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Essay/Term paper: Forgiveness

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Religion

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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 you...be 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 centuryA.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
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 forgiveness.
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,

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

Jeep, Elizabeth: The Rite of Penance: Commentaries Volume Two, Implementing the
Rite: 1976, The Liturgical Conference (243.4, L782r v.2).

Keifer, Ralph: The Rite of Penance: Commentaries Volume One, Understanding the
Document: 1975, The Liturgical Conference (243.4, L782r v.1).

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 v.3).


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