By Vic Scaravilli

Through baptism, we were freed from the bondage of sin, became members in God’s family, and received sanctifying grace by the Holy Spirit. However, since God has gifted us with free will, our new life as a child of God can be weakened and even lost by serious sin. God, in His great mercy, offers forgiveness of sins to those baptized in Christ through the sacrament of Reconciliation that restores us back to God’s grace. Baptism initiates God’s free gift of life-saving sanctifying grace and Reconciliation restores it when lost through mortal sin.

The origin of this sacrament is Jesus Himself whose entire ministry focused on reconciling mankind to God and to one another. The gospels are filled with examples of Jesus forgiving people for many different types of sin. Even those who crucified him were forgiven. From beginning to end, Jesus’ ministry was one of reconciliation and forgiveness. Jesus not only forgave sins but also made it clear that the forgiven person was to be reintegrated back into the community of the people of God.

Christ instituted the sacrament of Reconciliation for all sinful members of his Church who have, since Baptism, fallen into grave sin and have lost their baptismal grace. Grave or mortal sin is the type of sin that alienates us from God. In 1John 5:16, the apostle John tells us about mortal sin when he says “for there is a sin that is death.”

Only God can forgive sin and so Jesus had the authority to do so while he was here on earth. However, reconciliation and forgiveness did not end when Jesus ascended to heaven. Christ gave special authority to forgive sins in God’s name upon the apostles. In John 20:22-23, Jesus makes it perfectly clear when He said “…Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” The Lord gave his Church the authority to forgive sins in His name. We read in the Bible that the apostles did go out and exercised the power of absolution on behalf of Christ.

All successors of the apostles have the authority to forgive sins in the name of Christ. In this sacrament, as in all others, the bishops and priests act “in persona Christi” or in the person of Christ. The ordained person acts as a special representative of Christ by virtue of his ordination and exercises the authority of Christ in his sacramental ministry. It is not the priest who grants forgiveness but God who uses the priest as an instrument and sign of his mercy. When our sins are forgiven by one who has been set apart by Christ’s Church, we can experience the mercy of Jesus Himself through that person.

The words of absolution said by the priest expresses the essential elements of this sacrament: “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.”

The aim of reconciliation is a genuine forgiveness and healing of sins through a personal meeting with the forgiving Christ. This free gift is always there for us. All we have to do is ask for it and we are assured that Christ will unconditionally forgive us.