Understanding the sacraments: Penance–a mystagogical catechesis

Mercy is stronger than sin for penitents who undergo conversion through the action of the Holy Spirit

The purpose and effect of the sacrament of penance is to heal our relationship with God. “Indeed, the sacrament of reconciliation with God brings about a true ‘spiritual resurrection,’ restoration of the dignity and blessings of the life of the children of God, of which the most precious is friendship with God” (Catechism, 1468).

It consists of two essential elements: on the one hand, the acts of the penitent, “who undergoes conversion through the action of the Holy Spirit: namely, contrition, confession, and satisfaction [penance]; on the other, God’s action through the intervention of the Church” (Catechism, 1448).

This month I want to offer a mystagogical catechesis of the sacrament of penance. As I have noted in previous columns, Pope Benedict XVI encouraged a mystagogical catechesis that considers three aspects: it places the sacrament in the context of salvation history; it interprets the signs that make up the rite; and it explains how the sacrament impacts the whole of one’s life.

The sacrament of penance is rooted in the nature of God himself, who proclaimed his name—his nature and identity—to Moses, “The LORD, the LORD, a merciful and gracious God…forgiving wickedness and crime and sin” (Exodus 34:6-7). The opening prayer for the 26th Sunday of Ordinary Time professes this truth: “O God, who manifest your almighty power above all by pardoning and showing mercy.”

One of the suggested Old Testament passages for the celebration of the sacrament is 2 Samuel 12:1-9, 13—when the prophet Nathan confronts David about his sin with Bathsheba. In his apostolic exhortation Reconciliation and Penance (RP), Blessed John Paul II describes this as a “striking image” of the individual “marked by sin…”

Rebuked by the prophet Nathan, David faces squarely his own iniquity and confesses: “I have sinned against the Lord,” and proclaims: “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” (Psalm 51:3). But he also prays: “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (Psalm 51.7), and he receives the response of the divine mercy: “The Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die” (RP, 23). We, like King David, are “wounded by sin” and yet “moved by an unrestrainable desire to be freed from sin” (RP, 23).

Two key signs of the sacrament, performed by the priest, are the imposition of the hand and the sign of the cross by the priest over the penitent. The imposition of the hand vividly expresses “the life-giving power of the Spirit” (Introduction to the Order of the Mass, 118). This sacramental gesture is used in ordination, confirmation, anointing of the sick, and the sacrament of reconciliation. Christians have made the sign of the cross at least since the time of Tertullian in the early third century.

Blessed John Paul II explains the meaning and power of this gesture: “The sacramental formula ‘I absolve you’ and the imposition of the hand and the sign of the cross made over the penitent show that at this moment the contrite and converted sinner comes into contact with the power and mercy of God. It is the moment at which, in response to the penitent, the Trinity becomes present in order to blot out sin and restore innocence. And the saving power of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus is also imparted to the penitent as the ‘mercy stronger than sin and offense’” (RP, 31.III).

The transformative power of this sacrament of reconciliation—the third element of a mystagogical catechesis—is beautifully explained by Blessed John Paul II: “contrition and conversion are even more a drawing near to the holiness of God, a rediscovery of one’s true identity, which has been upset and disturbed by sin, a liberation in the very depth of the self and thus a regaining of lost joy, the joy of being saved” (RP, 31.III).

“I wish to heal, not accuse,” St. Augustine said, referring to the pastoral ministry of penance (RP, 31.II). A mystagogical catechesis makes evident the power of the sacrament of reconciliation, a sacrament rooted in the nature of God himself and our unrestrainable desire to be free from sin. Through the gestures of the priest the Trinity becomes present, bringing the penitent into contact with the power and mercy of God and enabling him to rediscover his identity as the beloved child of God. In this sacramental encounter we find “the divine kindness which lovingly responds to human repentance” (RP, 35).


Father Stice directs the diocesan Office of Worship and Liturgy. He can be reached at frrandy@dioknox.org.

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