In discussing The Sacrament of Forgiveness we can affirm a process inspired by the Holy Spirit as the Church has developed its understanding and practice of sacramental penance and reconciliation:
30. From the revelation of the value of this ministry and power to forgive sins, conferred by Christ on the apostles and their successors, there developed in the church an awareness of the sign of forgiveness, conferred through the sacrament of penance. It is the certainty that the Lord Jesus himself instituted and entrusted to the church-as a gift of his goodness and loving kindness (Cf Titus 3:4) to be offered to all-a special sacrament for the forgiveness of sins committed after baptism.
The forgiveness of sins has been an ecclesial activity from New Testament times. The Gospels certainly give a solid witness that Jesus empowered the Twelve to forgive sins. John Paul II acknowledges that the practice of the sacrament (a sign instituted by Christ to give grace) has changed over the centuries:
The practice of this sacrament, as regards its celebration and form, has undergone a long process of development as is attested to by the most ancient sacramentaries, the documents of councils and episcopal synods, the preaching of the fathers and the teaching of the doctors of the church. But with regard to the substance of the sacrament there has always remained firm and unchanged in the consciousness of the church the certainty that, by the will of Christ, forgiveness is offered to each individual by means of sacramental absolution given by the ministers of penance. It is a certainty reaffirmed with particular vigor both by the Council of Trent (Cf Council of Trent, Session XIV De Sacramento Poenitentiae, Chap. 1 and Canon 1: Conciliorum Oecumenicorum Decreta, 703f, 711 (DS 1668-1670,1701)) and by the Second Vatican Council: “Those who approach the sacrament of penance obtain pardon from God’s mercy for the offenses committed against him, and are, at the same time, reconciled with the church which they have wounded by their sins and which by charity, by example and by prayer works for their conversion.”(Lumen Gentium 11) And as an essential element of faith concerning the value and purpose of penance it must be reaffirmed that our savior Jesus Christ instituted in his church the sacrament of penance so that the faithful who have fallen into sin after baptism might receive grace and be reconciled with God (Cf Council of Trent, Session XIV, De Sacramento Poenitentiae, Chap. l and Canon 1: Conciliorum Oecumenicorum Decreta, ed. cit.,703f,711 (DS 1668-1670, 1701))
The church’s faith in this sacrament involves certain other fundamental truths which cannot be disregarded.
I think this confidence is well-placed, despite poor behaviors on the part of confessors and people who have not availed themselves of sacramental mercy.
The sacramental rite of penance, in its evolution and variation of actual forms, has always preserved and highlighted these truths. When it recommended a reform of this rite, the Second Vatican Council intended to ensure that it would express these truths even more clearly,(Cf Sacrosanctum Concilium 72) and this has come about with the new Rite of Penance. (Cf Rituale Romanum ex Decreto Sacrosancti Conalii Oecumenici Vaticani II Instauratum, Auctoritate Pauli Vl Promulgatum: Ordo Paenitentiae) For the latter has made its own the whole of the teaching brought together by the Council of Trent, transferring it from its particular historical context (that of a resolute effort to clarify doctrine in the face of the serious deviations from the church’s genuine teaching), in order to translate it faithfully into terms more in keeping with the context of our own time. (The Council of Trent uses the attenuated expression “ad instar actus iudicialis” (Session XIV De Sacramento Poenitentiae, Chap. 6: Conciliorum Oecumenicorum Decreta, ed. dt., 707 (DS 1685), in order to emphasize the difference from human tribunals. The new Rite of Penance makes reference to this function, Nos. 6b and 10a)
At root, while it has juridical aspects, and perhaps human beings see quite a bit of that in sacramental practice, there is a significant difference between the rite and a court of law. The more confessors are able to make that distinction in practice, the more that reality is drawn out, the more confidence people can have in the celebration of penance.
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