Forgiveness Essay, Research Paper


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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