Mr. Shaun McAfee, O.P. is the author of Reform Yourself! and other books and is the founder and editor of EpicPew.com and contributes to many online Catholic resources. He holds a Masters in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. Shaun has made his temporary profession as a Lay Dominican and temporarily lives in Italy.
“The forgiveness of sins committed after Baptism is conferred by a particular sacrament called the sacrament of conversion, confession, penance, or reconciliation.” (CCC 1486)
When I entered the Catholic Church some years ago, I recall someone in RCIA saying that the focus on Confession had shifted in recent years. They said that the focus for a long time was about the act of confessing sins, but that recently more emphasis was placed on being brought back into friendship with God. And because of this, the sacrament was renamed Reconciliation.
Perhaps there is some truth to this. I don’t know, and after a theological dissertation and many years of study, I’ve never seen or heard this repeated although it always stuck out to me. But is it true? Did the Church change the name of the sacrament?
Well, no. Not just that the sacrament’s name has not been changed to highlight any specific purpose or effect of the sacrament, but that the sacrament is known by a handful of names aside from Confession and Reconciliation.
In the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1422), we find an interesting section titled “What is this sacrament called?” It is here that we discover the multiple names, derived from the implications present in the sacrament.
It is first known as the “sacrament of conversion,” for there is no higher call for mankind than to turn away from sin and to be converted to Christ. Elsewhere, the Catechism provides that the first work of the Holy Spirit is conversion (1989). “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). It is initially and only by the Holy Spirit that turns from the ways of the world so that we may come to God. When we go to Confession, it is not because of our human wisdom, but the prompting of the Holy Spirit that calls us to conversion through the sacrament.
Next is when the Catechism notates the sacrament as the “sacrament of Confession.” The Church wisely imparts that in confessing sins to a priest, we are not just completing an act of humility and overcoming our shame, but that in confession we acknowledge the goodness of God who is eager to restore our spiritual state — confession is actually an act of praise, too! All of this means, of course, that the Church did not stop teaching that the sacrament is about acknowledging and disclosing one’s sins.
But we’re not done. There are two more names for this sacrament. It is also known as the “sacrament of forgiveness.” This, of course, underscores the absolution formula found in the Ordo Paenitentiae that the Holy Spirit was sent “for the forgiveness of sins.”
Finally, the sacrament is known as the “sacrament of Reconciliation” and we must acknowledge that this is a fitting title. The sacrament does not only help us turn from and be forgiven for our sins: a sacramental confession reunites us to God, a renewal of our friendship not by our merit, but by the supreme merit of Jesus Christ. In our present age, the sights of non-Catholics are intensely focused on the perception of confessing sins to a priest rather than God. Of course, in the sacrament, we believe that Jesus is mysteriously present in the person of the priest and that it is Christ’s authority, not the power or tenure or goodness of a priest that allows him to forgive sins. It is the Holy Spirit, through the Church, that is reconciling us to God.
The sacrament shouldn’t be quartered out to any of these titles — conversion, confession, forgiveness, or reconciliation — in isolation from the others. Rather, we should remember that this sacrament, among the most generous gifts the Church has been given, has several effects and applications to our salvation from our initial conversion to our final moments.