Eucharist – A Sacrament of Reconciliation

Fr Frank O’Dea SSS

[Please note: quotes in this article from the missal are from the translation approved by Pope Paul VI]

Do we really believe the Eucharist is a sacrament of reconciliation?

The prayer after communion for the Friday of the seventh week of Easter starts with the sentence:

God our Father,
the eucharist is our bread of life
and the sacrament of our forgiveness.

This sounds to us an incredible statement for the liturgy to make. Do we really believe the Eucharist is the sacrament of our forgiveness? In practice do we use the mass as a means of reconciliation?

There are many other liturgical prayers that express the belief in the Eucharist as a sacrament of reconciliation. The prayer over the gifts for the ninth Sunday of Ordinary Time says:

Lord, as we gather to offer our gifts confident in your love,
make us holy by sharing your life with us
and by this eucharist forgive our sins.

Another example is the prayer after communion for Wednesday of the second week of Lent:

Lord, accept this sacrifice,
and through this holy exchange of gifts
free us from the sins that enslave us.

In fact, the prayers of Lent abound in such examples.

Among the masses for various needs and occasions, there is a mass for the forgiveness of sins. The very fact that there is a mass with that title is in itself very significant and should cause us to wonder why there is a mass for the forgiveness of sins unless the mass does supply what is being requested.

The prayers of this mass have the phrases:

. . . by this sacrifice of peace and praise, mercifully cleanse us from our sins

. . . by the gifts we have shared forgive us our sins . . .

When we look at the prayers for the common of the mass, we can be overwhelmed by the confidence with which the Eucharist asks for forgiveness of sin. An obvious example is the penitential rite at the very beginning of every celebration. Of special significance is the prayer given when sprinkling is used:

May almighty God have mercy on us,
forgive us our sins,
and bring us to everlasting life.

In the Gloria we praise Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and we say, ‘have mercy on us’. This would surely mean forgiving our sins more than any other act of mercy. This same petition for forgiveness is repeated three times at the Lamb of God prayer while the priest shows the very elements of the Eucharist − the consecrated bread and wine − to the participants.

Perhaps the most significant words related to reconciliation occur in the eucharistic prayer; in fact, at the very heart of the celebration, the narrative of the institution, among the words that are printed in bold type are these: ‘(My blood) will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven. These words are from Matthew’s gospel. Perhaps the early church deliberately included these words in the story of the Last Supper so that we would know that forgiveness comes at the Eucharist when we participate with sincere hearts.

The first option given for the priest as a private preparation for communion has the sentence, ‘By your holy body and blood free me from all my sins, and from every evil’. This prayer is said just seconds before the celebrant receives the holy body and blood. Surely the prayer refers to the body and blood of the eucharistic species he is about to receive in the bread and wine.

The Eucharist is the presence of Jesus among us in our time. Just as a major part of Jesus’ ministry on earth was the forgiveness of sin, so his presence in our midst at mass must also bring pardon for our failings. Otherwise, the presence of the Risen Christ among us would be deficient in a most significant way.

The ‘woman who had a bad name in the town’ (Lk 7:36-50) was forgiven when she showed great love by washing Jesus’ feet with her tears and wiping them with her hair − without saying anything. The Jesus we encounter in the Eucharist is that same Jesus who later suffered, died and rose again in a conquest of all evil. This Risen Christ who comes into our hearts in communion would want to forgive us who show genuine sorrow for sin when we encounter him in this way just as he forgave the woman in Luke’s gospel with the few simple words, ‘Your sins are forgiven’.

Prosper of Aquitane said, ‘Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex agendi’, the law of praying is the law of believing and the law of acting, or as we pray so we believe, so we behave. If this saying is correct, then we must seriously question whether we take our prayers seriously. So many prayers say the Eucharist is a means of forgiveness but we don’t seem to believe it and we don’t live out our Christian faith with any conviction that we are pardoned at the Eucharist. If what we pray is what we believe, then let us believe what we pray or change the prayers.

How is it that we can say these words or hear these words said so frequently, even daily, but they don’t seem to impinge on our consciousness?   We hear the words without paying attention to their meaning.

Another dynamic comes into operation. We have been programmed from childhood to believe that the only way to obtain forgiveness of sin is through the sacrament of reconciliation. We hear the words but a barrier arises in the unconscious that says, ‘Don’t believe it’. Then it’s easier to ignore any tendency to investigate the wording than to take a serious look at it. A kind of mental laziness takes over that is saying this is too hard to deal with, it’s not what I was taught, it can’t be true.

I find this state of mind is very evident whenever I speak on this matter. The reaction of some people is to become alarmed, there is a sense of shock.   Some feel I am betraying the teaching of the church.

I can understand these reactions and I make a serious attempt to deal sensitively with them. I do this by the prayers that we use in our public liturgies. I did not make up the prayers, they are there in our missals.

Another reaction is to feel that forgiveness cannot possibly be that easy. Again, our training has conditioned us to think that to be forgiven, at least of serious sin, is to make the time to go to the scheduled reconciliation in the parish, perhaps to drum up the courage to face the priest, be sure to state the number of times, describe the circumstances if necessary and to perform the penance given.

To short circuit all this just by attending the Eucharist cannot possibly be true! Yet, that’s what our prayers tell us. Is the news so good that we cannot believe it?

Well, let’s read again the gospel passages where Jesus forgives sin. Zacchaeus was so overcome by his forgiveness, entirely unspoken, that he immediately promised restitution (Lk 19:1-10). Jesus did not humiliate him, he didn’t use any legalistic word like absolution and he didn’t impose a penance. What could be easier?

Should not this easy way still be available to us who are living in post-resurrection times?

Of course, it’s not just a bodily, unthinking presence at the Eucharist that performs this wonderful cleansing.

We must be aware of what we are doing and we must have sincere repentance, true sorrow and a will to be transformed so that we follow Jesus more faithfully. So, on this level, it may not be at all easy. In fact, it could be very difficult to achieve these conditions with a sincere heart whether we attend the Eucharist or attend the sacrament of reconciliation.

It was at meals that Jesus seemed to show most clearly that he reconciled sinners. We have the stories of Zacchaeus, Levi, the woman who washed his feet with her tears, the disillusioned disciples at Emmaus, Peter at the lakeside.

Even the Last Supper which we think of instinctively as a very holy occasion was a meal shared with sinners:

Jesus’ table includes Judas (his betrayer), Peter (who denied him) and the squabbling and obtuse disciples. Jesus eats with people who fail, even at the Last Supper. [Francis Moloney SDB, A Body Broken For A Broken People, Collins Dove, p. 63]

Numbers of writers today are questioning our custom of excluding sinners from eucharistic communion in view of Jesus’ custom of deliberately opening up his meals to sinners. Moloney, quoted above, approaches the subject from the New Testament account of Jesus’ many meals with sinners and cautiously asks whether these meals can be linked with the sacred meal of the eucharist. He answers affirmatively:

The early Church founded its understanding of the Eucharist on the basis of the dangerous memory of Jesus’ table-fellowship . . .  As Jesus shared his table with the broken and the outcasts, early Christians were being summoned to share their Eucharistic table with the broken. [Moloney, pp. 129-130]

Forgiveness through the Eucharist need not be viewed as displacing the sacrament of reconciliation. The latter has its own unique qualities and should not be ignored. When we confess to another, we are articulating our wrongs, thereby clarifying our relationship with the Lord and are in a position to receive spiritual direction. There is a place in our lives for this valuable sacrament.

The present church custom is to confess serious sin before receiving communion. Has this always been the practice of the church? A review of our history reveals that this has not always been the case.

The sacrament of reconciliation was not devised before the middle of the second century. Fr John Quinn SJ in Worship (vol. 42, no. 5, 1968), writes:

The new Testament offers us no evidence of the ritual of the sacrament of penance. [Furthermore] there is no suggestion that all that we call grave sin excluded from the Eucharist and required the use of the sacrament of penance.

Apparently, the early Christians had the firm conviction that the Eucharist, when entered into with a sincere heart and sorrow for wrong, brought forgiveness of sin. Quinn acknowledges that history does not give a simple picture.

The doctrine of the remission of sins conferred by the Eucharist has had a long and varied history of use and neglect in the Church. Granted that the forgiveness of sins is not the chief object of the Eucharist . . .  Christ made the forgiveness of sins an essential dimension of it. [ibid.]

The Eastern Church acknowledged more readily than the Western Church that the Eucharist forgives sin.

It was not until 1215 at the Fourth Lateran Council that the Church in the west definitely prescribed the confession of mortal sins before receiving communion. However, the tradition of the forgiving power of the Eucharist was never entirely suppressed. Thomas Aquinas summed up the tradition by saying that the Eucharist has the power to remit all sins and derives this power from the passion of Christ.

The Council of Trent ( which we usually think of as very conservative) makes this statement which sounds astonishing to our ears:

. . . the holy Council teaches that this (Mass) is truly propitiatory and has this effect that if, contrite and penitent, with sincere heart and upright faith, with fear and reverence, we draw nigh to God, ‘we obtain mercy and find grace in seasonable aid’ (Heb 4:16). For, appeased by this sacrifice, the Lord grants the grace and gift of penitence, and pardons even the gravest crimes and sins. (Emphasis mine) [W. Bausch, A New Look At The Sacraments, Twenty-Third Publications 1977. p. 157]

However, this statement was never followed through to the parish level. In a reaction to the teaching of the Protestants that we don’t have to confess to a priest, but only to God, the Catholic church began to teach very strongly that we should go to confession frequently, that it’s good to confess not only mortal sins but even venial sins and include sins of our past life, those we committed without knowing it and those we have forgotten. For many, frequent confession became a fertile breeding ground for anxiety and excessive guilt − and there is still plenty of scrupulosity about today.

In the document Reconciliation and Penance Pope John Paul quotes from the Instruction on the Worship of the Eucharistic Mystery of 1967 which says that a person in mortal sin must make a sacramental confession before receiving communion. However, he goes on to say, ‘If this person finds himself in need and has no means of going to confession, he should first make an act of perfect contrition’. At least the Pope does allow for receiving communion without confessing mortal sin in a particular case. Also, I would feel that the wonderful prayers that we have in the Eucharist are in themselves acts of perfect contrition. An extra prayer, added privately, would seem to be gilding the lily of the community prayer.

Ten years later comes the Catechism of the Catholic Church which says;

The Gospel is the revelation in Jesus Christ of God’s mercy to sinners. The angel announced to Joseph: ‘You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’. The same is true of the Eucharist, the sacrament of redemption: ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for the forgiveness of sins’. [par 1846; emphasis mine]

Jesus is the one who saves his people from their sins and Jesus is present in the Eucharist; from this Eucharistic presence Jesus exercises his forgiving power in the same way that he forgave in Galilee or Jerusalem. Here we see in a recent official teaching at least a hint of a return to the ancient tradition of seeing the Eucharist as the ordinary sacrament of forgiveness of sins.

It is my hope that this trend, still struggling in its rebirthing, will gather strength and the whole church will rejoice in a rediscovery of the beautiful prayers of forgiveness in both the common and the proper of the Eucharist. Then we will have the courage to believe what we pray and to act on that belief.

Appendix

PRAYERS EXPRESSING FORGIVENESS

Advent

  • Prayer after Communion: The same prayer, ‘God of mercy, may this eucharist . . . free us from our sins . . .’ Wednesdays and Saturdays of the first, second and third weeks of Advent.
  • Prayer over the gifts on December 24.

Lent

  • Prayer over the gifts: Tuesday second week, Wednesday third week, Wednesday fourth week, Friday fourth week, Tuesday fifth week.
  • Prayer after Communion: Tuesday third week, Wednesday second week, Thursday fourth week, Saturday fourth week, Wednesday fifth week.

After Easter

  • Prayer over the gifts: Monday seventh week.
  • Prayer after Communion: Wednesday and Friday seventh week.

Sundays in Ordinary Time

  • Prayer over the gifts: ninth Sunday, thirty first Sunday.