Sacramental reconciliation has a complicated history. Understanding a little history can sometimes help with understanding current practice.
Baptism—the original sacrament of reconciliation
The first thing to know is that the early church didn’t have any kind of ritual celebration that we would recognize as reconciliation. Baptism washed away all sin, and that was at first thought to be sufficient to reconcile people to Christ. It didn’t take too long to see the problem here, however.
Not everyone who was baptized stuck to their baptismal promises with equal zeal. In the case of serious offences (for example, adultery, murder, or apostasy), the offender would be kicked out or “excommunicated.” It was a simple solution. If you cannot keep your commitment to Christ, you cannot share in the eucharistic fellowship.
However, imagine you are an early century bishop. You have tossed out an apostate because he denied Christ. A few months later, the guy goes all “Prodigal Son” on you and asks to be readmitted to the church. What do you do?
Sure, today, the answer seems obvious. But at the time it was a real crisis for the church. Some thought the sinners should be permanently excluded (e.g. Heb 6:4-8). Others argued they should be re-baptized. The eventual solution was to impose a penitential practice that was very similar to the catechumenate.
This practice was called a “second baptism,” not because the penitents were actually re-baptized, but because they were given a second chance to live up to the baptism they had already celebrated. The disciplines were very severe, and it was a one-time-only option. If a penitent sinned gravely again, there was no provision for him or her to return a second time. Only those guilty of capital sins were required to undergo this serious form of penance. As an ordinary practice, majority of the faithful engaged in daily, informal penance through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
That worked for a while. But in the fourth century, the emperor of Rome converted to Christ, and the church went viral. Now the church was dealing with huge numbers of people who were signing up more out of allegiance to the emperor than allegiance to Christ. As a result, most people remained catechumens so that they wouldn’t have to undergo the severe penitential process after baptism if they happened to fall into serious sin. Saint Augustine was one of those lifetime catechumens until he had a true conversion later in life.
Around the seventh century, the monks of Ireland came up with a more pastoral process. Rather than making reconciliation a public, arduous, once-in-a-lifetime process, they began a practice of having the younger monks and the lay people they met with engage in a private, repeatable process of confessing one’s sins to a monk and then performing a penitential act that was considered appropriate to the level of sin that had been confessed. This was the precursor to our modern practice of the sacrament of reconciliation.
Eucharist—the ordinary sacrament of reconciliation
One thing that often gets overlooked in a discussion of reconciliation is that the celebration of the Eucharist is the principle way in which Christians experience sacramental reconciliation. The church teaches:
The body of Christ we receive in Holy Communion is “given up for us,” and the blood we drink “shed for the many for the forgiveness of sins.” For this reason the Eucharist cannot unite us to Christ without at the same time cleansing us from past sins and preserving us from future sins. (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1393)
Daily conversion and penance find their source and nourishment in the Eucharist, for in it is made present the sacrament of Christ which has reconciled us with God. (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1436)
In the complicated history of the practice of reconciliation in the church, this truth has been clearly and consistently taught since the time of St. Paul. We cannot be united with Christ and at the same time be slaves to sin. Our union with Christ, which we remember and renew at every Eucharist, reconciles us to the Father and frees us from sin.
Simplifying the history for the catechumens
When we take baptism and Eucharist into account, the history of the sacrament of reconciliation becomes a little clearer. Baptism in Christ is the original sacrament that reconciles us to the Father. Eucharist is the regular, ongoing sacramental practice that renews and strengthens our baptismal reconciliation. When we do something to damage our union (our “communion”) with Christ, the sacrament of reconciliation is where we turn to restore the relationship.
The way the sacrament of reconciliation has been implemented over the centuries has changed, but the core purpose has always been the same.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the sacrament of reconciliation. What is your experience in teaching reconciliation to the catechumens?