From the Bishops The beautiful sacrament of Reconciliation

In the last encyclical letter, Ecclesia de Eucharistia (EE) ["The Church Draws Her Life from the Eucharist"]) of his pontificate, the late Pope John Paul II gave the church a magnificent teaching on the sacrament of the holy Eucharist. Among the many themes taken up by that encyclical is that of the importance — indeed, the necessity — of every Catholic maintaining the bond of communion with Christ and his church before ever receiving the sacrament of that communion.

There are two types of "communion." The first is visible communion. Visible communion demands communion "in the teaching of the Apostles, in the sacraments and the Church’s hierarchical order" (EE, 35). In other words, a person must be a member of the Catholic Church before being admitted to the sacrament of holy Communion.

The second type of "communion" is called invisible communion. This refers to the life of sanctifying grace with which we must be filled to be properly disposed to receive holy Communion. Pope John Paul writes: "Invisible communion, though by its nature always growing, presupposes the life of grace, by which we become ‘partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Pet 1:4), and the practice of the virtues of faith hope and love. Only in this way do we have true communion with the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit" (EE, 36).

We can summarize the church’s teaching regarding "communion" — visible, invisible and sacramental — in this way: One must be a Catholic in the state of sanctifying grace in order to receive holy Communion worthily. This teaching is very important. We recall St. Paul’s dire warning to the Corinthian Christians who, the Apostle had learned, were approaching the altar to receive holy Communion while still unrepentant and unforgiven of their serious sins: ". . . whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily sins against the body and blood of the Lord. A man should examine himself first; only then should he eat of the bread and drink of the cup" (1 Cor 11: 27-28).

We are all sinners! Marked by original sin and its effects, we are easily seduced by the devil to turn away from God and his commandments. We are well aware of our daily faults and failings (our venial sins), but sometimes we can rightly accuse ourselves of mortal, i.e., deadly sin (e.g. deliberately missing Mass on Sunday for no serious reason, practicing contraception, using pornography, etc.).

What a catastrophe it would be if we were forever barred from receiving the Body and Blood and Christ because we had committed a mortal sin. But the Lord in his mercy offers his forgiveness in the sacrament of Reconciliationor Confession. The forgiveness of mortal sin in confession before receiving holy Communion is absolutely necessary. John Paul tells us that "the Catechism of the Catholic Church rightly stipulates that ‘anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to communion’ (No. 1385). I therefore desire to reaffirm that in the Church there remains in force, now and in the future, the rule by which the Council of Trent gave concrete expression to the Apostle Paul’s stern warning when it affirmed that, in order to receive the Eucharist in a worthy manner, ‘one must first confess one’s sins, when one is aware of mortal sin.’" (EE, 36).

Soon the season of Advent will be upon us, and the church will begin her preparation for the feast of Christmas. Essential to the personal preparation of every Catholic is the reception of the sacrament of Reconciliation. Our merciful Lord is always anxious to impart his forgiveness and welcome into the fullness his communion to any sinner who comes to him in the sacrament of Reconciliation with true sorrow and purpose of conversion of life. I pray that every Catholic will honestly confront his or her sins, bring them to God in the sacrament of Reconciliation, and then approach the celebration of Christmas with a clean heart.

In order to make the sacrament of Reconciliation more available to the faithful, every parish will offer additional times for confession. In addition to the usual penance services, every parish priest will be available for confession on at least one other evening each week in Advent.

St. Isidore of Seville, a seventh-century bishop and doctor of the church, taught: "Confession heals, confession justifies, confession grants pardon of sin, all hope consists in confession; in confession there is a chance for mercy." Like the father of the prodigal son (see Lk 15), God awaits us anxiously. Go to meet him!

This column originally appeared in the November 20, 2009 issue of The Colorado Catholic Herald and is reprinted with permission.

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