If we are forgiven and accept the mercy of God, then we are required in justice to forgive all who walk with us. We can exclude no one from the experience of that forgiveness… whether for trivial slights or monstrous injustices.
Reconciliation is a key theme in the scriptures, which portray salvation history as God’s leading humankind back to Godself after the Fall, which disrupted the harmonious relationship of all of creation with God. The New Testament tells the story of Jesus, the Word of God, who combined the creator/creature relationship within Himself and effected the new creation of global reconciliation through His life, death, and resurrection.
At the heart of Jesus’ public life is reconciliation. During these brief years, He spoke of the need to be reconciled to one’s neighbor before bringing one’s gift to the altar. (Mt. 5.23) Jesus told Peter that he should forgive others seventy times seven times. (Mt. 18.22) In one of His beatitudes, Jesus emphasizes the importance of engaging in peacemaking activity. (Mt. 5. 23-24) In His parable about the prodigal son, He sketches a portrait of a contrite son and a father with a forgiving heart who provides a lavish feast to celebrate the return of his own flesh and blood who deeply offended him.
On Easter Sunday evening, the resurrected Jesus committed His ministry of reconciliation to His disciples. (Jn. 20.23) Thus, He commissioned all who follow Him to continue His healing mission. Such peacemaking activity entails living a life that promotes harmony in our world. To engage in the ministry of reconciliation is to act as Jesus acts, i.e., to say repeatedly to those who offend you: I love you.
According to Robert Schreiter, the “perspective gained in the moment of reconciliation is the perspective God takes.” This is so since the reconciliation process entails consciously focusing, as God does, on the good of the other and acknowledging and affirming his or her worth. It involves understanding that another’s doing is never the totality of his or her being.
Essential to reconciliation is humility, i.e., viewing oneself as one really is, with strengths and weaknesses, pluses and minuses, virtues and faults. Through embracing one’s humanness, one is able to accept the humanity of others. Prayer is of utmost importance in this regard, for in communicating with God one develops a heart like unto God’s compassionate heart.
Reconciliation is a liberating act that sets the other(s) and oneself free. By forgiving another, one walks in the freedom of fellowship with God, for without interpersonal reconciliation, one cannot be reconciled with God. Bernard Cooke notes the ongoing need for reconciliation when he asserts:
No human group, no Christian community is without some friction and some alienation of individuals from individuals or groups from groups. One of the most common mistakes we make in communities is to hide such differences, to carry on as if they do not exist, to avoid admitting them lest they openly divide the community. Yet, these divisions can be healed only if they are recognized and dealt with.
Sacraments that Celebrate God’s Forgiving Love
From this general discussion of reconciliation, let us turn our attention now to Baptism, Eucharist, and Reconciliation as sacraments that celebrate God’s forgiving love of human beings. Baptism is the basic sacrament of reconciliation, since it is the first sacrament for the forgiveness of sin. Birth into reconciled life with God occurs through reception of this sacrament.
Following Baptism, the premier sacrament of reconciliation is the Eucharist. As Jean-Marie Tillard notes:
… the Eucharist is … the sacramental presence and communication of the act which remits sins; as the remembrance of the expiation of the cross, it applies that expiation to those who celebrate the memorial by putting them in touch, through the bread and the cup of the meal, with the ‘once and for all’ of the paschal event itself, and calls down on the whole world the infinite mercy of God.
In the early Christian Church, venial sins committed after Baptism were forgiven especially by the Eucharist and also by personal and communal prayer, fasting, almsgiving, good works, and fraternal correction. In the 3rd century, the Church Father Origen stressed the importance of the Eucharist as the place for the forgiveness of sins. The 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church asserts that “Through the Eucharist those who live from the life of Christ are fed and strengthened. It is a remedy to free us from our daily faults and to preserve us from mortal sins.”
The Sacrament of Reconciliation, which heals the whole person, celebrates the gift of God’s forgiving, shaloming mercy and calls Christians to live in peace. According to Megan McKenna,
To accept the forgiveness and mercy of God is to accept the demand that we live justly and mercifully, forgiving as God does, with no strings attached.
In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, through the celebration of God’s forgiveness of the penitent’s sins, the true minister Jesus draws the person into a renewed commitment to the way of the gospel. The ritual of this sacrament insists that one’s sins harm others in Christ’s Body and, thus, reception of the sacrament includes reconciliation with one’s sisters and brothers who have been hurt by one’s sins.
Historically, the earliest type of this sacrament was canonical penance, which emerged as a Church practice in the 3rd century. The baptized Christian who had committed a grave sin came before the community during the Eucharistic celebration and entered into the Order of Penitents. In a gesture of blessing, the community leader imposed hands on the penitent and assigned him or her penance that lasted several years on average. During the penitent’s period of penance, she or he would stand or kneel at the door of the Church and request the prayers of the community gathered for Eucharist. When the period of public penance was completed, the penitent was restored to fullness of life in the community through participation in the Eucharist. Noteworthy is the fact that this reconciliation did not include the utterance of any words of absolution of the penitent’s sin.
By the 6th century, Irish monks developed the modality of confessing one’s sins to a lay “soul friend” from whom one received the assurance of God’s forgiveness. There were no words of absolution involved in this ritual. Instead, there were prayers of praise and thanksgiving for God’s mercy and goodness.
The reconciliation experience that the Irish monks introduced gradually developed into sacramental confession of a penitent to a priest who pronounced words of absolution. So successful was private confession that the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 CE proclaimed that every Christian who reached the age of discernment had to receive private confession once a year.
In the 16th century, the Council of Trent decreed that, at least once a year, Christians must confess their mortal sins. The 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church repeats the Council of Trent’s decree regarding the necessity of annual reception of the Sacrament of Reconciliation for serious sin. Regarding devotional confession of venial sins, the new Catechism asserts that it
… helps us form our conscience and fight against evil tendencies; it lets us be healed by Christ and progress in the life of the Spirit. By receiving more frequently through this sacrament the gift of the Father’s mercy, we are spurred to be merciful as He is merciful.
The following excerpt from new Catechism emphasizes the efficacy of the Sacrament of Reconciliation:
The forgiven penitent is reconciled with himself in his inmost being where he regains his innermost truth. He is reconciled with his brethren whom he has in some way offended and wounded. He is reconciled with the Church. He is reconciled with all creation. 
Despite the lack of gender inclusive language in this quote, it, nevertheless, positively points out that the experience of this sacrament can contribute considerably to the deepening of one’s commitment to radical gospel living.
Corrie Ten Boom, a Dutch author who survived the Holocaust, relates the following personal story regarding forgiveness. After being released from the Ravensbruck camp where her sister Betsie died, Corrie lectured widely on the need to forgive enemies. One evening after her presentation, Corrie was greeted by a man who had been an SS guard at the shower room in the processing center at the camp where she and her sister were imprisoned. The former guard told Corrie how grateful he was to hear her message that God had washed his sins away. Immediately, Corrie flashed back to a room full of mocking men, heaps of clothing and her sister’s pain ridden pale face. Then, as the man attempted to shake her hand, Corrie found herself frozen, unable to respond to his gesture. As angry, vengeful thoughts raced through her mind, she saw the sin of them. She prayed to Jesus to help her forgive this former enemy. Feeling not the slightest spark of charity for this former SS guard, Corrie asked Jesus for His forgiveness, since she was unable to forgive the man. When she finally took the man’s hand, she was amazed at the current of love that passed through her hand to his. And so Corrie Ten Boom discovered that it is on God’s mercy and love that the world’s healing hinges.
Corrie’s narrative reminds us that it is only through God’s grace that reconciliation can take place. As noted in this essay, reconciliatory activities are multiple. No matter what are our entryways into the peacemaking process, it is important to remember that God’s way of being and acting is mercy and that God calls and graces us to be ambassadors of forgiving love.
Like Corrie, Venerable Catherine McAuley (foundress of the Sisters of Mercy), modeled what it means to exercise this ambassadorship of reconciliation. Reflecting on Catherine as reconciler, Angela Bolster writes:
Forgiveness and reconciliation were interwoven strands of Catherine’s promotion of charity in her communities. Without this virtue, she cautioned her Sisters that their works would be ‘froth before God, devoid of all merit’. Indeed, her success in guiding her Sisters along this path towards the perfection of charity seems to have amazed her, given the following extract from her letter of December 1839 to Sister M. Elizabeth Moore: ‘One thing is remarkable: no breach of charity ever occurred among us. The sun never, I believe, went down on our anger. This is our only boast’.
Like Catherine and Corrie, we, too, are called by God to commit ourselves to the ministry of reconciling forgiveness and healing love and to do so to the best of our ability in a world that hungers and thirsts for Mercy.
Dr. Marilyn Sunderman, RSM is Professor of Theology and Chair of the On-Campus Theology Program at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine.
 Megan McKenna, Rites of Justice: The Sacraments and Liturgy as Ethical Imperatives (New York: Orbis Books, 1997), 144.
 Robert Schreiter, C.PP.S., Ministry of Reconciliation: Spirituality and Strategies (New York: Orbis Books, 1998), 50.
 Bernard Cooke, Sacraments and Sacramentality (Mystic CT: Twenty-Third Publications, Revised Edition, 1994), 212.
 Jean-Marie Tillard, “”The Bread and Cup of Reconciliation” in Sacramental Reconciliation, ed. Edward Schillebeeckx (New York: Herder and Herder, 1971), 47.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York: Doubleday, 1995), #1436, 400.
 McKenna, Rites of Justice, 143.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1458, 406.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1469, 410.
 Angela Bolster, R.S.M., Venerable Catherine McAuley:Liminal for Mercy (Cork, Ireland: D. & A. O’Leary Ltd., 1998), 20.