Sacraments of Initiation
Part 2 History

Chapter i20 Summary History of  Christian Initiation








The Reconciliation of Penitents
Part Three:  Reconciling

Chapter 14 Imposition of Hands

Historical Survey


Pastoral Reflection

Suggested Questions for Discussion

Historical Survey

The new Rite of Penance restores the imposition of hands to the sacrament. During the period of canonical penance the imposition of hands was a key element in the ritual. The pastor/bishop first imposed hands as the sinner entered the order of penitents. The bishop prayed that the spirit of repentance and conversion come upon the penitent. From about the tenth century this laying on of hands at the entrance into penance was replaced by the giving of ashes at the beginning of Lent. By the eleventh century not only the official penitents, but the entire parish received ashes.

In the ritual of canonical penance, when the penance was accomplished and the time came for the reconciliation, the penitent came before the pastor/bishop on Holy Thursday and the bishop imposed hands on the sinner as the sign and symbol of reconciliation. The imposition of hands served the function that we now attribute to the priest's words of absolution: I absolve you of your sins.

Reconciliation was accomplished by the embrace of the leader of the community who welcomed the sinner back into the fullness of communion, and invited the now reconciled Christian to stand at the table of the Lord and to break bread and share in Holy Communion with the community. St. Cyprian, St. Augustine, and St. Leo the Great all give witness to the importance of the imposition of hands in the sacrament.

The symbolic elements of the rite were lost as tariff penance replaced the canonical system and the imposition of hands was no longer seen as a key element of the rite. As theologians reflected on the emerging modern practice of confession, the imposition of hands did not figure prominently in their theology. St. Thomas taught that no particular symbol was essential for the sacrament and thus indirectly aided the disappearance of the gesture.

With the introduction of the confessional chair with a grill during the second half of the sixteenth century, all possibility of an imposition of hands was lost. And once the confessional chair evolved into an enclosed confessional, nearly all possibility of symbolism was gone. The ritual of 1614 introduced a new gesture -- raising the right hand toward the penitent during the absolution, but the symbolism of the gesture was lost in the darkness of the confessional.

The new rite restores this ancient gesture to the sacrament. The imposition of hands in the sacrament of reconciliation reminds us of the relation of this sacrament to the other sacraments of forgiveness and healing and recalls the imposition of hands at entrance into the catechumenate, at baptism, at confirmation, during anointing the sick, and at ordination. Many catholics have found this to be one of the most important and healing reforms in the ritual of the sacrament.

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Rite of Penance

6d cont. For in God's design the humanity and loving kindness of our Savior have visibly appeared to us (see Ti 3:4-5) and so God uses visible signs to give salvation and to renew the broken covenant.

55 cont. The priest extends his hands over the penitent's head (or at least extends his right hand) and gives absolution.

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Pastoral Reflection

Jesus often placed his hands on those he would heal and forgive:

"Suddenly a leper came forward and did him homage, saying to him, ‘Sir, if you will to do so, you can cure me.' Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him and said, ‘I do will it. Be cured'" (Mt. 3:2-3).

"One of the officials of the synagogue, a man named Jairus, came near. Seeing Jesus, he fell at his feet and made his earnest appeal: ‘My little daughter is critically ill. Please come and lay your hands on her so that she may get well and live'" (Mk 5:22-23).

"Some people brought him a deaf man who had a speech impediment and begged him to lay his hand on him" (Mk 7:32).

"When they arrived at Bethsaida, some people brought him a blind man and begged him to touch him. Jesus took the blind man's hand and led him outside the village. Putting spittle on his eyes he laid his hands on him and asked, ‘Can you see anything?' The man opened his eyes and said, ‘I can see people but they look like walking trees!' Then a second time Jesus laid hands on his eyes, and he saw perfectly; his sight was restored and he could see everything clearly" (Mk 8:22-25).

"Children were brought to him so that he could place his hands on them in prayer. The disciples began to scold them, but Jesus said, ‘Let the children come to me. Do not hinder them. The kingdom of God belongs to such as these.' And he laid his hands on their heads before he left that place" (Mt. 19:13-15).

"At sunset, all who had people sick with a variety of diseases took them to him, and he laid hands on each of them and cured them" (Lk 4:40).

"On a Sabbath day he was teaching in one of the synagogues. There was a woman there who for eighteen years had been possessed by a spirit which drained her strength. She was badly stooped--quite incapable of standing erect. When Jesus saw her, he called her to him and said, ‘Woman, you are free of your infirmity.' He laid his hand on her, and immediately she stood up straight and began thanking God" (Lk 13:10-13).

What does this symbol mean? As with any symbol, it is difficult to say what the gesture of imposing hands means, for its meaning goes beyond words. It means that you are the special concern of the Church. It means that you are loved by Jesus who heals the sick and forgives the sinner. It is a gesture of blessing. Hands are placed on you to symbolize the Holy Spirit coming upon you -- the Spirit "sent among us for the forgiveness of sins."

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Suggested Questions for Discussion

Do you like to be touched in the sacrament? Why or why not?

What do you feel or think when the priest imposes hands on your head and says the prayer of absolution?

Can you recall other times when this gesture is used sacramentally?

How many instances in Scripture can you recall where Jesus imposed hands to forgive sins or heal the sick? What is your favorite gospel passage which recounts an imposition of hands?

What other symbols can be used effectively during the celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation? Have you seen these symbols used effectively at a celebration of the sacrament at which you were present?

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© Copyright: Tom Richstatter, Franciscan Province of St. John the Baptist, Cincinnati Ohio, Order of Friars Minor. All Rights Reserved.  This page was created by Fr. Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M.  Every effort has been, and is being made, to acknowledge sources when the ideas are not my own.  Any failure to comply with the United States Copyright Act (Title 17, United States Code) will be corrected immediately should I become aware of it.  This site was updated on 03/20/15 .  Your comments on this site are welcome at