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Mark wrote:


I have a few questions regarding the sacrament of Reconciliation and Confession.

  • First of all, what makes a sacrament, a sacrament?
  • Is it simply an institution that was handed down by Christ or is there more to it than that?
  • Why is Reconciliation specifically a sacrament?
  • And finally, what is the difference between Confession and Reconciliation?

On a side note, I appreciate the time and effort that you devote to answering the questions of searching people. I find myself coming back to your web site again and again for answers and explanations to my questions.

Thank you, and God bless!



  { What makes a sacrament, a sacrament and how do Confession and Reconciliation differ? }

Mike replied:

Hi Mark,

Thank-you for the kind words about the work we do on this web site. I wish more priests in the Archdiocese of Boston would give our team the same encouragement.

You said:

  • First of all, what makes a sacrament, a sacrament?

My Baltimore Catechism definition which I have by memory and the (CCC) Catechism of the Catholic Church [confirms|states] that:

A sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ that yields or gives [sacramental] grace.

Instead of taking a small portion of the Catechism, I've taken a larger portion from which you can take what you want.

The CCC states:

The Paschal Mystery In The Church's Sacraments

1113 The whole liturgical life of the Church revolves around the Eucharistic sacrifice and the sacraments. (cf. Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium 6) There are seven sacraments in the Church:

  1. Baptism
  2. Confirmation or Chrismation
  3. Eucharist
  4. Penance
  5. Anointing of the Sick
  6. Holy Orders, and
  7. Matrimony. (cf. Council of Lyons II (1274) DS 860; Council of Florence (1439): DS 1310; Council of Trent (1547): DS 1601)

This article will discuss what is common to the Church's seven sacraments from a doctrinal point of view. What is common to them in terms of their celebration will be presented in the second chapter, and what is distinctive about each will be the topic of the Section Two.

I. The Sacraments Of Christ

1114 "Adhering to the teaching of the Holy Scriptures, to the apostolic traditions, and to the consensus . . . of the Fathers," we profess that "the sacraments of the new law were . . . all instituted by Jesus Christ our Lord." (Council of Trent (1547): DS 1600-1601)

1115 Jesus' words and actions during his hidden life and public ministry were already salvific, for they anticipated the power of his Paschal mystery. They announced and prepared what he was going to give the Church when all was accomplished. The mysteries of Christ's life are the foundations of what he would henceforth dispense in the sacraments, through the ministers of his Church, for "what was visible in our Savior has passed over into his mysteries." (St. Leo the Great, Sermo. 74,2:PL 54,398)

1116 Sacraments are powers that comes forth from the Body of Christ, (cf. Luke 5:17; 6:19; 8:46) which is ever-living and life-giving. They are actions of the Holy Spirit at work in his Body, the Church. They are the masterworks of God in the new and everlasting covenant.

II. The Sacraments Of The Church

1117 As she has done for the canon of Sacred Scripture and for the doctrine of the faith, the Church, by the power of the Spirit who guides her into all truth, has gradually recognized this treasure received from Christ and, as the faithful steward of God's mysteries, has determined its dispensation. (John 16:13; cf. Matthew 13:52; 1 Corinthians 4:1) Thus the Church has discerned over the centuries that among liturgical celebrations there are seven that are, in the strict sense of the term, sacraments instituted by the Lord.

1118 The sacraments are of the Church in the double sense that they are by her and for her. They are by the Church, for she is the sacrament of Christ's action at work in her through the mission of the Holy Spirit. They are for the Church in the sense that the sacraments make the Church, (St. Augustine, De civ. Dei, 22,17:PL 41,779; cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, STh III,64,2 ad 3) since they manifest and communicate to men, above all in the Eucharist, the mystery of communion with the God who is love, One in three persons.

1119 Forming as it were, one mystical person with Christ the head, the Church acts in the sacraments as an organically structured priestly community.(Vatican II, Lumen Gentium 11; cf. Pius XII, Mystici Corporis (1943)) Through Baptism and Confirmation the priestly people is enabled to celebrate the liturgy, while those of the faithful who have received Holy Orders, are appointed to nourish the Church with the word and grace of God in the name of Christ. (Vatican II, Lumen Gentium 11 § 2)

1120 The ordained ministry or ministerial priesthood is at the service of the baptismal priesthood. (cf. Vatican II, Lumen Gentium 10 § 2) The ordained priesthood guarantees that it really is Christ who acts in the sacraments through the Holy Spirit for the Church. The saving mission entrusted by the Father to his incarnate Son was committed to the apostles and through them to their successors: they receive the Spirit of Jesus to act in his name and in his person. (cf. John 20:21-23; Luke 24:47; Matthew 28:18-20) The ordained minister is the sacramental bond that ties the liturgical action to what the apostles said and did and, through them, to the words and actions of Christ, the source and foundation of the sacraments.

1121 The three sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders confer, in addition to grace, a sacramental character or seal by which the Christian shares in Christ's priesthood and is made a member of the Church according to different states and functions. This configuration to Christ and to the Church, brought about by the Spirit, is indelible, (cf. Council of Trent (1547): DS 1609) it remains for ever in the Christian as a positive disposition for grace, a promise and guarantee of divine protection, and as a vocation to divine worship and to the service of the Church. Therefore these sacraments can never be repeated.

III. The Sacraments Of Faith

1122 Christ sent his apostles so that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations.(Luke 24:47) "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." (Matthew 28:19) The mission to baptize, and so the sacramental mission, is implied in the mission to evangelize, because the sacrament is prepared for by the word of God and by the faith which is assent to this word:

The People of God is formed into one in the first place by the Word of the living God. . . . The preaching of the Word is required for the sacramental ministry itself, since the sacraments are sacraments of faith, drawing their origin and nourishment from the Word. (Vatican II, Presbyterorum Ordinis 4 § 1,2)

1123 "The purpose of the sacraments is to sanctify men, to build up the Body of Christ and, finally, to give worship to God. Because they are signs they also instruct. They not only presuppose faith, but by words and objects they also nourish, strengthen, and express it. That is why they are called 'sacraments of faith.'" (Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium 59)

1124 The Church's faith precedes the faith of the believer who is invited to adhere to it. When the Church celebrates the sacraments, she confesses the faith received from the apostles - whence the ancient saying: lex orandi, lex credendi (or: legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi, according to Prosper of Aquitaine. [5th century]).The law of prayer is the law of faith: the Church believes as she prays. Liturgy is a constitutive element of the holy and living Tradition. (cf. Vatican II, Dei Verbum 8)

1125 For this reason no sacramental rite may be modified or manipulated at the will of the minister or the community. Even the supreme authority in the Church may not change the liturgy arbitrarily, but only in the obedience of faith and with religious respect for the mystery of the liturgy.

1126 Likewise, since the sacraments express and develop the communion of faith in the Church, the lex orandi is one of the essential criteria of the dialogue that seeks to restore the unity of Christians. (cf. Vatican II, Unitatis Redintegratio 2; 15)

IV. The Sacraments Of Salvation

1127 Celebrated worthily in faith, the sacraments confer the grace that they signify. (cf. Council of Trent (1547): DS 1605; DS 1606) They are efficacious because in them Christ himself is at work: it is he who baptizes, he who acts in his sacraments in order to communicate the grace that each sacrament signifies. The Father always hears the prayer of his Son's Church which, in the epiclesis of each sacrament, expresses her faith in the power of the Spirit. As fire transforms into itself everything it touches, so the Holy Spirit transforms into the divine life whatever is subjected to his power.

1128 This is the meaning of the Church's affirmation (cf. Council of Trent (1547): DS 1608) that the sacraments act ex opere operato (literally: by the very fact of the action's being performed), i.e., by virtue of the saving work of Christ, accomplished once for all. It follows that "the sacrament is not wrought by the righteousness of either the celebrant or the recipient, but by the power of God." (St. Thomas Aquinas, STh III, 68,8) From the moment that a sacrament is celebrated in accordance with the intention of the Church, the power of Christ and his Spirit acts in and through it, independently of the personal holiness of the minister. Nevertheless, the fruits of the sacraments also depend on the disposition of the one who receives them.

1129 The Church affirms that for believers the sacraments of the New Covenant are necessary for salvation. (cf. Council of Trent (1547): DS 1604) "Sacramental grace" is the grace of the Holy Spirit, given by Christ and proper to each sacrament. The Spirit heals and transforms those who receive him by conforming them to the Son of God. The fruit of the sacramental life is that the Spirit of adoption makes the faithful partakers in the divine nature (cf. 2 Peter 1:4) by uniting them in a living union with the only Son, the Savior.

V. The Sacraments Of Eternal Life

1130 The Church celebrates the mystery of her Lord "until he comes," when God will be "everything to everyone." (1 Corinthians 11:26; 15:28) Since the apostolic age the liturgy has been drawn toward its goal by the Spirit's groaning in the Church: Marana tha! (1 Corinthians 16:22) The liturgy thus shares in Jesus' desire: "I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you . . . until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God." (Luke 22:15) In the sacraments of Christ the Church already receives the guarantee of her inheritance and even now shares in everlasting life, while "awaiting our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Christ Jesus." (Titus 2:13) The "Spirit and the Bride say, 'Come . . . Come, Lord Jesus!'" (Revelation 22:17, 20)

St. Thomas sums up the various aspects of sacramental signs: "Therefore a sacrament is a sign that commemorates what precedes it - Christ's Passion; demonstrates what is accomplished in us through Christ's Passion - grace; and prefigures what that Passion pledges to us - future glory." (St. Thomas Aquinas, STh III,60,3)

In Brief

1131 The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions.

1132 The Church celebrates the sacraments as a priestly community structured by the baptismal priesthood and the priesthood of ordained ministers.

1133 The Holy Spirit prepares the faithful for the sacraments by the Word of God and the faith which welcomes that word in well-disposed hearts. Thus the sacraments strengthen faith and express it.

1134 The fruit of sacramental life is both personal and ecclesial. For every one of the faithful on the one hand, this fruit is life for God in Christ Jesus; for the Church, on the other, it is an increase in charity and in her mission of witness.

You said:

  • Why is Reconciliation specifically a sacrament?

Because Our Lord, through His Priesthood, wished to institute a sacrament through which after we would sin against Him, we would be able to be reconciled with Him and His Body, the Church.

CCC 1424 ... It is called the sacrament of Reconciliation, because it imparts to the sinner the love of God who reconciles: Be reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:20) He who lives by God's merciful love is ready to respond to the Lord's call: Go; first be reconciled to your brother. (Matthew 5:23-24)

John 20:19-23 gives us the institution narrative for Reconciliation.

19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you. 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

You said:

  • And finally, What is the difference between Confession and Reconciliation?

The Catechism shows us that it is one of several ways of looking at the same sacrament:

The Sacrament Of Penance And Reconciliation

1422 "Those who approach the sacrament of Penance obtain pardon from God's mercy for the offense committed against him, and are, at the same time, reconciled with the Church which they have wounded by their sins and which by charity, by example, and by prayer labors for their conversion." (Vatican II, Lumen Gentium 11 § 2)

I. What Is This Sacrament Called?

1423 It is called the sacrament of conversion because it makes sacramentally present Jesus' call to conversion, the first step in returning to the Father (cf. Mark 1:15; Luke 15:18) from whom one has strayed by sin.

It is called the sacrament of Penance, since it consecrates the Christian sinner's personal and ecclesial steps of conversion, penance, and satisfaction.

1424 It is called the sacrament of Confession, since the disclosure or confession of sins to a priest is an essential element of this sacrament. In a profound sense it is also a confession — acknowledgment and praise — of the holiness of God and of his mercy toward sinful man.

It is called the sacrament of forgiveness, since by the priest's sacramental absolution God grants the penitent "pardon and peace." (Ordo paenitantiae 46 formula of absolution)

It is called the sacrament of Reconciliation, because it imparts to the sinner the love of God who reconciles: "Be reconciled to God." (2 Corinthians 5:20) He who lives by God's merciful love is ready to respond to the Lord's call: "Go; first be reconciled to your brother." (Matthew 5:24)

Hope this answers your question. Come back when ever you are unsure of anything.


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