one, but there are guidelines to help you figure it out. For sin to be mortal, the following need to apply:
- It must be grave matter,
- You must know that it is grave sin and,
- It has to be committed out of freewill.
Let me repeat: All grave sin must be confessed to a priest to be forgiven.
Let’s go back to the first question: Why do we continue sinning if we are cleansed from original sin at baptism? It’s simple: Because, even after Baptism, our human nature remains wounded. Even though original sin is removed, the effects of sin are not. That is why after Baptism we still have a tendency to sin. The Church calls this “tendency to sin” concupiscence.
Imagine tasting chocolate for the first time and you like it, so you want more... It’s the same with us and sin: because we already tasted sin, we want more. And in order to fix these disordered appetites, we need grace. And that’s why we need the Sacrament of Reconciliation: Reconciliation gives us the grace that slowly brings the disorder into proper order.
But, most people don’t seem to have a problem with any of that. We accept that we are far from perfect, we have a tendency to sin and we need God’s grace to help us. The problem is with confessing our sins to a priest and the priest forgiving our sins.
Next time we will look at that: Why confess to a priest?
*Read all posts on the Sacraments:
What is a Sacrament? part one, part two and part three
What is Baptism? part one, part two and part three
What is Reconciliation? part one, part two and part three