edited by Bishop Donald W. Wuerl, Ronald Lawler, O.F.M. Cap., and Thomas Comerford Lawler
The graces of Christ are conferred in the sacraments by means of visible signs — signs which are acts of worship, symbols of the grace conferred, and recognizable gestures through which the Lord confers His gifts. The forgiveness of sins and the restoring of baptismal graces are also attached to an outward sign.
Jesus compared Himself to a physician (cf. Mark 2.17). It was His mission to heal. While He healed bodily ailments, and His human compassion was real, He did not undertake to cure all the human sicknesses. Rather, He used such cures as signs of a more radical moral and spiritual therapy which He desired to extend to all. “ ‘But so that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins’ — He said to the paralytic — ‘I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home’ ” (Mark 2.10-11). In this incident the healing of the man’s body was a visible sign of forgiveness, but it was not a sacramental sign through which Christ directly conferred grace.
The sign appropriate for the sacrament of forgiveness can be grasped by reflecting on the kind of sickness cured in the sacrament of penance. We are concerned now with spiritual illness; and such illness, afflicting an individual in the moral order, that is, in the sphere of his freedom and responsibility, also has social effects. The sign of the physician applying a physical remedy is in the context not altogether adequate. In penance two things happen. The sinner is restored with healing grace to share in the divine life, as signified by the young man raised to life at Naim (cf. Luke 7.14), and is welcomed back by the Father, like the prodigal son (cf. Luke 15.20-24). At the same time, the sinner is reinstated in the community, and again shares at the community Eucharistic table. God can forgive sins secretly, but it is appropriate for the sinner to be reconciled outwardly, visibly, with the Church community. The community itself is healed as the penitent is healed.
This is just a short excerpt from an extensive section on the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
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