The Paschal Mystery
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines the ‘Paschal Mystery’ as “Christ’s work of redemption accomplished through His Passion, Death, Resurrection and Ascension into Heaven”. Through this saving work of Christ, which transcends all time and yet is present in all time, mankind is reconciled to God. This happens ordinarily through the sacraments, which are the means to communicating the effects of that saving work. And in this presentation I hope to explain the theological foundation of the sacrament of penance in the Paschal Mystery, or how the sacrament is rooted in the saving work of Christ.
Institution of the Sacrament
Paragraph 1421 of the Catechism tells us that Christ willed that the Church continue his work of healing and salvation and that this typically is carried out through the sacraments of penance and the anointing of the sick. Thus He instituted the Sacrament of Penance after His resurrection. In John 20:19-23, we hear the story of the night when the Apostles were all gathered together and the Resurrected Lord appears to them and breathes upon them, saying, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you. Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” In this he recalls that fact that He Himself had the power to forgive sins and did so on several occasions, most notably in Matthew 9:2-8 and its parallels, when the paralytic is forgiven his sins and subsequently healed as a sign of Christ’s power.
The Call to Conversion
In section one of the Introduction in the Rites book, we hear that “The Son of God made man lived among us in order to free us from the slavery of sin and to call us out of darkness into his wonderful light.” This is simply to say that he came to reconcile us to the Father. And He begins this work of reconciliation by calling the people to conversion. Like the prophets and John the Baptist who had gone before Him, Christ points out to the people the need for repentance and really emphasizes this as the key point of His ministry. The first words we find on the lips of Christ in the Gospel according to Mark are these: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (1:15). And shortly after that we hear Him say, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also; for that is why I came out.” He came to call people to repentance, to a conversion of heart and, notably, took the first step in calling out to people rather than allowing them to come to Him first. And unlike his forerunners, who merely preached repentance and conversion, Christ calls men to repentance, affects that change in them, and reconciles them to the Father. All of this He does in anticipation of the merits of His own Paschal Mystery, which, though in the future, still transcends all time and is present in all time and thus is effective even before its own occurrence in time.
Conversion and the Ministry of Reconciliation
Just as Christ called sinners to repentance and conversion of heart, so too did the Apostles (MT 10:5-7). They did not affect the change in men’s hearts, however; rather, it is Christ Himself who brings about conversion. Paragraph 1432 of the Catechism says that “the human heart is heavy and hardened” and that “God must give man a new heart”. This again gets to the point that it is God who acts first, not only in calling to repentance but also in affecting the change as the soul looks upon Him Whom his sins pierced. As St. Clement of Rome says, “Let us fix our eyes on Christ's blood and understand how precious it is to his Father, for, poured out for our salvation it has brought to the whole world the grace of repentance.” Thus it is by the grace of the Blood of Christ that has been poured out on the hardened hearts of men that they are brought to repentance. This repentance that arises in the soul of the man is simultaneously the response of man and the instance of divine initiative in which the Lord reaches pours His grace out upon the soul.
This repentance, for the unbaptized, prompts the soul to pursue the waters of baptism and so to be reconciled to the Lord. For the baptized, this repentance or conversion of heart prompts the souls to pursue the water of the tears of penance in sacrament of penance, by which they are again reconciled with the Father and with the Church.
The Effects of the Sacrament
As was said at the beginning of this presentation, through the sacraments the effects of the Paschal Mystery are poured out upon men in the liturgical celebration. According to paragraph 1422 of the Catechism, in the sacrament of penance, men “obtain pardon from God’s mercy for the offense committed against him, and are, at the same time, reconciled with the Church….” The Roman Catechism speaks more spiritually, saying that in the sacrament, “the blood of Christ flow into our souls, washing away all sins committed after Baptism, and thus leads us to recognize that it is to our Saviour alone we owe the blessing of reconciliation.” These two point to the fact the effects of the sacrament are two-fold, namely that one’s sins are forgiven and they are reconciled with God and the Church, and that these two effects happen simultaneously. Also, it is notable that the reconciliation with God and reconciliation with the Church are inseparable.
Most important in all of this is the fact that this forgiveness and reconciliation are the effects of the Paschal Mystery of Christ, communicated through the sacrament. Again referencing the Roman Catechism, it is only by the merits of His Passion, Death, Resurrection and Ascension in to Heaven that this forgiveness and reconciliation occur.
All of this is really summed up in the prayer of absolution that we hear in the celebration of the sacrament today:
“God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of His Son has reconciled the world to Himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
Here we see the two-fold effects of forgiveness and reconciliation. We also see the statement that the ministry of forgiveness and reconciliation have been entrusted to the Church. And finally we see the fact that it is through the Paschal Mystery – the death and resurrection of Christ – that all of this comes to be.