Read:Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1440-1449
The most basic reality is love. God created us and all creation out of love. And even after humanity defiled the goodness of creation by sin, love and communion remain most fundamental.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church emphasizes this again and again. It is interesting and laudable that the Catechism does this in an era when so many have been drawn to bad news "Gospels" which make sin, the fallenness of creation and impending doom the basic message. Sin sells. Such a message appeals to our realization that we have mightily offended God. But the most basic truth now, as before the Fall, is love and communion. Sin comes later.
Thank goodness! For if love were not the basic reality, we would be lost. There is no way we can atone for the damage caused by our sins. Our only hope lies in the love of God. God waits for the sinner to return and when he sees the sinner approaching in the distance, full of fear and self-loathing, he dashes out to greet him and throws a party to welcome him home.
Jesus shocked and upset the Jewish leaders of his time by claiming to forgive sins. "Why does this fellow speak in this way?" they asked. "It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?" (Mark 2:7). But Jesus proved he had the power to forgive by healing the paralytic.
For the Jews, who believed physical infirmities were the result of sin, such a healing would have been strong evidence of Jesus' ability to forgive. For us, the physical healings performed by Jesus are a sign of the healing he can perform in our souls.
After Jesus' death and resurrection, he wanted to ensure that this ministry of forgiveness continued after he ascended to the Father. Jesus went through the doors locked by the apostles, breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit! Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven; whose sins you shall retain, they are retained" (John 20:22).
The Catholic Church sees that action by Christ as his institution of the sacrament of Confession, in particular, individual private Confession. Not all Christians interpret that text in that fashion. But how are the apostles and their successors to know which sins to forgive and which to retain if they have not heard a person's confession of sins? The only way Christ's mandate can be carried out is with individual confession of sins.
The late Archbishop Fulton Sheen added another reason to support the church's view that this sacrament was instituted by Christ, not by humans: "If the church had invented any of the sacraments, there is one that it certainly would have done away with, and that is the sacrament of Penance. This because of the trials that it imposes upon those who have to hear confessions, sitting in the confessional box for long hours while listening to the terrific monotony of fallen human nature."
To say nothing of the labor of penitents who, convinced of Confession's divine institution, tell another person their most shameful deeds. If there were an easier, less embarrassing route to salvation, we would surely take it.
But Jesus knows our human nature better than we do. He knows that it does us good to name our wicked deeds, bring them to him in Confession and ask for his forgiveness. We are social beings. Both our sins and our good deeds affect not only our individual souls, but also the whole Body of Christ. The one offended is the one we must approach for healing.
Penance is not a sacrament of self-loathing. It is a sacrament of love and healing -- healing by both Jesus and his body, the church. It is a sacrament of new beginnings, a sacrament in which we are given the grace to overcome our particular failings. It is a sacrament of freedom and new life and peace. It is one of the clearest signs of God's love for his people.
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