Confession & the Ecclesial Body

The two bookends of the priesthood—for lack of a more theologically descriptive term—are the Sacraments of the Eucharist and Confession. Really, it is through offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and hearing the confessions of the faithful that the priest does the greatest work in the salvation of souls and the sanctification of the world. Of these two Sacraments, the most written about is certainly that of the Eucharist, which comes as no real surprise given its primacy as the “source and summit” of the entire Catholic faith. In seeing the beauty of the Eucharist, though, we cannot be unconscious of that beauty which flows just as profoundly from the Sacrament of Confession.

In the ‘economy of salvation’ (or the manner by which God has deemed salvation to be achieved through Christ), one could say that the Eucharist presents to us the opportunity to share fully in Jesus’ Passion, death and Resurrection, while Confession affords us the necessary purification required to approach such an august mystery of redemption. The two function in complete harmony with one another and, although they are no more ‘Sacraments’ than are Baptism or Confirmation, they are certainly the most regularly encountered in the life of the ordinary Catholic. Thus, our understanding and appreciation of both the Eucharist and Confession need to be refined time and again, in order that we might most fully share in the Sacrifice of the Mass every Sunday. Here, we can say a few things about Confession in particular that may provide a little further insight into a Sacrament all too often overlooked.

I will assume that the basics of what Confession is don’t need to be explained—it is the normal means by which serious sin is absolved by the authority of the Church, through the priest acting in persona Christi capitis. Even in this small description, however, if we don’t read carefully, it may seem as though everything is overly-apparent; really, there is more than meets the eye, particularly with regard to the “authority of the Church.” While it is true that this authority subsists in the magisterial teaching of the Church that the remission of sins is in fact possible and real when exercised according to the norms of the Sacrament, what may not be so evident is that the Church—rightly speaking—is something bigger than just the Magisterium. Ultimately, if what the formula for absolution says is true—namely, that “through the ministry of the Church, I absolve you…”—there is something happening in every Confession that involves the participation of all the faithful throughout the world.

So as not to confuse this ecclesial action with something else, since I am not proposing that it is the Church and not the priest who offers absolution, it is important to look at the words very carefully. “Through the ministry of the Church” is not the same as “the Church absolves you.” The priest still gives absolution, acting as Christ. However, what the words do tell us is that the Sacrament of Confession can, and is, rightly considered to be a liturgical action and not simply a private devotion; Confession involves the participation of the entire Church—of all the faithful—who share in that “ministry” of forgiving sins in a real way. Although the lay faithful cannot efficaciously absolve sins as does the ordained priest, they can and ought to offer prayers for the forgiveness of sins and for the conversion of hearts to the Lord. This is really where Confession ties in most directly to the Eucharist; in addition to Confession providing a sinner the means to be reconciled to the Church and God, it also derives its beauty and power from the Sacrifice of the Eucharist. During the Eucharistic Prayer in particular, the priest prays for the faithful throughout the world, and prays on behalf of those at the Mass who are offering God their own intentions at the same time. The end ‘result’ is one big oblation of petitions to the Father, who in turn delivers his Son to us under the forms of bread and wine.

The “priesthood of the faithful,” which is a resulting character of Baptism for all Catholics, is certainly instrumental in bringing about the forgiveness of sins. What is important is that we all participate properly in the degree of priesthood which we have received—either in Baptism or Holy Orders. “Through the ministry of the Church,” sins can and will be forgiven. That is a magnificent charge, and one that we should not neglect or take for granted.