Eucharist and Reconciliation - the Forgotten Teaching
Michael Whelan SM
The Sacrament of Reconciliation is one of the treasures of the Catholic Tradition. Yet it is not well understood. Among other things, to refer to the Sacrament as "confession" actually misses the point. The focus should be God and God's gift and action in Jesus Christ - we are reconciled! That needs to be celebrated. In the celebration we certainly bring our need for healing and forgiveness, we seek the mercy of God and so we confess our sins. It would help revive that focus on God's gift in Christ if we re-discovered one of the Catholic Church's central teachings concerning the relationship between Eucharist and Reconciliation: to receive Holy Communion is to be forgiven your sins.
"That by the Eucharist are remitted and pardoned lighter sins, commonly called venial, should not be matter for doubt. For whatever the soul has lost through the ardour of passion, by falling into some slight offence, all this the Eucharist, cancelling those same lesser faults, repairs, in the same manner .... Justly therefore has it been said of this heavenly sacrament by St. Ambrose, 'That daily bread is taken as a remedy for daily infirmity'." (Part II, Chapter IV, Question L The Eucharist remits Venial Sins. T A Buckley, The Catechism of the Council of Trent, London: George Routledge and Co., 1852, 239.)
"The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak." (Pope Francis' Apostolic Exhortation, Gaudium Evangelii #47.) Pope Francis then adds in footnote 51: Cf. Saint Ambrose, De Sacramentis, IV, 6, 28: PL 16, 464: "I must receive it always, so that it may always forgive my sins. If I sin continually, I must always have a remedy"; ID., op. cit., IV, 5, 24: PL 16, 463: "Those who ate manna died; those who eat this body will obtain the forgiveness of their sins"; Saint Cyril of Alexandria, In Joh. Evang., IV, 2: PG 73, 584-585: "I examined myself and I found myself unworthy. To those who speak thus I say: when will you be worthy? When at last you present yourself before Christ? And if your sins prevent you from drawing nigh, and you never cease to fall – for, as the Psalm says, 'what man knows his faults?' – will you remain without partaking of the sanctification that gives life for eternity?"
"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." (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1393. The Catechism, like Pope Francis, quotes St Ambrose: "For as often as we eat this bread and drink the cup, we proclaim the death of the Lord. If we proclaim the Lord's death, we proclaim the forgiveness of sins. If, as often as his blood is poured out, it is poured for the forgiveness of sins, I should always receive it, so that it may always forgive my sins. Because I always sin, I should always have a remedy.")
"The celebration of the Eucharist has the power to forgive our everyday sins." (Walter Kasper, Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life, Paulist Press, 2013, 163.)
An unfortunate practice grew up during the 20th century whereby Catholics felt they could not go to Communion unless they had first been to Reconciliation. This is clearly at odds with orthodox Catholic teaching.
The only people among the baptized who should not go to Communion are those who are guilty of something really wicked - really wicked! - and those who are perfect. The rest of us should go to Communion, not because we are free of sin but precisely because we are not. It is our desire for the Life on offer in this Sacrament, not our perfection, that God wants.
When we say "Amen!" in receiving Communion, we are saying "Yes!" to the unmerited and unconditional Love of God in expectation of the fruits of that Love – especially the reconciliation that we all need all the time.
"Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself .... and has committed to us the word of reconciliation." (2Cor 5:18-19. See also Rom 5:11) In the Sacrament of Reconciliation we celebrate this gift in Jesus Christ. Both sacraments – Eucharist and Reconciliation – can heal our brokenness because they are encounters with the infinite mercy of God.