In my last morceau on the subject of the Sacrament of Penance I mentioned the priest’s ultimate essential action in confession the imparting of absolution. I mentioned that it is the formal act of forgiveness, given in the name of God and His Church.
The words of absolution should be familiar to us all:
“God, the Father of mercies, through the death and the resurrection of His Son, has reconciled the world to Himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins. Through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name X of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
Yet these words are also significant. You can see from the very wording of the formula of absolution that it is not only the priest who is doing something. The words recall the various works of the Blessed Trinity: the Father reconciles us by the saving death-and-resurrection of Christ, and the forgiving grace of the Holy Spirit. Yet also the mention of the “ministry of the Church” makes us aware, as the last morceau emphasized, that of the involvement of our human community of faith as well.
But speaking as a priest, let me tell you that it is an incredibly humbling thing to utter these words of absolution. Like the Eucharistic consecration at Mass, these words are spoken “in the first person.” They’re pronounced in the Lord’s own place, just as if Christ Jesus Himself is speaking – which indeed He is at that sacred moment of forgiveness. To speak words which are proper only to God (remember those true words spoken by the Pharisees in Mark 2, verse 7: “Who can forgive sins but God alone?”) is to take upon oneself a solemn responsibility: to judge and to forgive as does the Almighty.
I really hope that each and every penitent experiences that special moment of absolution with a similar sense of seriousness. It is not just another set of words being recited from memory: it is an action of God Himself in our world and in our lives!